Monday, May 15, 2006

Lost in Translation

Last week, I was singing the praises of translators, a group of people whose work on behalf of other authors tends to be underestimated at best and, more frequently, entirely ignored. This week, partly because I was travelling around the UK discussing crime fiction and partly because of what I had written earlier, I was reminded of something translation-related that has been bugging me for quite a few months now.

As those of you who follow such matters will already be aware, the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain decided some time ago to disqualify books in translation from competing for the Gold Dagger, the main prize awarded each year by the CWA for the best crime novel. To those of us with a slightly cynical bent, it seemed that the main reason why this decision was made was because translated novels have been doing rather well in the Daggers in recent years, and ruffling some feathers in the process. After all, it’s hard enough to win a Dagger without Johnny Foreigner coming along and spoiling the party. Lots of nice British and American authors, who speak and write proper English, would rather like a dagger for themselves, not to mention the whopping £20,000 cheque that will find its way into the pocket of the victor in 2006.

The final straw came in 2005 when the Icelandic novelist Arnaldur Indridason won the Gold Dagger for Silence of the Grave. (Actually, he should have won it in 2004 for the superior Jar City, but then Al Pacino should have won an Oscar long before he got one for the dreadful Scent of a Woman. At least, in both cases, an attempt was made to rectify the earlier mistakes.) Splendidly, the CWA announced that the award showed that crime in translation was gaining mainstream recognition, before immediately withdrawing that recognition itself by disqualifying translations. Really, you have to admire that kind of brazen hypocrisy.

Anyway, the decision to exclude translations led to a lot of odd statements being made in an effor to justify what was, in the end, a dubious piece of business. For example, Val McDermid - usually a fairly sensible type - offered her support for exclusion by pointing out that if Peter Hoeg’s rather wonderful Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow had been read in its American version rather than its English version, then it might not have seemed so wonderful after all.

Now there really are only three appropriate responses to this. The first is “Huh?” The second is to enquire just where exactly she acquired her degree in comparative literature. The third, meanwhile, is to wonder exactly how much Danish she speaks and reads to enable her to make this kind of judgement. Curiously, McDermid was also one of those who provided approving quotes for Silence of the Grave. She described it as “a fascinating window on an unfamiliar world”, albeit the type of window that she and her colleagues were apparently happy to see closed in order to facilitate the future marginalisation of foreign authors.

Robert Richardson, the CWA’s vice-chairman at the time and now its chairman, had this to say of the decision in the Guardian newspaper: “British crime writers have always recognised the quality of foreign crime fiction. However, the CWA has decided that this is the right time to bring our rules into line with the Man Booker and Orange prizes. The opportunity to win our Gold Dagger will still be open to crime writers from all over the world - as long as our judges are reading the original text, not a translated version.”

So that’s all right then. All you have to do to qualify for the Gold Dagger, or the Duncan Lawrie Dagger as it is hereafter to be known, as a nod to its generous sponsors, is to learn English. It’s a doddle, really. Frankly, these foreigners should have thought of it before. Perhaps they could learn to sing “God Save the Queen” while they’re at it.

And why, precisely, is it necessary to follow the lead of the Man Booker and Orange prizes? What has that got to do with anything? Why not instead follow the lead of the Edgars, the US mystery awards, or the IMPAC awards, both of which operate a far more inclusive policy? In the end, would the issue even have arisen if, in recent years, translated works had not had an impact on the Daggers out of all proportion to their UK sales? Basically, if foreign writers hadn’t started winning the Dagger, then I rather suspect that they would have been quite welcome to keep competing for it. After all, everybody likes a plucky underdog, especially if he talks a bit funny. As someone pointed out, the decision to exclude foreign writers because they happened to be successful was a little like FIFA announcing that Brazil would no longer be entitled to compete in the World Cup because they were making most of the other teams look bad.

The exclusion of translations also raises new questions about the value of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger. After all, most writers would like to feel that, if they win a prize, they have done so by allowing their work to be judged alongside the cream of their fellow authors. By refusing to acknowledge translated works in the main competition, the CWA has diminished the achievement of winning its premier award. Creating a second award, however valuable, for books in translation just isn’t good enough. The issue is not money, but marginalisation. For as long as this situation persists, the Dagger presented to the winning author will be slightly tarnished by the circumstances of the victory.

Sorry to be coming to this debate so late, but it sometimes takes a while for these things to annoy me sufficiently to compel to put my objections in print, and I noticed that a great many of my fellow writers had chosen to remain diplomatically silent on the issue. (After all, £20,000 is not to be sniffed at, and we wouldn't want to offend anyone, would we?) At least I had time to think about it which, given the fact that the CWA announced the exclusion of translated works 24 hours after giving the Dagger to Indridason, is more than can be said that august body. And if they had been considering it for longer, then how could they announce, after giving Indridason his prize, that they were in favour of mainstream recognition for foreign writers? The two positions are, frankly, incompatible, and everyone involved in the exclusion decision should hang their heads in shame.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not a member of the CWA which, handily, saved me the trouble of resigning in protest.

This week John read

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

and listened to

Surprise by Paul Simon
Just Like The Fambly Cat by Grandaddy
Everything is Green by The Essex Green


Jayne said...

Good on you for speaking out about this, John. I applaud you.

TheScientist said...

From one Dub to another, well done! I can't believe the CWA have done this! I'm flabbergasted but quite happy to have the opportunity to use the word 'flabbergasted' :)

Sandra Ruttan said...

This topic has been hotly debated, and honestly, I found the decision disturbing. I'm not a CWA member. The only award I've been very familiar with there is the debut dagger, which I'd planned to enter this year, but didn't, but that's another story.

What worries me about this trend is the push towards insular thinking. I can't help wondering if future awards will always see all the Brits in one corner and the Americans in another and the Europeans at their end of the room. Where will the Canadians be? Nowhere, as usual, I guess.

But even within Canada, we have problems with this. All federal awards are twinned. One for English. One for French. And there has been much bellyaching over the years because when you compare the French population to the English population, it's clearly much easier to "succeed" in French.

So, we have it in reverse. Bottom line is, not all things are equal. It isn't just about being translated or not. I'm Canadian - I get this. We get books direct from the UK and direct from the US and there can be huge differences between the two. I'm also aware, from living overseas in Austria, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, of how setting impacts the quality of writing. It is interesting to see how many people get a setting wrong, but if you haven't had the benefit of being there at least, or living there, do you always see those errors? And language is used differently in different places.

If the award is for the best crime fiction book of the year - as I always believed it was - then the translation excuse is jsut that. A way to ensure those pesky foreigners don't win.

I can't help but wonder what will happen if for the next five years, Americans take the prize. Will it be reduced to only citizens of Commonwealth countries being eligible?

When you start changing the rules, where does it end?

Tom Hyland said...

My bag is combat. I’ve lived it and written about it and learned and taught and encouraged… and healed. And if this statement seems too far afield, I will explain my seemingly off-kilter-back-door metaphor as it relates to the translating of the written word.

I served in the United States Marine Corps. There are those among readers of this UK based site who served in the Royal Marines. Are the two units the same? No. Do they both engage in combat as elite units? Yes. Are both units similar in nature and in dynamic (getting the job done and… and by whatever means necessary)? Very much so. Then… are they the same? Definitely not.

If you tried melding the two units you would have a mess (and a violently clashed mess at that). But one unit can successfully describe tactics and philosophy and training of the other. Idiom and shared experience of the nature divided by continents cannot be melded or erased (and shouldn’t be). But the thoughts and actions can be subscribed and joined when related to combat operations.

Forgive the flowery language and butchered sentence structure… crudely attempted compression of thought leads to that.

Oh yes… the subject at hand. Translating anything of substance and interest is doomed to success if the plot (or the characterization) can be successfully adapted to the market condition. But the real question is: does that dynamic truly convey the soul of the piece and the original intent of the work? Or is it reduced to the waste-of-time-exercise of describing Smarties to a person raised on M&M's and Necco Wafers?

Bluedaizy41 said...

you're right! American's rule! And not only does the author win the award for whichever prize, but the author receives much more recognition from new readers. Cha-ching! I rarely purchase a book anymore without some sort of blurb about it being an Edgar Award winner, etc. I came across John Connelly's book purely by lucky chance. Whoo-hoo!

Val said...

Nice to see the usual measured response from you, John. Since you take the opportunity to slag me off, let me take the opportunity to answer back.
I don't have a degree in comparative literature and I don't speak Danish. I do,however, have a degree in English from Oxford and miracukously retain the intellectual capacity to read two texts in English and compare them. It remains my view that the American translation of Peter Hoeg's novel is, in literary terms, nowhere near as fine as the UK translation. Given that I don't speak Danish, how am I to know which of these translations bears the closer relationship to the original?
Clearly, in this instance, the translator of the award-winning UK version did a damn good job. But received no recognition for it whatsoever.
In essence, the status quo rewards a book which none of us have actually read in its original form. It requires us to take a lot on trust.
By separating their awards for English language originals from those for translation, it finally becomes possible for the CWA to give the translators some palpable demonstration of the respect they deserve. How else do you suggest this is done? If you're Anglophone and win the the Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger, you should get 30 grand, but if you're Johnny Foreigner, you should only get half of it and your translator get the other half? That feels even more insulting, discriminatory and illogical to me.
It's only in recent years that it has made any sense to split the award because until relatively recently British publishers turned their face away from the international field. I've been around this business a lot longer than you have, John, and believe me, I have spent a lot more time and energy supporting crime fiction in translation than you will ever know.
I don't mind that you disagree with me. But I do mind that you have to be so bloody rude about it. Not that I'm surprised.

Tom Hyland said...

I just can’t let go of this topic. Because… I find it fascinating.

Also... arguments for and against seem ridiculous when viewed under natural light.

There is a technique in film that is known as Pan and Scan. And that technique is the cutting and manipulating of scenes created in 70MM or similar and reduced for showing to small screen viewers by way of Letterbox. The Letterbox technique accomplishes what none other can … the complete visual experience of the original film. Pan and Scan takes the original artist’s (director’s) images and reduces (creating the sort of homogenized rectangular image that is required by the average consumer for small screen viewing).

The translating of written works of art is often reduced to a similar ‘Pan and Scan’. The ‘translating’ always hinges on the translater’s grasp of the originating material. What happens is that the secondhand version (and oftentimes innocently) depletes the original scheme and reduces art to artifice.

After personally struggling (during an earlier life) with an original version, I can provide a case in point: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s original thoughts and themes in Don Quixote v. the English translations four hundred years after the original. A two volume work of art is reduced to modern standard single volume and condensed translation lacking true platform for the artist’s vision. Bottom line… there are no ‘good’ direct translations of Don Quixote. Nothing in modern translation can effect the full panoramic view of Cervante’s images of 17th-century Spanish society

hazel said...

I think that there is a danger of missing the point here when we worry about what does not translate well.

Surely, the fact that there is a demand for the translation of a work (be it to English or from English) and that it does well in a language other than its' conception demonstrates its' intrinsic worth.

These books go beyond the intellectual word games that the huge vocabulary of English allows. These games are sometimes, sadly, used as a substitute for plot. (There is a possibility that when books translated from English do badly it is not the fault of the translator).

Successful translated works are therefore often the books that have themes and ideas that 'speak' to all of us; irrespective of idiom; and it is these works that demand recognition... or if not recognition at least the chance to gain it.

Tom Hyland said...

I can see what you’re saying Hazel about variances of grammar and dealing with a profusion of adjectives and adverbs. But the inherent danger to translating isn’t so much what you say or what has to be said but… how you say it. There is a danger in dissolving literature into something which it is not; a condensation of thought and deed. Japanese literature long resisted European translation. There are myriad reasons but an outstanding one is cultural differences.

Were I to begin a novel by drawing a mental picture of two men walking hand in hand into the woods, the average Occidental reader might (greatly) assume the two men gay. But the Oriental reader may simply see two friends walking together. Holding someone’s hand is, in many Oriental cultures, a common sign of friendship… even among male friends. And so… if you are translating the scene, do you provide textbook explanations throughout (and with footnotes)? Or… do you simply translate words and sentences and rely on the experiences of the reader and let the assumptions fall where they may?

This happens all of the time with cinema. Great works of art do not directly translate well to the screen. They have to be condensed and rewritten to fit the needs of actors and directors. Screenwriters deal in a visual medium represented by the written word. And the brilliance of a particularly well-turned phrase often cedes to action and reaction.

stevemosby said...

What does or doesn't get lost in translation seems a bit irrelevant to me. The point is that at the end of the day there is a book written in English, and that book can surely be judged against other books written in English. I don't see the end result as being any different from a non-translated book with two authors...?

I'd suggest that in his native country, for his original text, the author can solely claim an award. But for the Daggers, where two people effectively have worked to produce the text, the prize has to be shared. That has the effect of recognising the translator's considerable input. And considering all works together under a single award does the same.

John said...

I was glad that Val responded, although I owe her an apology for the Hoeg paragraph. She is quite correct: it was more than a little rude and unfair. I take it back.
That said, I still substantially disagree with most of what she says. A couple of points, then:

1)While a bad translation may ruin a good book, a good translation is highly unlikely to make a bad book better. If a translated work satisfies a reader encountering it in a language other than the original, then it has, in effect, transcended a significant potential obstacle to its understanding. Essentially, if you read it in translation and judge it worthy of note, it is a vote of confidence both in the quality of the original work and the translator's art. The issue of "trust" is rather a red herring, and a little offensive to boot.

2)When a translated work wins the IMPAC award, the prize money is divided between the translator and the writer, and I see no reason why this should not have sufficed for the Dagger as well.

3)It still seems unlikely to me that this issue would have arisen had not translated novels proved so adept at figuring in the running for the Daggers over a number of years. Basically, these writers are being punished for their success through a nasty form of protectionism.

4)In the end, the question that should be asked is: will the decision not to allow translated works to compete for the CWA's major award result in less mainstream exposure for those works? Even allowing for the token dagger for a novel in translation,(which will certainly be grotesquely overshadowed by the winner of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger), it seems to me that the answer is "yes".

Adrian Muller said...

Trying to respond to John Connolly's comments about the decision by the British Crime Writers' Association to exclude translations from the Gold Dagger for Best Novel is not easy. He takes so many pot shots, it is difficult to know where to begin. I should probably start by saying that I am the Chairman of the judging panel for the CWA's Duncan Lawrie International Dagger. Secondly, I'd like to stress that I am not responding on behalf of the CWA, or to defend them. I completely agree with John that translated crime should not have been excluded from the Dagger for Best Crime Novel. I have publicly opposed the various reasons the organisation gave for doing so.

My objections, as well as being British and Dutch, apparently qualified me to become a judge. (I am sure that the adage "It is better to have him on the inside pissing out, than have him outside pissing in" also came into play.) I agreed to become a judge because, having knowledge of the process, hopefully I will find sufficient evidence to persuade the CWA to reverse their decision in the future. Also I wanted to support Duncan Lawrie's gracious and generous offer of funding an International Dagger. (Especially since they had nothing to do with the decision to eliminate translations from the Best Crime Novel Award.)

But back to John's arguments. For someone who stresses that his concern is not financial but rather the "marginalisation" of translated crime writers, the prize money--£20,000, approximately $37,000--is referred to quite a lot. Especially compared to the cursory and dismissive mention that a special award has been created for translated crime fiction. The fact is that the prize money for the International Dagger is twice the amount of that for the Best Crime Novel last year. Also, £1,000 of the £6,000 is earmarked specifically for the translator. To my knowledge a first for a literary prize. As John is a champion of translators, I invite him to applaud at least that move.

John comments that Val McDermid needs a degree in comparative literature to be able to comment on the British versus the American translation of Peter Hoeg's 'Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow': you need a degree to have an opinion on two versions of a book? My understanding is that one is considered a poor translation, and that it is the other that gained critical acclaim. Surely, that proves the point Val was trying to make, that a translation is removed from the original text, and therefore it may not do it justice. Does John seriously suggest that the ability of a good or bad translator, like some good or bad editors, does not affect a novel? Val's argument has validity for the few readers who are able to compare a translation with the original. However, the majority of readers don't have that ability. So, regardless of the influence of translators (or editors), it is the end product, the book the punters have bought, that should be judged!

He goes on to compare the CWA awards to the Edgar and IMPAC awards. Yes, since the exclusion of translations, the Mystery Writers of America have become more inclusive. Yet, even they barred non-Americans when too many 'foreigners' (Brits?) started winning Best First Novel. And for those of you who have heard of the IMPAC awards, can someone remind me how many crime novels have won?

Of course the CWA's timing of their announcement to exclude translations was atrocious (and, again, they should never have decided to do so in the first place); and, yes, saying that the award is still open to everyone, as long as the original text is in English, is adding insult to injury. It is equally unhelpful to say that you wouldn't want to join a club that would have you, or to ignore or colour facts to support your statements.

The one really good argument that John makes can only be addressed by the winner of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger for Best Crime Novel (as well as the winner of the International Dagger for that matter): by excluding some crime writers, was he or she judged alongside the best of their fellow authors? If not, will the winner say, "Thank you, but no thank you?". Sadly, most authors are not in a position to make that powerful statement.

John said...

Good old Adrian! I'm glad to know that at least one of my arguments met with your approval, even though you might justly be accused of some of the same rhetorical flourishes, including a willingness to make free with facts, of which you find me guilty.
I mentioned the prize money not because I think it's relevant to either prize in itself, but because I suspect there are quite a few authors out there who would like to win it and would rather not risk spoiling their chances by being perceived as taking potshots at the CWA over the translation issue.
The International Dagger is not the first prize to have offered some of its prize fund to the translator of a winning work: the IMPAC already does that. As for why no crime novel has won it, well, equally that question could be asked of the Man Booker prize, but it doesn't have anything to do with the issue to hand. Nice bit of smoke screening, Adrian. I doff my cap to you. (Arguably, though, the IMPAC's long list is more inclusive than any similar prize, or at least of any prize of which I'm aware.)
I never suggested that a translator has no effect on a book - quite the opposite, in fact. What I did say, and will repeat, is that I don't believe that a good translator can make a bad book better, although a bad translator can damage a good book.
As for my unwillingness to join a "club" (Is the CWA a club? How nice!) being "unhelpful", well, what a very peculiar thing to say, and what a very, um, 'political' use of words.
I have no doubt that Adrian will do a fine job in his role as chair of the judging panel, just as he has so one much for crime fiction in general over the years, and I wish him and his fellow judges every success. Similarly, Val, too, has been very generous towards other authors and has more than played her part in advancing the genre and bringing it closer to the mainstream. Perhaps that is why I found her support for this misguided decision slightly baffling, and difficult to balance with the phrasing of her support for Indridason and others. I'm sure it's well-intentioned, but I still don't fully understand it. Val occupies a position of considerable authority in the genre, but I strongly disagreed with her position on this matter. I also felt that not enough writers, for whatever reasons, had opposed the decision to disqualify translations.

la traductrice said...

Having worked as a translator from French to English I would be the first to admit that any text - whether it be a literary masterpiece, or an airport thriller, suffers in translation.

I'm a keen reader of anything and everything that gets near crime shortlists in both French and English - and have particularly enjoyed reading Scandinavian crime translated into both languages.

So I was completely stunned when I heard of this dispute on Front Row all those months ago, and my immediate reaction to the notion that the decision was because of the impossibility of judging like with like was too right! Johnny Foreigner is going into the contest with one hand tied behind his backs...and he's still winning! What does that tell us about the current state of English language crime writing?

Maybe there's a lot more to a great book than just the language used to write it. While the art of the sentence can't always (or even rarely does) survive translation - even in the hands of brilliant translators at times - powerful ideas and emotional truths will still always prevail.

The Johnny Foreigners of the crime scene aren't just out-writing their English counterparts at the moment, they're out-thinking them - and that's what makes them so very dangerous. Not to mention so much more interesting to read.

(Random aside: I agree completely with Val about the US & UK translations of Hoeg.)

The Home Office said...

Sorry, I came to this discussion very late, but I feel there's one point John has touched upon that no one else has taken up.

I agree with John's comment that a bad translator can ruin a good book, but a good translator cannot raise the level of an inadequate work to proze-winning levels. This means translations already labor under a handicap.

I'm an American, upset with our tendency to turn away from the rest of the world of late. I had hoped the Brits would show us, by example, the error of our ways.

As for Val McDiarmid's comments, I think the lady doth protest too much. That kind of "vigor" in a rebuttal often implies that the original thought hit awfully close to home.

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