Saturday, 24 May 2008

Translation Allergy Ramble

Really, I should read more translations. Then I'd have something to offer on excellent sites like the World Literature Forum. It's a whole labyrinth of threads on world literature in English translation. I've told you about it before, but now it seems to be very much up and running. Reading it feels a little like eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation - all those wise people chatting among themselves for all the world to hear. I'm racking my brains to find something to say...

But the problem is, I find reading translations out of German incredibly hard work. I have to make a conscious effort to just plain enjoy the damn book. Because with every phrase, my mind is going, "I wonder what that was in the original. I wonder why she chose that word. I wonder how I would translate that if it was originally..."

In the past, I've taken the trouble to compare originals and translations of certain books. Or originals and different translations. It's a fascinating thing to do, and of course you end up picking holes in the translations, but also in the originals. And you're sitting there thinking, "Sheesh, even I could do this better!" when of course you probably couldn't.

I have no problem reading translations out of other languages that I don't speak - so, er, any languages really. I recently read Jostein Gaarder's The Ringmaster's Daughter, translated from Norwegian by James Anderson. And thoroughly enjoyed it, with no nagging "I wonder" questions in the back of my mind whatsoever.

But I find it, if anything, even less relaxing to read English books translated into German. I try to avoid it but sometimes I just need a fix of trash really quickly. As in, no time to go to an actual bookshop, the supermarket will have to do. Our local supermarket sells about 20 titles - nothing like Tesco with its new power to make or break books. But you can rely on about three quarters of those 20 titles to be utter trash.

Actually, I once made a terrible error at the checkout. I scanned the 20 books and identified what I thought would be a nice fluffy piece of thriller trash - Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon. I thought it would be something like The Shadow of the Wind - eminently readable, enjoyable, predictable, forgettable. Only it wasn't - it's actually rather sober and serious. I can't say whether I'd have liked it if I hadn't been expecting something completely different. All I know is I was sorely disappointed. But it wasn't a translation.

German bookshops seem to do a roaring trade in books in English. Even Karstadt in Wedding - not Berlin's most salubrious department store - sells English books, for God's sake. Unfortunately, the titles on offer are never anything I'd want to read. Most of the covers are black, with knives dripping blood emblazoned across them and raised silver lettering. Next time I'm there I might just loiter around and see who buys them. I suspect it's all Germans who feel the need to read this stuff in the original.

For there is a strain of people - and perhaps I'm one of them - who are terribly snooty about "reading the original". It comes across as arrogance - oh, my English/German is so good, I have no need for a translation. I'd much rather read the pure, unadulterated, unfiltered version. Even if I understand less of it than I would in my own language. I often think about this at the cinema - when I'm the only person laughing in a huge room full of people, and then the lights go up and everyone starts speaking German. At an English showing. Bizarre.

It all stems from a deep-seated fear of translators, don't you know. Freud would have a field day. But until Britain and the US start publishing translations by the bucketload like they do over here, I have the perfect excuse - the books I want to read often simply aren't available in English.

1 comment:

Stewart said...

Thanks for the link to World Lit Forum. I appreciate it. Please, do drop by. I'm sure there's a few German books you'd love to recommend to the people there.