What is then, fiction in translation?
It is all of the above, plus an intrinsic search in the writer’s mind. It is the attempt to return to what happened before the first word was typed or handwritten on the page. Translation, and I mean literary ones, is not just a direct transposition from original text to target language. It is rather a more subtle process in which the translator’s own life experience comes into play through her/his interpretation of the work at hand.
|The key to the world made for us. Will the translator make our passage easier or harder?|
I have never translated a work of fiction officially. I have translated short fiction texts for family and friends, chiefly to throw some light on the subject matter. But, translating a whole book? No, I do not think I have that capacity. I am not selling myself short here; I just think that translating fiction works at a whole different level, almost superhuman level.
Sometimes I read a book in the original language it was written (mainly Spanish and French, although I just bought four novels in German by the same Austrian author, which means I’ll be going back to the Teutonic lexicon soon) and I think of someone who might like it, too. Then, I realise that it is quite likely they will read the book in translation and this poses a problem. What if the translation is not good? Will the book have the same effect on her/him?
The best translations I have read in my life reach all the way back to the pre-written language that gave the book its foundations and core. I have often mentioned here my devotion to the work of the Czech writer, Milan Kundera. It only dawned on me a few years ago when reading his novel Immortality that I have always read Kundera in translation, be it from Czech to Spanish, or Czech to English, or French (he has written a few short novels in that language, the result of living in France for several years) to English. Yet, I know that if I were to read him in the original Czech (impossible, as I know that I will never learn that language) the magical effect Kundera’s always had on me would still manifest itself.
Literary works that are based on a word-for-word translation are poor and rob the reader of the pleasure of reading. Even technical texts must be injected with some oomph every now and then. I remember years ago reading a book by the Chilean author Isabel Allende in the original Spanish and an English translation after and having mixed feelings about the outcome. If the act of writing fiction is the need to tell a story, the impulse to let the world know that this alternative reality must be known, then, if the translator fails to give us a believable version of this story, she or he will be validating the old Italian saying “traduttore, traditore” (translator, traitor). What the translator will be betraying is not just the mere transferral of ideas, syntax and grammar from the original language to the “host” language, but also the author’s life experience.
Whenever we are touched by a novel or a collection of short stories which was originally written in another language and which we are now reading in translation, let us pause for a second and think of the process. Let us place ourselves in the role of that translator and let us travel with her or him all the way back to the moment when the story was first conceived by the author. The feelings, emotions and situations that generated the desire to write those lines. Those lines that might have made us laugh or cry.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 18th January at 10am (GMT)