Monday, December 08, 2008

Foreign Novelists

I was looking through the Salon Book Awards for 2008 and noticed that a couple of them seemed to be written by foreign authors. I just don't get the draw of books in translation. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against foreigners or literacy in countries that aren't my own. I really do wish a vibrant literary culture for every language and cultural group. I just don't understand the draw of translated fiction.

Part of my problem with this is that you lose much of the essence of that writer's voice when the work is translated. Sure, the themes, plot, and characterization may translate well (and, honestly, I think some of the nuances of theme may be lost in the leap over the cultural divide at times), but those aren't the entirety of a great work of fiction. The writing style of the author is often a main draw for fiction. There are only so many plots, issues, and themes to be dealt with and they've all been done countless times. The only reason to keep reading is because you like the author's voice and, unless the author is also the one doing the translating, the voice will inevitably be lost.

I'd like to think of myself as at least a competent writer, but if I had to translate the works of Faulkner or Hemingway into my own words, something would inevitably be lost. I just don't write like either of those writers, and any attempt on my part to do so would only create a feeble mimicry of the original. It's basically plagiarism with permission, and I'm not sure how many people are out there who are both excellent translators and great writers. It seems like it'd be a difficult task.

Achieving a classic translation of a classic novel wouldn't be an issue so much if translation was an entirely mechanical process, the simple substituting of the Russian word for the English, for example, but it's far from that in reality. There are sayings that resonate in one language that are gibberish in another and it seems that in most languages there are twenty words for every idea deserving of its own word, and each of those synonyms seems to have a number of nuanced connotations. I just can't see even the best translators producing a formula that adds up to exactly the same thing as the original.

Now, this isn't to say that translations are a waste of time. I'm sure that many of the novels whose English translations are critically acclaimed really are great works of literature, even though they aren't exactly what the author originally intended. I just don't have to time to let them into my queue. I haven't even gotten around to Hemingway or Faulkner, supposed greats of my own time who are so renowned that even a guy like me who only knows them in theory immediately jumps to them when racking his brain for the names of great authors. Why would I want to let in the flawed products of a transcultural emigration onto my reading list when it's already so long?


Julie said...

I'm a big fan of translations. You would miss out on what every other culture has to offer unless you speak that language. And you don't.

It's true that you lose something in translation but you know what? Language has lost meaning for native speakers anyway. I mean, take the word honeymoon. How many people know that it likely came from the tradition of giving newlyweds mead? Probably not even you. Anyway, the direct translation in French is lune de miel (moon of honey).

It seems weird but then again, the English word seems weird. How does this hurt? I know, I know, that's a word not a sentence with a voice and subtleties but I hope you get my point.

Hank Gay said...

Also, the translator may actually add value. For the Greek classics, at least, there's a multitude of translations, and some are praised for excelling at different things.

Jacob said...

Julie: Yeah, but I think foreign films do a better job of this than translated books.Only the dialogue has to be translated for these. Everything else can be left as the creator intended.

And I'm not sure the honeymoon example was exactly the type of meaning I was talking about.

Hank: That is a good point, but the question is if the work needed added value, what's the point of putting in the effort and money to translate it?