Thursday, 3 June 2010

On Translating Hegemann (I)

There are things you just don't want to translate at the office. And it's not like the people I share my office with look over my shoulder every ten minutes. But still, I worry they might pick up from my face or something what exactly I'm working on. I mean, they know it's Axolotl Roadkill and are duly impressed, in a head-shaking, oh I met her once, that must be a challenge kind of way. But they haven't read the book.

Today's been one of those days. When you translate, you get closer to a text than ever before. You research those references you probably just skipped over when you read the book first or second time round. You deconstruct the sentences to establish exactly who's doing what, when, where and why. And then you have to find a way to tell the readers in your language what exactly's going on on the page.

So today there's a reference to a film. Sounds harmless enough, could be a documentary about street kids or something. OK, fairly standard procedure, I look it up on and can't find it with the German title. So I google it and get eight hits. One of them has been removed after a complaint under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Another is an interview with one of the actors, which informs me about the innovative use of vegetables in the work. That's all I'm saying. The photos were fun, nice pair of cowboy boots. Thankfully, nobody looked over my shoulder at that moment.

So now I know an actor and the English name and I find it on imdb, but the English title gives you not even the slightest intimation of the content, unlike the German which – once you know what kind of film it is – is pretty clear. Right now, I've added the director's name ('XY's film Way Down') but I'm not sure whether that's enough. It's not like the guy has a long list of illustrious works to his name. Should I go the whole hog and add a gloss on the content of the film? No, because your average German reader won't necessarily pick up on it either. Should I choose another film English readers will be more likely to know? But then I'm taking away from the whole Berlin feeling - it's not set in Soho, after all. Plus I'd have to trawl through dubious databases to find an equivalent.

I'm still pondering. And why am I telling you all this? Because I've got to a point in the book I'm embarrassed to translate, at least while my child's still awake in the next room and might come in. Not that she looks over my shoulder every ten minutes. But still, as fucked-up Mifti would say: this is blogging as a permanent displacement activity.

But rather at home of an evening than at the office.


Harvey Morrell said...

Thank you for sharing this. It makes me feel better that a professional has some of the same problems I do (I'm translating Friedrich Ani's, Süden und der Luftgitarrist, just for fun). I don't think the average reader realizes just how challenging translating can be.

I also had to smile when you mentioned your embarrassment - as the father of a teenage daughter, I can totally relate.

Jan Groh said...

Reminds me of John le Carré's George Smiley who wouldn't take seat in a restaurant without a wall in his back and a perfect overview of the whole location: Daughter, Colleague, Mifti, Spy... - a life full of thrills ;-)