To the unknowing reader, a translated text is simply a copy of the text re-written into the target language. This perspective fails to classify translators as what they truly are: artists. Sure, translating court documents may be more cut-and-dry (though I give serious kudos to anyone who has learned all of that legal jargon in more than one language!), but there’s another side of the translation spectrum.
From proper nouns and pop culture references to completely made-up words, there’s a lot to be considered when translating a story. Add the pressure of doing the storyline justice, accounting for ever-present subtext, and interpreting any cultural differences, and I’d say literary translation involves a lot more thought and care than simply one-to-one transcription into another language. The quality of the translation can truly make or break the story! To help you appreciate this formidable task, below are 5 shining examples of how translation requires just as much creativity and discipline as more traditional art forms like painting, dancing, or even writing.
The Harry Potter Series
The 100+ million foreign language copies sold of the Harry Potter series sent translators through the whole gamut of difficult-to-translate elements. Spells, rhymes, and anagrams, oh my! The series’ French translator, François Ménard, for example, had to make important choices about every little play on words. He did not keep the name of the wizarding school, Hogwarts, choosing instead to translate it as “L’École de Poudlard” (a play on “poux-de-lard”), meaning “bacon lice”. Hogwarts conjures up images of a swine with skin problems— Ménard’s translation presents a similarly unpleasant image to French readers. With that level of scrutiny, surely the same amount of thought and creativity went in to Ménard’s translation as it did to Rowling’s original work.
No one could imagine such a vividly real world quite like R.R. Tolkien, whose stories gave life to a slew of new creatures, places, and even languages. (Any speakers of Elven languages out there?) Surely, by now, we all know what a hobbit is, but how would one go about translating such a term? A hobbit, after all, isn’t even a real thing! The Mandarin Chinese translator, Li Yao, came up with an equivalent I’m quite fond of: 霍比特人 (huo bi te ren). This literally means “quickly compare special people,” which, on first read, is entirely too confusing. It was chosen as a a close phonetic match to “hobbit”, but think about it, what better way to describe the lovable little creatures we call hobbits? They are a special group who can be immediately distinguished from their less height-challenged counterparts in Middle Earth.
As with most art forms, sometimes translations vary from translator to translator. Edith Grossman, a renowned Spanish-to-English translator, tackled Don Quixote even though it had already been translated to English. She paid special attention to the first line, one of the most famous lines in all of Spanish literature: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme.” A previous version had translated this as “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind”, but Grossman didn’t think this did the original version justice. Instead, she came up with “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember.” She tried to evoke a more lyrical style of translation, which changes the mood entirely, don’t you think?
When it comes to opening lines—we all know how important those are—sometimes it’s just one single word that causes translators grief. In Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” the perplexing word may just make you laugh: mother. The first line of this classic novel is pretty straightforward: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Originally, this was translated as “Mother died today.” Simple enough, right? But translators debated the use of “mother” rather than “maman.” In French, “maman” implies a certain amount of affection, an indication of the narrator’s relationship with his mom. But what about “mother”? It doesn’t quite have the same ring in English right? “Mother died today” gives almost no clues to how the narrator feels about her. Very subtle? Yes. But you can see why it matters.
Alice in Wonderland
Nobody doubts the difficulty of translating an intricate work like The Stranger, of course, but even children’s literature presents unique translation challenges. Lewis Carroll captivated readers of all ages with his frequent use of personification, puns, homophones, poems, and metaphors. Russian translator Vladimir Nabokov tackled this challenge in a way that never reveals to Russian readers that the novel was originally in English. For example, Alice’s penchant for reciting poems poses a unique problem: Russian children wouldn’t be familiar with the popular English poems that Carroll is referring to (such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat”, Carroll’s play on the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.) Instead of translating the poems Carroll whipped up—a potential disaster—Nabokov invented his own fake poems based on popular Russian poetry. Still think literary translation isn’t impressive?
Have you read any translated versions of your favorite novels? What are some of your favorite examples of the art of translation?