Thursday, 19 November 2009

The kind of books I read

I read all kinds of different books from young adult to crime, from thrillers to historical fiction and literary novels but there is one kind of book I'm not keen on – translations. War and Peace? Never read it. (Could have something to do with the fact that I'm not a huge fan of the 19th century novel, of course). Love in the Time of Cholera? Nope. The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Afraid not.

More recently, there have been bestsellers like Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind or Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. People raved about these books but I couldn't get past page 100. Am I a horrible xenophobe? I hope not. It's just that these books never sound quite right to me. (I do mean 'sound' – when I read I hear the words as if somebody were reading the book to me.) There are always sentences that make me frown and think 'that's not real English, not really real English'. Every time it happens, I'm pulled out of the fictional world, my connection with the author is interrupted.

There are exceptions. I made it all the way through Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (author: Peter Hoeg, translator: Felicity David). And whoever translates Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy (the translator doesn't get a mention on Amazon or the Waterstone's site) is clearly a genius. Halfway through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I had to check that I was actually reading a translation.

But generally... I think it would be fair to say I don't do translations.

I have a Croatian friend who is determined to cure what she sees as my dreadful literary parochialism and who keeps lending me books in trnslation. And, finally, she has struck gold. Or perhaps I mean I have. Last weekend she brought me Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver, translated by Thomas Teal. It is, quite simply, beautiful.

The True Deceiver is almost a fable. Though it's clearly set in the twentieth century – there is a motor vehicle (just the one) and there are merchandising deals for the children's author who is one of the main protagonists – there's a timeless feel to the book. The whole book takes place during the course of one winter but there's a dreamlike quality to the passage of time and the characters almost seem to be suspended in the snowy season as events shake the snow-scene around them.

The book is full of beautiful, spare, luminous prose. Characters are strongly drawn but never charicatures. With enormous economy Tove Jansson shows us how people's inner life and outer worlds collide as conflicting needs come to the fore; the need to retain independence but to feel secure; the need to make money out of somebody whilst at the same time securing that person's financial interests. People don't talk much in this book, speaking to each other is something the characters do only in extremis – communication takes place through actions not words; and the actions speak very loudly.

Will The True Deceiver convert me to reading more books in translation? Probably not, to be honest. But I shall definitely be reading more Tove Jansson – particularly if I can get hold of translations by Thomas Teal.


Tim Stretton said...

Translations are an interesting case. I too get the sense that something feels "missing" although some wonderful novels can survive the process (Love in the Time of Cholera being one of them for me). I'd be very sorry not have read Zola too - but I then I do like the 19th century novel.

The translator has a tough job. Unless they have the same kind of capacity for language as a novelist, it's hard to see how they can retain the power of the original.

On the other hand, I know a French translator very well. Having spent much of his life in England and worked in a bilingual environment, and possessed of a flexible and subtle mind, I can't imagine his French translations to be anything other than first rate. A shame my French isn't good enough to tell. (Incidentally, he translates primarily fantasy and science fiction: by his own admission, the original prose is not always sparkling. In such cases, might he not be *adding* to the source text?)

Neil said...

Andrei Makine translated by Geoffrey Strachan. Can't go wrong. Also Georges Perec translated by David Bellos. (He also wrote Perec's biography. Perec requires a bit of patience though.)

I read lots of translations, and occasionally get those similar feelings. I think with straight commercial fiction, the translator's job isn't too much of a scary prospect, but translating quality literary work, that's a tough ask.

Alis said...

HI Tim
I think you're right when you say 'Unless they have the same kind of capacity for language as a novelist, it's hard to see how they can retain the power of the original.'
I think that's it entirely - unless the person has an absolutely bilingual knowledge of both languages plus a literary flair, it's never quite going to work.

I wish my German was good enough to read Sibylle Schmidt's translation of Testament but, sadly, O-level German thirty years ago doesn't quite cut it! As for my Spanish, I can say 'Hello', 'what's your name' and 'My name is Alis.' Definitely not quite sufficient to be able to comment on the translation1

Alis said...

Hi Neil! I think you're right about the difference between straightforward commercial fiction and more literary stuff. I often want to edit the former for prose style in the original English!

David Isaak said...

One interesting aspect of this topic is that classics often have several translations available, and the differences between them can be huge. I've especially noticed this with the 19th century Russians; Dostoyevsky is never exactly light reading, but depending on the translation, he can read smoothly or seem ponderous and clunky. Tolstoy can seem more like modern lit-fic in some translations.

I think this variability is particularly marked in translations from Russian because the language is so case-ridden that it has a great architectural freedom English lacks. In Russian, the the three words in the sentence "John hit Bill" can be rendered in any order, since it is clear John was doing the hitting and Bill was being hit. Take this problem to the length of novelistic prose and the translator has a lot of latitude in how to bring the sense and flavor across into English.

"Candide" is another work that is available in multiple translations. Yet all of them seem to me to have a very 'modern' flavor. I guess Voltaire was just ahead of his time.