Posts Tagged ‘translation’

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?


I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?


I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

On linguistic imperialism

November 12, 2016

I was brought up speaking English; my variety is pretty much Standard English although my south Lincolnshire origins occasionally betray themselves in my pronunciation. I’ve always taught students that SE is an enabler, rather than a replacement for their own variety, wherever they come from: to only be able to operate in a dialect or with a regional accent can disadvantage someone in certain circumstances.

My studies of American literature have made me reasonably familiar with US usages, though not with the many accents of that huge country. I have been aware of Britain and the USA being both connected and divided by a common language, and rather horrified by the vague and characterless ‘mid-Atlantic English’ that has evolved or developed over the past few decades, particularly for the use of non-native speakers… I know very little about other varieties of English, such as those of Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand.

What has retained my attention over the years is what having a language shared with the USA has done to us in the UK. Initially, it was our language; the choice of English over German as the national language of the USA was a narrow thing, apparently. I’m aware that pronunciations and usages and some of the spellings in use on the other side of the Atlantic are actually closer to those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries than the English we currently use in the UK. And obviously, as the power of the USA grew and that of ‘Great’ Britain faded with the progression of the twentieth century, US influence on our common language grew ever stronger. Increasingly books are published in a single US English edition, using US usage and spelling, for sale in all English-speaking countries and I have to get used to all those spellings I dislike and regard as incorrect for here… American TV shows, cheaply produced for a much larger audience, are easy fare for our TV companies looking to fill their schedules.

And, rather more alarmingly to me, the shared or almost-shared language means that every idea or theory, no matter how crackpot or bonkers, that someone in the US dreams up, is instantly and too easily accessible to us over here, whether economic, social, political or educational, whether it’s valid only for the US or more universally applicable – it can be in print, online or broadcast immediately and affect and influence us over here, often before we have time to engage our critical faculties.

This might seem blindingly obvious, and to an extent it is, but the point is that countries that use other languages have an inbuilt delay and a filter which is the need for translation, so ideas can and do take rather longer to percolate and infiltrate other countries, if they actually get there at all: they don’t potentially get the same kind of widespread and instant exposure that they can get here. An example: any teacher in the UK can list a great number of crazy theories and practices that have been adopted by or forced onto schools over the last couple of decades, often to the detriment of good education, and many of these ideas – such as performance management, for instance – originated in the corporate US, and have been dropped since. I have noticed from my reading of the French press that many of these half-baked and discredited ideas are now beginning to surface and be implemented in that country’s schools, and have met with the same scepticism and scorn from French teachers that they met quite a few years ago over here… It’s almost as if French, or German, or Polish or whatever is a shield from some of the craziness.

I’m not wanting to suggest that the USA has a monopoly on mad ideas, although I feel they do pretty well. But this linguistic imperialism is not something that seems to be that widely noticed or commented on, although its effects may be profound.

More thoughts on translation

June 8, 2015

41nJdX9Qe7L._SL160_You may have realised from this earlier post that I’m fascinated by translation; indeed, sometimes I think if I could have my time over again, I’d perhaps study linguistics and then go into the business…

As far as I can make out, the book I read is a compilation of several talks and series of lectures Umberto Eco has given on the subject. Eco writes knowledgeably: he is a translator, as well as a writer, and has collaborated closely with the translators of his novels into many languages. He starts off by having some fun with computer translations and the confusions that they often cause, and throughout the book frequently provides humorous examples of how translators are tied in knots by the untranslatable. As your read, you become aware of the Pandora’s Box that is translation – the range of subtleties and nuances, difficulties and issues that you never imagined were there behind the scenes, needing to be addressed and taken into account. You just got on and read the translation. There are so many aspects I’d never even imagined.

Except that Eco’s point is that there is no such thing as a translation as we simplistically and superficially understand the concept: that’s why the title of his book (in English) is ‘To Say Almost the Same Thing‘; in translating one never says the same thing. All the issues are enumerated and copiously exemplified, through a range of translations of all sorts of works: some are of Eco’s own texts, some are texts he’s translated. Even issues such as how speech is punctuated in different languages can make a difference to how text is perceived. Then there is the question of slang. And what about culture-specific references? There are some issues Eco admits are just insoluble: the question of colours, for example: there is no universal language of colours.

It turns out that there were quite sizeable cuts and changes made to the original text when The Name of the Rose was translated into English, for various reasons and with Eco’s agreement; I found myself wondering whether to read it in French next time just to see if/what I noticed…

As I read I found myself pondering several questions: does the average reader pay that close attention to anything? would s/he notice all these things Eco points out, if translators didn’t pay such careful attention to detail? how much does it really matter that I might be reading something translated that is not actually the same as the original?

My head started to hurt when Eco got onto the issues involved in translating Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake. Looking at the book in the original English (?) made me seasick, but yes, it has been translated into a number of languages.

Eco  also observes that movement from one medium into another (i.e. book to film) is an aspect of translation, and this does not escape his examination either. He points out that translation is easier with concrete than abstract original texts. We are asked to reflect on the difference between translation and interpretation, and the idea of versions and adaptations

I think that if anyone wanted a reasonable – not easy – introduction to the full range of problems in the field of translation, then they could do worse than tackle this book. I found it fascinating, and really enjoyed it.

David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

January 13, 2015

41eKEPR-FpL._AA160_I’ve always been interested in translation, since my university days when translating from French to English and vice-versa and became aware of just how difficult a task it is, because of all the different connotations and layers of meaning words and phrases can carry along with them. David Bellos is a professional translator, including of one of my favourite authors, the Albanian Ismail Kadare, so he knows what he’s talking about, although there were one or two places where I’d have welcomed further clarification…

There’s a lot of outlining and making clear the scope of the issues and problems involved in translation, necessary before he can explore translation itself. Meaning itself is complex and multi-layered, and so, therefore, is the task of conveying all that meaning into another language, where the words themselves, in that language, may not carry the same baggage, or may carry different baggage, and not what is wanted.

He explores issues from all angles, and differentiates between translation of the spoken and written word. I had no idea of the wide range of different sorts of translation that exist. The distinction between L1 and L2 translation (L1 is translation into your mother tongue, or native language – although he has interesting comments to make on those concepts themselves – and L2 is translation out of that language into another) is explored, and I finally came across clarification of the concept of ‘lectoring’ (I hadn’t even known the word before!) which is a practice used in parts of Eastern Europe when foreign language films are shown: the translated dialogue is read aloud by a single voice against a background where the original soundtrack is played at a lower volume, but still (almost) audible… think about it! Rules for subtitling and dubbing are much more complex and tricky than I’d ever imagined, too.

He writes about a concept which I’ve been aware of for a long while; he doesn’t call it mid-Atlantic English, but it’s a simplified, neutered version of the language which eschews specific Englishisms and Americanisms so as to be as broadly comprehensible as possible to the widest audience, including both E1L and non-E1L speakers; the issue is clearly that certain things – subtleties, nuances or whatever – surely do get lost in this kind of translation.

The chapter on simultaneous translation as done at the UN and the EU was, quite simply, mind-boggling… I got a headache from trying to understand the chart and explanations of how the booths were staffed and how the different languages were paired to make it all possible; because of the collapse of the study of foreign languages in English schools and universities, it would seem that there is a very real question mark hanging over the entire concept…

It was fascinating – not unflawed, but as good an introduction to the subject as a general reader could wish for, and I can think of some of my readers who would enjoy it.

Dostoevsky: Crime & Punishment

December 3, 2013

My copy tells me it’s a little over twenty years since I last read this; I’ve been re-reading it ready for my Russian literature group meeting. It’s as brilliant a novel as it was before, possibly the best nineteenth century one for me, just a little bit ahead of War & Peace, or Anna Kerenina.

The translation, by the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo, is excellent, helping the pace of the story along effortlessly most of the time, apart from a couple of infelicities when American slang and colloquialisms jar a little… The more I read of literature in other languages, the more I find myself thinking about the difficulties of translation, and the importance a good translation has in making or breaking one’s enjoyment of a text. There’s a certain amount of controversy about Pevear and Volokhonsky’s work and methods, but I feel that they have brought greater accessibility to Russian classics for non-Russian readers, replacing some of the rather clunky and dated translations that are getting on for a century old.

So, what’s so wonderful about the novel? Dostoevsky‘s portrayal of the dark and seamy side of Petersburg life, and the dire poverty, is really effective and convincing: he knows the places and takes the reader there. His characters are fully created and developed: Raskolnikov obviously, but his friend Razumikhin shines through, and the sinister and mysterious Svidrigailov too. They seem psychologically plausible and convincing. The central idea behind Raskolnikov’s crime, which Dostoevsky is exploring throughout, is fascinating: the idea that there is a certain type of person, a Napoleon type, who can transcend normal laws and restraints and commit any kind of act or crime, who is permitted to do so by the force of their personality, who maybe even has to do so because of who they are. Raskolnikov dares to imagine that he is one such, and the entire novel is his discovery that he is not, and attempting to come to terms with the belated consequences of that discovery.

Dostoevsky is masterful in the way he takes us inside the mind of a killer: we follow thoughts, feelings, rational and irrational; we sense his paranoia, we see his attempts at self-delusion. And this is compounded by the relationship, the interplay between Raskolnikov and the detective/ interrogator who is on his tail, who plays mind games with him: does he know the truth or not? And he waits for the killer’s mental state to reach the point where he must confess, suffer and accept the consequences of his Napoleonic strivings…

We come to like the killer, we want him to be saved, we want him to begin a new life with the woman who has saved him, and who will wait for him, and Dostoevsky creates this strong desire in the reader before he creates it in the mind of Raskolnikov himself…

When I reflect on the time Dostoevsky was writing – mid 1860s – a time when psychology was in its infancy as a science, when Freud’s precursors were making their discoveries and writing up their research, what he succeeds in doing with his characters and their interactions seems nothing short of astonishing: he seems years ahead of other writers who eventually came to explore the inner and darker recesses of the human mind.

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