What I learned from translating

My first deep thoughts about translating and the impact a translation can have was when I introduced my child to a book I loved as a tween: Crusade in Jeans by Thea Beckman, a wonderful Dutch author who wrote many exceptional historical fiction novels for tweens and teens.

However, some of her magic was lost in the translation to English. The story still grabbed, but only by the wrist, not the jugular like it should have. So what had gotten lost and how was it lost? Before I answer that, I’d like to give an example of where translations have worked to keep the magic of a good book alive.

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke is one such success story. It was beautifully translated by Anthea Bell and the book sold like hotcakes. A good translation can make or break the success of a book in foreign markets.

Here are her comments on translating, which I whole-heartedly agree with.

What then makes a good translator? Is it someone who is fluent in both languages at a native-speaker level? Or is it someone who thinks like a writer? Or maybe someone who has a deep cultural understanding of the country the book is intended for? I’m leaning toward the last one. Only with a deep cultural understanding can a translator make it seem as if the book was actually written in the language she/he just translated it into.

Culture plays an important part in how well a story will do with a particular audience, especially considering that each culture - even subcultures within cultures - uses language differently or perceives the meaning of certain words differently.

Getting back to Crusade in Jeans, it was translated with the Dutch culture in mind instead of being localized for an American or English speaking audience. What that means in practical terms is that it reads more like a literal translation, rather than a smooth-flowing and suspenseful adventure story.

The warmth and passion, which glows at a different temperature in Holland, didn’t come through; the level hadn’t been adjusted for English.

I wish I could be more concrete in my explanation, but I’d have to translate the whole book for you so you could do a side-by-side reading of both translations. Mind you, I’d love to translate Crusade in Jeans if an American publisher will pay me to do it. It will appeal to a wide middle grade audience, I promise!

What I can do is give a simple illustration of how tricky translating can be.

Take the Dutch word: Betrouwbaar
The most common and literal translation is :      Trustworthy
But in context one would prefer to use :             Reliable
The strength of the word in Dutch is often somewhere in between those two, so you see the challenge.

My own translation work has taught me that language is not static, it is an ever-changing creeper that branches and rambles, chokes off and regrows. It has helped me in my writing to choose words more carefully, to understand the cultural importance of the words I choose.

I’m sure I will explore this issue further in future blog posts.
Stay tuned.