No, I’m not talking about the movie; I just thought it was high time I talked about my field of expertise. What brought this up now? An excellent translation of a German novel that made me wonder whether I would’ve enjoyed the story as much if I’d read it in its main language, and a translation of a Swedish novel that is supposedly hilarious but has so far failed to make me crack a smile.
Back in university, the one thing professors often drilled into us was that translators are mirrors. A good translator would create a perfect reflection of the source text in a different language, while a bad translator might just as well be doodling all over the mirror with a black felt-tip pen. I may not have much experience under my belt, but I do recognize a bad mirror when I see one.
The tricky thing about translation, you never know if it’s good or bad unless you read the original text. For all you know, what could be considered an insult in one language might be a compliment in another. I’ve come across bad translations before, where Professor Snape becomes Professor Snab and wine becomes grape juice. Some people might intentionally do the latter to cover for cultural differences, but wine is wine, and you cannot become drunk on grape juice. Some translators might take the liberty of changing or omitting a few things,
A literary translator needs to be a writer as well. For example, Arabic is a rather poetic language. We Arabs like our analogies, rhymes, metaphors… you name it. Without them our novels tend to be dry. I’ve read some English novels in Arabic, and while some are pretty good, others feel like reciting a lesson from a text book – completely abstract and lifeless.
I feel miffed when I hear someone saying that translation is not difficult, you can just grab a dictionary and line words neatly along the line. Anyone can do it! There is so much more to translation than dictionaries. In fact, dictionaries play a small part. There is a lot of research to be done, we sometimes have to coin new words, we have to find a suitable alternative for “throw in the towel” and “pull someone’s leg”, we may need to elaborate where cultural matters are involved… and the list goes on.
Why am I telling you this? After all it might put your mind off getting your books translated. I just thought it’s important to be wary of this. I would personally hate to see a novel get degraded through a bad translation; it’s unprofessional and sends one’s hard work down the drain. How can you pick out a good translator? Well, for starters, they never sell themselves short, they don’t make promises they can’t keep, and they ask questions.
Next time you read a translated novel and dislike it due to language or structure issues (because the author’s plot is all his own), give the author the benefit of the doubt. After all, they might just have a bad translator.
Have you ever read a badly translated novel? Would you consider having any of your work translated?