Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bouchercon 2009: Quiz the translators

I'm cramming for the panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2009 in less than three weeks. The panel is called Lost in Translation?: Translators and writers discuss the challenges of translating the crime novel, and it features Steven T. Murray, Tiina Nunnally, Robert Pépin and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. We take the stage Thursday, Oct. 15, 10:30 a.m.-11:25 a.m., with yours truly asking the questions and lending a firm but gentle guiding hand.

The group's three translators have impressive lists of credits, including such works as Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy and Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow rendered into English and such authors as Michael C0nnelly, Jonathan Kellerman, Deon Meyer, Charles Bukowski, T.C. Boyle and Joseph Wambaugh translated from English into French. Yrsa's novels have been translated into at least ten languages, and I'm developing a nice list of questions for all four panelists about the joys, sorrows, anxieties and surprises of translating and being translated.

What about your questions? What would you ask? What should I ask? Come up with a good suggestion, and I just might bring a book back for you.
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The panel happens the Thursday of Bouchercon. If you're around Friday, check out the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Awards banquet, for which extra seats have just opened. That happens at the Slippery Noodle blues bar Fri. Oct. 16, 6:30 to 9:00. Tickets are $50. E-mail Bob Randisi at RRandisi@aol.com by Oct. 1 for details.

Click here for a complete Bouchercon program.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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28 Comments:

Blogger Kerrie said...

It would be interesting to know if Yrsa can tell if a translation of one of her novels is "poor".
For the translators - 1. how important is it to "get into the mind" of the author? 2. Which is harder to do - foreign language into English or English into a foreign language.
3. When translating from say Swedish into English, are there differences between British/Australian English and American English to be considered?
4. Which is the hardest language to translate from into English? Why?

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

Should the translator be translating into their native language? Or vice versa?

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Do the translators like to begin a series or would they have no qualms about taking over in the middle form another translator?

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

My word, some corking good questions suggested already, and two of them, most obviously Norman's, relate to my own, which I'll pose thus: Would they normally think it desirable that the translator who works on the first of a series (and it is well to bear in mind here that lately some 'series' have the nature of serials, as in Nesbo's case) continue as translator of succeeding works? This first came to mind when reading the splendid novels of Helene Tursten, and it was seeing that Steven (and presumably Reg) is on the panel that brought it back. He translated, wonderfully as ever, the first of those. The succeeding two were translated by not-Steven, and the second had me at times incensed, while I barely made it through the third, and if there's a fourth from not-Steven, I shan't read it. I didn't speculate too much on why he didn't continue -- and it may have been simply other commitments -- but it did make me think that it is for various reasons for the best if one translator does all (the more so when the works have the nature of a serial or when there are continuing leitmotivs or tropes, etc.). And Michael's question ties into this, for it struck me that, though not-Steven may be Swedish-American -- I tracked down a limited amount of information -- there was not at work an entirely natural command of English. Given the extraordinary amount not-Steven had translated in a very short period of time according to one transient website, it may rather have been a matter of translating at high speed and at times literally, with ludicrous results. That at the time made me reflect that translating into one's first language would be for the best, understanding the original idiom being generally easier than conjuring up an equivalent.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Do you find it more effective to stay close to the original form when translating or do you try a looser thought-for-thought approach?

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

Do you find it more effective to stay close to the original form when translating or do you try a looser thought-for-thought approach?

That's my basic question. The age old debate for translators is whether or not to make it a letter of the law or a spirit of the law translation. So I would love to here their thoughts on that subject.

Given the amount of choices that have to be made when translating a work what were some of the more difficult and or memorable choices that had to be made when they were translating ******?

How would [BOOK TITLE HERE] be different if another translator took a crack at it? I ask the question because when you think of some older books (Iliad, Odyssey, Inferno, etc.) there are multiple translations with some of them being much more highly celebrated then others and others being considered superior. Also a comparison of different translations often indicates that they each carry different characteristics. The work benefits from the different translations, approaches, sensibilities, etc. but crime fiction (and modern fiction in general) only gets one translation (possibly due to increased rights purchases) and that is it for the rest of the years. So another questions -- would the genre benefit from the same works being translated from others?

And now I think I'm officially rambling so I'll stop.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Maxine said...

What is happening to series that seem to have stopped in the middle? ie three or four translated, then no more? Examples: the aforementioned Helene Tursten (I gather that Philip need not worry - the third is the final one to be translated), Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson. Haven't seen a new Liza Marklund for a while.

A related question - lots of these non-Eng-lan series have been made into TV series, eg in Scandinavia and Italy. Why are they not subtitled and shown in the (much wider) Eng-speaking TV channels?

Finally (maybe someone already asked this- it was asked at Crime Fest more than once) - why do publishers translated series out of order? Answers are that they translate them in the order that will "make impact" in their judgement - so if one in a series has won an award, that's the one that gets translated first. What do the translators on your panel make of that?


(Oh, and any more gossip about Stieg L's translations?!)

September 27, 2009  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I would love to attend this but won't be there yet. I am sure it will be a great one. Tape it for me.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would be interesting to know if Yrsa can tell if a translation of one of her novels is "poor".
For the translators - 1. how important is it to "get into the mind" of the author? 2. Which is harder to do - foreign language into English or English into a foreign language.
3. When translating from say Swedish into English, are there differences between British/Australian English and American English to be considered?
4. Which is the hardest language to translate from into English? Why?


Kerrie, I sometimes wonder, whether in the case of Yrsa or anyone else, the same thing you wonder about in your first question. I'd want to find a m ore diplomatic way of asking the question, though, perhaps by putting in general terms: What sorts of things will bother you about a translation, perhaps.

Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally each translate from more than one language into English. I could ask them if they find any of the languages especially challenging. I ought to ask them about the problems of translating, say, Chinese, with its extremely concise grammar, and how they think a translator into one of the Western languages would have to cope with this.
Thanks.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael Malone has left a new comment on your post "Bouchercon 2009: Quiz the translators":

Should the translator be translating into their native language? Or vice versa?


Michael, the traditional article of faith is that a translator ought to translate into his or her native language, but I read some radical thoughts on the subject last night. This indeed would make an interesting question for all the panelists. Thanks.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Uriah Robinson has left a new comment on your post "Bouchercon 2009: Quiz the translators":

Do the translators like to begin a series or would they have no qualms about taking over in the middle form another translator?


Uriah, thanks for taking the time to post a comment amid your elation over Geelong's victory.

That's a good question. I know that Sian Reynolds began translating Fred Vargas when a former colleague of hers who had been translating the books could not continue to do so, because of academic commitments -- a literary equivalent of Lou Gehrig filling in for Wally Pipp, perhaps.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, the desirability of having a single translator work on a series is one good question. Another good one is what a translator's responsibility is upon finding clunky prose in an original text, assuming the translator is working for a general reading audience, as opposed to carrying out a scholarly translation of an ancient text. Is it a translator's task to smooth out such rough edges?

I have asked myself this when I've come upon bad sentences in translated crime novels. Is the bad prose the author's fault? Has the translator done a poor job? Or are certain tropes that may be acceptable in the original language less so in the target language?

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren Eaton has left a new comment on your post "Bouchercon 2009: Quiz the translators":

Do you find it more effective to stay close to the original form when translating or do you try a looser thought-for-thought approach?


Loren: Good question. What is the basic unit of meaning for a translator: The word? The sentence? The overall feeling?

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I would think one factor to consider would be the translation's purpose. Is its audience scholarly or more general and popular? A scholarly translator of an ancient text in a little known language might find it more desirable to translate clunky prose and obtrusive grammatical quirks as literally as possible. A translator of popular literature such as crime fiction would not, one hopes.

I always like to read translators' introductions to new translations of older works. The justifications for a new translation often yield interesting insights. It's not hard to accept the notion that, say, the English required to accurately convey the essence of the original will have changed between, say, 1880 and 1980. Hence, the need for a new translation.

Such a question probably comes up less with popular fiction, but it would be interesting to ask Robert Pepin how early translations of, say, Sherlock Holmes stories, differ from more recent ones.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maxine, there was no new gossip the last time I looked at Steven T. ("Reg")'s blog. I shall try to pass on anything new that I pick up.

I could ask the translators your questions, but I suspect publishers would be better able to answer them. I'd be curious, too, about the TV series. One cable channel here has made a special effort to offer English-subtitled versions of crime series, but the practice is not widespread.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, that's a good idea. I hadn't thought of recording the sessions. Do convention organizers normally arrange to have sich recordings made?

There's another international panel, I think Friday afternoon: Leighton Gage as moderator, Christopher G. Moore, one half of the Michael Stanley team, among others.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Kerrie said...

I did see a comment once about a translated novel blaming it's lack of popularity on the quality of the translation. The publisher/novelist then swapped translators. I just wondered how they would know a translation was bad unless they themselves "proofed it", and then, if they could read it in English, why they didn't pick up the inadequacy of the translation in the first place before it went to publication. A tricky question I think.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's an exceedingly tricky question. I'd try to exercise caution and specify what I meant by a "bad" translation. Do I mean clunky? Inaccurate? Taking excessive liberties? One of the questions I plan to ask the translators is which master do they serve (other than the publisher who pays them)? Is their loyalty to the author? To the original language? To the target language? To the readers? And what do they do when these aims conflict, as when a literal translation would read poorly or have a different connotation in the target laguage.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

How do they go about translating humour? Seems to me that would be almost the toughest challenge, because often it's cultural.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

My question would be similar to Gary's - how do translators deal with slang and idiom when so much crime fiction is colored by it?

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter, I particularly like the questions you pose in the second paragraph of your response to my earlier comment. I'd much like to know what they may say on these points. For the time being, I'm staying with my view that, though some problems facing translators are nigh insuperable, problems in the translation of a novel at least sound in the original are by and down down to the translator. I'll just mention a couple of examples of what seems to me patently bad stuff in not-Steven's translations of Tursten: numerous sentences starting "In a pedagogic way, Irene said..." and the thoroughly mystifying "In a cosmopolitan way Irene lead Jonny across the road." Whatever it was that Tursten, who is acknowledged to be a very good writer, wrote in Swedish, I can't believe a translator could not come up with better than that. In the case of the first, I suspect the original suggested that Irene's tone was didactic, and it would not be hard to express that better and without constantly using the same phrase. The second I really can't even guess at. But it is when we encounter this sort of thing, the stuff that grates, that I think we know bad translation when we see it. Anyway, my appetite is whetted for the fruits of this panel.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, translators occasionally cite humo(u)r as a challenge. I could ask the panelists how they have dealt with it -- and Yrsa about examples from her books.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, here's part of what Sian Reynolds, Fred Vargas' translator, said in the first interview I conducted on this blog:

"In fiction, as already mentioned, I think it has to be dialogue. and particularly such aspects of it as dialect, extreme colloquialism, slang, expletives (of the ‘good grief’ sort) and of course puns and wordplay." (Read the complete interview here.)

Mike Mitchell, who translated Friedrich Glauser’s novels for Bitter Lemon Press, said:

It was very difficult to follow the way the main character switches from local dialect to standard.” (Read the complete interview here .)

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I'd say you're right that the problems in such instances are likely the translator's, especially in popular fiction, there the aim has to be entertainment. This will most often go hand in hand with ease of reading. I had noticed a tendency toward wordiness in some Swedish writers, often in dialogue tags like the ones you pointed out. I wondered if this might be due to a tendency in the Swedish language itself and the way writers use it. Steven (not not-Steven, but Steven) suggested there might be something to this. I plan to follow up that point in Indianapolis. What does a translator do when syntax or diction perfectly acceptable in the home language sounds odd in the target language?

My favorite example is from Dutch, which has the exact same preterit and perfect forms as English, but which often uses the perfect where Engish would use the simple past. This, one crime novel in English by a Dutch writer has one officer says, a propos a suspect, "I wonder if he has done it."

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Peter,

It's an interesting question, isn't it? I tend to favor translations that emphasize the original form (except in the case of idomatic language). Philosopher Paul Helm writes:

what I claim is that there is no such thing as "dynamic equivalence" achievable other than cognitive equivalence, and certainly it is not achievable through paraphrase, however ingenious and skilled the paraphraser may be. Why? Because the response of the reader is via his or her beliefs about what they read, what they take what they read to mean. The impacton the human mind of single words, phrases, and complete sentences, is obviously not physically mechanical, but it comes through the meaning or the perceived meaning, of the words. And so we should stick to the original words, translating or transliterating them as best we can.

September 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Before saying, "Right on, Helm," I'd ask for the nature of the text and of the intended audience.

September 27, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Several of my questions have already been posed by other readers but I'm also interested in the nuts-and-bolts process that precedes a translator sitting down with the book to be translated.

Such as: What is the selection process for a translator? How/why did the publishers choose the panelists for that book (series of books)? Do translators seek work translating particular authors or just any book in their language of expertise, or are they sought out by publishers for these reasons?

September 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sian Reynolds said the first worked with Fred Vargas when academic work prevented Vargas' previous translator from continuing to do so. That translator was a former colleague of Reynolds' and encouraged the publisher to offer her a contract, Reynolds said. Mike Mitchell was asked by Bitter Lemon Press to translate Friedrich Glauser's novels.

In short, I suspect that translators find their work the same way many other workers do: through networks and connections. But that's a good question to ask, and perhaps I'll do so. Thanks.

September 28, 2009  

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