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Friday, May 12, 2006

Kitsch and serendipity in translation

The most direct contact I have had with translation has been the books and papers my father has translated from German and French, and a few repeated stories about Jay Rubin, a family friend who is the head of the Harvard Japanese department as well as one of the translators of Haruki Murakami and the author of a book about Murakami's writings. I like Rubin best of Murakami's three Japanese-to-English translators (Rubin, Philip Gabriel and Arnold Birnbaum), but not everyone agrees.

Wendy Lesser several years ago wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that, having read Gabriel's translations of three Murakami novels, she disliked Rubin's Wind up Bird Chronicle. Curious, she compares each translator's take on the same passage:

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax.


I'm in the kitchen cooking spaghetti when the woman calls. Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio. Perfect spaghetti-cooking music.

I hear the telephone ring but tell myself, Ignore it. Let the spaghetti finish cooking. It's almost done, and besides, Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra are coming to a crescendo.

Lesser prefers the second translator, Birnbaum; I prefer the first. But that may just be because I am used to Rubin's take on Murakami's upbeat, light, young characters' narrative voices. As Lesser says about Birnbaum's prose, Rubin's has become "my voice-in-the-ear version of Murakami".

It must be tough to adapt someone's style, weighing literal repetition of their sentences against a different cultural context, finding matches for expressions and words that just can't translate without changing the way they sound.

In recognition of the difficulty of translation, a worldwide poll of translators was recently conducted to determine the toughest words to translate. The winner was "ilunga", a "Tshiluba [central African tribe] word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time." According to the press release, the rest of the Top 10 list was:

  • "shlimazl" (Yiddish for a chonically unlucky person)
  • "radioukacz" (Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain)
  • "naa" (Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasise statements or agree with someone)
  • "altahmam" (Arabic for a kind of deep sadness)
  • "gezellig" (Dutch for cosy)
  • "saudade" (Portuguese for a certain type of longing)
  • "selathirupavar" (Tamil for a certain type of truancy)
  • "pochemuchka" (Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions)
  • "klloshar" (Albanian for loser)
Going by the press release's single-word translations, "gezellig" and "kiloshar" don't seem so tough after all, though I suppose nuance has been lost.

As for English words that are hard to translate, the winners were:

  1. plenipotentiary
  2. gobbledegook
  3. serendipity
  4. poppycock
  5. googly
  6. Spam
  7. whimsy
  8. bumf (which means printed matter of little importance)
  9. chuffed (made a loud noise such as an engine puff or chug)
  10. kitsch
I pity the translator of "googly", but "chuff" must have analogues in most languages, and "poppycock" can be translated like "nonsense" if you are willing to sacrifice the feeling of the word.

Whatever the difficulties of translation, it is clear that computers are not yet up to the task, judging by the state of online translation. Altavista's "Babelfish" free translator, named after the universal translating animal in the Hitchhiker's Guide books, takes the opening of the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
And, after translating this into Dutch, then from there to French, then Spanish, and back to English, returns:
If years our undergone parents who contribute themselves next on this continent, a new nation devotes itself, priss in freedom, and to the proposal that all people gecree are equal, celebrate the result and sept. now, been we have occupied with a great civil war that can support or this nation, or any nation as much taken and so specific, test long time.

Don't short Berlitz just yet.

Finally, J.M. Coetzee has a great set of comments about his experience with translators:

Working on the Serbian translation of Elizabeth Costello, AB [one of my translators] met an unexpected obstacle when she transliterated Elizabeth's name into Cyrillic characters.

Elizabeth looks forward to seeing her writings on the library shelves among such great Cs as Chaucer, Coleridge and Conrad. Then with dismay she realises than her nearest neighbour is likely to be Marie Corelli.

The first problem is that in Serbian, Chaucer, unlike Coleridge, Corelli and Costello, is not spelled with an initial K.

AB: Should I drop Chaucer, or replace him with, say, Keats? Corelli is a K, but the allusion would be lost on Serbian readers. May I insert an adjective like "sentimental" or "very minor"?

JMC: Drop Chaucer. Then I suggest you consult a Serbian-language encyclopedia and pick out a minor English-language writer near to Kostelo.

AB: Minor writers: only the popular ones get into foreign encyclopedias. Agatha Christie, James Fenimore Cooper, A.J. Cronin?

JMC: Agatha Christie, I think.

A negative experience with translation makes him wonder if translation should be the subject of more concerted academic study:
Waiting for the Barbarians was first translated into German in 1984. By common consent this translation was not a success, and the book has since been retranslated. Why was the first translation a failure? The translator could read my English perfectly competently, word by word and sentence by sentence, and turn it into adequate German prose.

Yet as I read the text she produced I felt more and more disquieted: the world that her pages evoked was, in subtle and not so subtle respects, not the world I had imagined; the narrator whose voice I was hearing was not the narrator I had conceived.

In part this was a matter of word choice: given a choice between two valid options, the translator seemed more often than not to choose the one I would not have chosen.

But in the main it was a matter of rhythm of speech but also rhythm of thought. The sensibility behind the German text, a sensibility embodied in particular in the speech of the narrator, felt alien to me.
This leads to my final question: Is there a high road (a highway) to excellence in translation, and might that high road be provided by a theory of translation? Would mastery of the theory of translation make one a better translator? There is a legitimate branch of aesthetics called the theory of literature. But I doubt very much that there is or can be such a thing as a theory of translation - not one, at any rate, from which practitioners of translation will have much to learn.

Among practices that take a great deal of knowledge and experience, translation is the subject of relatively little academic focus. How many college undergraduates take a course in translation?

Also, I wonder if there have been authors who, unlike Coetzee, are surprised to find themselves liking their writing more in translation than in the original?

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Fri May 12, 12:15:00 PM:
Thanks for that great Coetzee link; I love the Agatha Christie detail.

I have to say I much prefer the Birnbaum version of the passage to the other, it's so much more colloquial & age-appropriate. (Murakami is also an interesting example because he's so obviously influenced by American writing, which makes the English-language translator's task in many respects more straightforward, no?) But I take your point about voice-in-the-ear versions.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri May 12, 04:12:00 PM:
I liked the list of difficult-to-translate words. Yiddish as a whole is probably the worst offender in that category, if my personal experience is an indicator. My grandmother grew up speaking Yiddish and seems to think in it a good deal of the time, and she also believes that other people have an inborn knowledge of Yiddish (you eat enough kasha and gefilte fish and the language will seep into your bloodstream). We have a lot of family conversations that go like this:

Grandma: [blah blah in Yiddish] And you know what that means, right?
Katy: Uhh, no... not really...
Grandma: It means... well... it's difficult to explain, but...

And then a 20-minute argument ensues as other family members dispute the meaning of some idiomatic Yiddish phrase involving death/the messiah/ungrateful grandchildren/eating/what have you. Yiddish operates in its own world, and that's the problem with translating it--you need to get the "oy, I should be so lucky" outlook in there somehow, and the literal meaning tends not to be as important.
Blogger Ben on Tue May 16, 09:45:00 AM:
My grandfather is constantly saying Yiddish phrases, and my mother nods along, and they ask me "You know what that means, right?" I usually think I do, but then can't put it into words, and I'm often wrong. I guess that's what happens to the first generation of kids to really not know a language--they know it well enough to hang out with Grandpa, but not well enough to be able to tell their own kids one day what the words mean.
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