Translating Cultures

It has occurred to me in recent days that I read a lot of translated fiction from all across the world. My bookshelf is full of works from China, Japan, Korea, Russia, Germany, Greece and Italy, and much of the time, they are some of the most treasured books in my collection. However, I have often wondered if I take the ability to read all of those wonderful stories in English for granted.

NeverEndingStory-ReprintSometimes, I can tell right away that the work is translated, as with my copy of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, translated by Ralph Manheim. Manheim’s translation feels strict, translated in the literal, and while I could still enjoy the story, I could only imagine at times that the charm and wonder of the original German might not have been more pronounced.

I’ve read several articles in the past from Ken Liu, the foremost translator of speculative and science fiction. Mr. Liu has won multiple awards for translation, including the Nebula and Hugo award, and has some very illuminating things to say about his art:

Translation is not simply a linguistic act, but a cultural performance. What the translator must do is to re-create a world rooted in the assumptions of one culture for readers coming at the work with the assumptions of another. The closer these assumptions are to each other, the easier the translator’s job.

One of the examples he gave was in translating Chinese science fiction for an Western audience, he often encounters the blockade of a Western reader wanting a story from the East to further affirm their preconceptions of that culture. This is how stereotypes are born, and as time goes on, they become even harder to break. (Just as an example, there are still those that use “oriental” instead of “Asian” to describe people.)

cover2Back in college, I remember reading The Tale of Genji. As it happened, my classes for that semester had required me to read two separate translations of the work, and it was then that I could really see the difference achieved between translators, and the methodology they brought to the project. Seidensticker, the go-to translation for Genji for many years, is dry and literal, using old-fashioned language and making no adjustments for an audience that may not understand ancient Japanese court culture at all. 41OkfpyvH3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_However, the Tyler translation focuses more on the spirit of the work coming through, and alters names to make it easier for readers to follow along (this might seem strange, but the 1,600 page book has no actual mention of the main character’s real name in the original Japanese). As a reader, even though I knew the Seidensticker translation was closer to the “truth” of what Murasaki Shikibu wrote on the page, I felt more compelled by the Tyler translation, which I think translated the culture of the work more aptly.

And this is the largest concern in translation. What do you translate? Some works (like The Thousand Nights and One Night, or the Arabian Nights), are abridged heavily in order to be consumed by a greater audience in its new language. Some are censored. Stylistically, the translator must also decide whether a work should focus on the “soul” of the work, or the literal “face” of the work. It is not one-size-fits-all. Purpose is as important as method in translation.

Recently, I learned about a website translation company called Smartling, which made me wonder about the increased imperative for translation, not just in fiction, but for all things worldwide. And then I remembered those books, and had to wonder: if I was going to have my favorite English work translated, what would be the most important aspect I’d want to see retained in the new language’s edition?

81148It took a while to think about. For one, the majority of my favorite books (Tale of Genji, Story of the Stone) are actually translated from a different language already. But then I thought of some of my favorite fantasy series, like the Pit Dragon Chronicles series by Jane Yolen, or First Law by Joe Abercrombie.

In both of these cases, I think I’d want the spirit of the work maintained over anything else. Direct translation might not work effectively enough to get the grit and grim of Abercrombie’s writing, or the fear and determination of Yolen’s characters across. I would want, as Ken Liu postulated, for the translation to serve as a lens into the culture it originated from, but not as a lens designed to further indoctrinate a certain way of thought. I read fiction to grow, and consider new ways of thought and emotion, and I think any translation should honor those unique voices they serve.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

If you’d like to read more translation vs. translation in action, please follow Faith Mudge’s Sharazad Project. I am writing a companion series that serves to illustrate the differences in the text, as we are reading two separate translators.

8 thoughts on “Translating Cultures

  1. You have written on a very interesting topic, seemingly one with many slippery slopes. It would be so easy for personal biases or interpretations to enter, even unintentional. This applies to non-fictional translating also. I know an American woman who has lived in Mexico for many (more than 30) years. She does translating into English of medical articles that are written in Spanish, and she said people have told her that her services are in great demand because she has the ability to change into the other language the real meaning and not just the words. She also said this does not go the other way – English to Spanish!
    I recently had a conversation about how impossible it seems to translate a poem into another language, given that poems have cadence, innuendo, rhyming, etc.
    Once when teaching (?) English to kindergarten age children here in Mexico, I bought a coloring book that had a picture with the caption written in Spanish at the top and English at the bottom. The picture I remember was a little boy happily eating an ice cream cone. The Spanish said, “Carlos chupa” and the English said “Carlos sucks.”
    I felt really bad for Carlos!


  2. It’s not just blogger. WordPress just ate my comment and me.
    Wordpress is like having to go to an old-style printing press to say anything.

    Anyway, I said something insightful about spirit, but I don’t feel like writing it again.


  3. This is such an interesting subject – recently I was talking to someone about translating songs and poems – often you’ll see the literal translation on the same page and then a new poetic translation. But you could give 10 different translators the same piece and end up with 10 totally new and different pieces. I think that’s wonderful. But personally I would want to catch the soul and feeling of the original piece without labouring too much over the exact wordings. Not sure about changing the names though to make them easier for Western audiences.
    Thanks for dropping by my page earlier Alex – I’m looking forward to reading more of your work during the A to Z challenge if I can get organised enough for it 🙂

    Fil’s Place – Old songs and Memories


  4. The topic of translation is a fascinating one to me, Alex–more so because I can recall repeated occasions, whether in classes, or book clubs, or simply from editorial edits of my own writing, where the reader(s) had multiple interpretations of the same passage all going directly from author to reader in the original language. It’s a mind boggling concept that perhaps we may regularly misinterpret what an author is trying to communicate, even without the added challenge of another language to translate from.


  5. This is a very interesting topic.

    As a trilingual person writing stories in non-native English language I realize how difficult it would be to to translate my own work into other languages I speak fluently (Russian, Latvian).

    Fiction is special in this regard. It follows inner author’s workings and subtleties of the mind and quiet rules of the environment the author was a part of, AND author’s imagination. That’s a lot more different than plain communicating between cultures/languages, which isn’t easy at all once it goes deep.

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