Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lost in Translation

I think I've discussed the subject of translation before, but it cropped up again this weekend when a nice journalist from the Sunday Times informed me that I was big in China, or, at least, that The Book of Lost Things was big in China. Apparently, it has sold very well there, just as it sold well in the earlier Taiwanese edition, for which I toured in Taiwan and thus subsequently ended up eating an unidentified rectum, a culinary encounter dealt with elsewhere on this site.
I suspect that The Book of Lost Things did well in these territories because it's a book dealing with fairy tales, and myths, and the importance of stories in our lives, and there is a universality to such subject matter. The appeal is perhaps stronger in countries with a very old oral tradition of storytelling, and an ongoing fascination with mythology, but then that covers a great many countries, which may explain why The Book of Lost Things seems to be the novel of mine that has enjoyed the widest appeal in translation.
The relationship between an author and the translated edition of his or her work is an odd one because, of course, the translated book is not going to be quite the same as the book that was originally written. Even if a literal translation from one language to another were possible, it would probably be unwise, as it would lead to a book that read less like a novel and more like a technical manual. One of my early translators in a European country seemed intent upon translating my books in that way, without any feel for the prose or any creative aspect to the translation, a fact that was pointed out to me by readers as I didn't read in the language in question. It may have been that the translator viewed the job of translation simply as a technical exercise; that, or the translator may have been afraid of altering a single word of my deathless prose for fear of sullying the innate beauty of my words. In retrospect, I suspect that it was probably the former.
Another difficulty for the author is that there is no way of knowing just how much of the original intent has been lost, either accidentally or deliberately, in the course of the translation. In one territory, Angel and Louis, the criminal associates of Charlie Parker in my series novels, have had their sexuality quietly airbrushed. In my novels, they are gay. In this particular translation, they are two gentlemen who happen to live together, a bit like the beloved British comedians Morecambe & Wise in their television incarnations. What can I do about this? Not a lot. Territorial sensibilities probably played a part in the change, or it may be that the relationship between the two was completely misunderstood. I could complain, but that would probably get lost in translation too, and the damage has rather been done. By this point, a number of the novels have appeared in the country in question, and it might surprise readers to find that, after four or five books, Angel and Louis could apparently no longer contain their affection for each other, and felt compelled to express it to the world.
When it comes to translations, the author has to trust the publisher, and hope that a sympathetic translator is found. For the most part, these tend to be writers themselves, and often poets. For example, I have a terrible feeling that my Bulgarian translations are probably better written than the original English versions, given the talents of the translator involved, and this goes for a number of other countries too. Meanwhile, I can't even begin to imagine the difficulties faced by Yue Han and Kang Na Li, who worked on translating The Book of Lost Things into Chinese.
Incidentally, the Irish government, through the Ireland Literature Exchange, assisted with the translation of my work into Chinese. It's a worthwhile, and probably little known, initiative that ensures Irish writers are promoted abroad, and I'm grateful to them. On the other hand, I do wish more foreign writing was available in English translations. One of the banes of my life is my inability to read the work of native mystery authors when I promote my books abroad, since so few of them are translated into English, or distributed here. The situation is improving, aided in part by the increasing popularity of books from Scandinavian authors, but we still have some way to go.
In the end, though, the translator's task is a decidedly thankless one, and most readers probably take the act of translation for granted. The IMPAC award is notable for awarding €25,000 of its total prize money of €100,000 to the translator of the winning book if that book was originally published in another language. Similarly, the CWA this year gave £500 to Marlaine Delargy, the translator of Johan Theorin's The Darkest Room, which won the CWA International Dagger, and it has rewarded translators similarly in the past. It's unfortunate that, while this represents one step forward for the CWA, it doesn't quite make up for the giant leap backward that the organisation took by disqualifying translated novels from the overall Gold Dagger Award some years back. A great many risible excuses were offered for this decision at the time, although they all boiled down to the fact that too many foreign types were winning the award, and next thing you knew they'd all be over here taking our jobs and stealing our women. With the quality of translated mystery fiction showing no signs of decreasing anytime soon, and with a number of foreign mystery authors putting their British and American peers in the shade, it's probably time for the CWA to reassess its earlier decision. If it doesn't, it will start to look like the English language authors are afraid to play against the big boys and girls with the funny accents for fear of being shown up.
A bit like the England football team, then.


Nobody Move by Denis Johnson


The Five Ghosts by Stars
The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton by Clogs

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1 comment:

Sean Patrick Reardon said...


Very informational stuff. Just read "Every Dead Thing". What a tremendous debut novel. It had one of the best openings of any novel I have read. Can't wait to read more of your work.