Sunday, 8 September 2013

Lost in translation

This girl here tried reading "Wuthering heights" in German, and wrote about it.

"...What does annoy me (and I’ve noticed this in other novels and films), is when there is a direct translation and the translator will take it upon themselves to use the term they feel is more proper.
Some examples from Sturmhöhe:
1.  In the original, after Isabella accuses Cathy of, “… and desire no one to be loved but yourself!”
Cathy retorts with, “You are an impertinent little monkey!”
The translator changed that line to: ” Du bit ein unverschamtes kleines Balg!”  (You are an imperinent little brat)
This may not seem like a major thing, but writers painstakingly choose their words.  Every word, not only possesses a specific meaning, but conveys a different feeling.
2. In another case, Nelly visits young Hareton.    After hearing him sputter colorful language, she asks,  “Who has taught you those fine words, my barn?”
The translator changed the endearment to, “mein Kind”.  (my child)
Obviously they thought that “my barn” is a rather strange term to be used for affection.  And it is.  But Emily Bronte chose it.  Thus, I can only assume that it was an endearment used in the Yorkshires..."

"Consider the famous ending:
“I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
“Ich verweilte ein wenig bei ihnen unter diesem sanften Himmel, sah die Nachtfalter zwischen Heidekraut und  Glockenblumen umherfliegen, lauschte, wie der Wind leicht durch das Gras stirch, und wunderte mich darüber, daß jemand sich einbilden könne, es gäbe etwas in der Welt, was den letzen Schlummer deer Schläfer in diesem stillen Stückchen Erde stören könnte.”
literal translation:  “I lingered a little by them under that gentle sky, saw the moths between heath and bell flower flying around, eavesdropped, as the wind lightly through the grass crossed, and wondered me about it, that anybody self imagine could, there were something in the world, what the last slumber the sleepers in this silent bit earth disturb could.”
Due to the rules of the German language, after the first verb (which is placed in the second spot of the sentence), all remaining verbs must be placed at the end.  Which is why this piece ends as it does.   And closing the novel with “in this silent bit earth disturb could” is hardly as beautiful and poetic as, “for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”"

That reminds me of my impression when I picked up the Norwegian translation of "Lolita". Bad translator? I think not. One can say right from the beginning that there's no perfect "Lolita" translation, because all the wordplay and puns are lost. Once translated, "Lolita" is stripped off its beauty and magic. That's 1 thing. When it's translated into Norwegian, another problem to face is that Norwegian, objectively speaking, is a boring language with a small vocabulary and very limited number of words, especially adjectives (which is also acknowledged by my Norwegian friends). The book, as a result, becomes much simplified.

Or that time when I found out that "丰乳肥臀" by Mo Yan, or "Phong nhũ phì đồn" in Vietnamese, became "Big breasts and wide hips" in English and "Store bryster og brede hofter" in Norwegian.

Or when I realised that "Invincible Asia" in a youtube video in fact meant "東方不敗" or "Đông Phương Bất Bại".

Or when I saw the translations of these lines from "Truyện Kiều":
"Trăm năm trong cõi người ta,
Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau.
Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu,
Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng.
Lạ gì bỉ sắc tư phong,
Trời xanh quen thói má hồng đánh ghen."
Different versions:
a) "Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky."
b) "As evidenced by centuries of human existence
Destiny and genius are apt to feud
Having endured an upheaval
The sights observed must wrench one's heart
'Tis no surprise to find the bad and good in pairs
So a maiden blessed by beauty is likewise cursed by envy."
c) "Centuries of human existence,
Prodigy and fate intertwined in conflicts,
Mulberry fields turned into open sea,
Enough's been seen to melt the heart.
Little wonder that beauty begets misery,
For Blue Heaven's jealous of exquisite glamour!"
d) "What tragedies take place
within each circling space of years!
‘Rich in good looks’ appears
to mean poor luck and tears of woe;
which may sound strange, I know,
but is not really so, I swear,
since Heaven everywhere
seems jealous of the fair of face."
e) "Were full five-score the years allotted to born man,
How oft his qualities might yield within that span to fate forlorn!
In time the mulberry reclaims the sunk sea-bourn,
And what the gliding eye may first find fair weighs mournful on the heart.
Uncanny? Nay—lack ever proved glut's counterpart,
And mindful are the gods on rosy cheeks to dart celestial spite…"

Then I think about what is lost when one translates the works in English by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, J. D. Salinger, Emily Bronte..., which I read in the original language. Especially when the language becomes difficult like in "Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce and "A clockwork orange" by Anthony Burgess. And the works in Vietnamese of course. Phạm Thị Hoài isn't Phạm Thị Hoài in another language. Translating Bùi Giáng is impossible. 

Then I start to think about how much has been lost when I can't read in the original language the works by Lev Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, Patrick Sueskind, Albert Camus, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Milan Kundera, Gustave Flaubert, Mikhail Bulgakov... 

Don't misunderstand. I do not mean I'm disappointed. I'm aware that no 2 languages are exactly the same and lots of things are lost in translation and translators do the best they can (which I appreciate very much). There are only good and bad translations, not perfect ones. Everyone knows that. What I'm saying isn't new. 
All I'm thinking about at the moment is how much has been lost when I can't read the originals. 
If only, if only... 

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