Monday, 25 February 2008

True Stories

Imagine you're a writer, and you just happen to be bilingual. You've written a book and the rights have been sold to the country whose language you also speak. Let's just say it's what we call a "smaller" language. Being a generally helpful type of person and, of course, interested in making sure your book works well in the other language, you offer to help the translator if he or she has any questions. The publisher umms and ahs and turns your offer down. Would you be surprised?

Then imagine you are a little concerned about the whole situation, and of course, the book is your creation, so you lean on the foreign publisher to get a look at the proofs once the translation is done. And then you read it and discover that the translation is full of mistakes. Not just things you would write differently, but genuine misunderstandings that alter the meaning. What would you do then?

Well, imagine you talk to your original publisher and tell them there is at least one mistake every three pages, and lean on them to threaten the foreign publisher with legal action unless they withdraw the translation. And then they commission someone else with the job, who wisely enough contacts you to start with. And imagine you talk to that translator about the whole story and he or she sympathises and agrees with you, but tries to console you with the fact that translations in their country are always like that, and the Nobel prize winners writing in your language are no better off either. They just can't read the translations.

Living in Germany spoils a person, in many ways. But one of them is that one comes to expect good translations. Over the past thirty years or so, German literary translators have become incredibly professional. They have their own institutions and foundations funding and organising further training, there are degree courses in literary translation, they can apply for grants to visit countries where their books are set, spend weeks or months beavering away at literary translation centres, and so on and so forth. Of course, they're still badly paid and there are still mavericks and beginners out there. And there are still people who think any old graduate in American Studies they meet at a party can translate quality fiction - and give them a contract to do so. But in general, German translators are excellent.

But part of the reason for this is that they've got together and applied for funding, lobbied the culture ministry, set up committees and all those other thankless tasks. Literary translation was once the domain of well-educated housewives and professors during the holidays (and is still paid accordingly). Now, it is a field peopled by experts. Only that's not the case in every country. The Robert Bosch Foundation runs an admirable programme promoting literary translation and translators out of German in specific countries, but that can't reach everyone and will never achieve the level of content offered to learning-hungry translators into German.

Perhaps it's just a question of time until translators around the world reach a high level of professionalism. But as long as literary translation is badly paid, it won't attract as many talented people as it might do, and those talented people it does attract won't be able to devote enough time to it for their work to be as good as it might be. And if you think literary translators are badly paid in Germany or Britain, talk to someone from Albania or Slovenia for a bit of an eye-opener.

But all that is no great consolation for our poor bilingual author, is it?


Bowleserised said...

This doesn't surprise me in the least. Mind you, things do actually get translated here, unlike in the UK where the Arts Council is putting the squeeze on what little translation there is.

kjd said...

How true. 4-5% of books published in the UK are translations compared to about 34% in Germany, according to BIPE conseil figures for 1991. But I'll rant about that on another occasion.

itziar said...

i love this post. 'hope you don't mind if i quote you in my blog --i am a translator myself and sometimes talk about translation. all i can say about my country (Spain) is that, despite our 26% of published books being translations, quality is not usually the best. hopefully we end up taking a leaf out of the German translators' book.