Ed Teja, the author of the short story Imitating Art, which I recently translated, writes on his blog:
I’m having fun working with translators, getting stories out in various languages. Part of the fun is the various people you get to interact with. A woman in Izmir is translating a short story into Turkish and another woman is translating that story into Romanian. One of the novels (…) is already available in Spanish (in print and ebook). Soon it will be available in Italian and French, and by the end of the year, in Portuguese.
The questions the translators have about the English used (some of the colloquial expressions and puns don’t translate well and have to be written fresh in the new language to make sense) and about the places and people give me reason to rethink what I’ve written. How could it be clearer? Did I miss a chance to do something really interesting here? I’m not going to change anything in the stories now, but it’s great food for thought when writing the next one.
The Romanian translator he’s talking about is me and I asked him why one of the characters, a local Thai girl, who worked in a bar, sometimes spoke good, natural English, and some other times the expected broken English. I thought this was some inconsistency on his part, but he said this was a cultural aspect which he had noticed during his stay in Thailand. Apparently, the locals pick up certain (possibly complex) speech patterns from the tourists, but at the same time make grammar mistakes in simpler, basic structures.
I thought this was very interesting and I liked the fact that the translators’ questions have a considerable impact on the writer, enough to make him see things from a different perspective. After all, translators are maybe the most vigilant and critical readers of the text they are about to translate because, in their turn, they must render it as faithfully and, at the same time, as naturally as possible in the target language. That’s quite a difficult task!
Not to mention those cases when the original is very difficult, full of metaphors, literary or artistic references, alliterations, rhymes and even invented words. This kind of text is likely to get a different interpretation with each new reader. So, how should the translator approach it or try to make sense of it so as to keep its specificity and impact in the target language, without first discussing it with the author? To me, translating a difficult text is like a ride in a Ferris wheel! Sometimes I am so excited about a pun I’ve managed to render in a clever way, that I feel like walking on cloud number nine; but some other times, I spend maybe hours thinking about the right way of translating a sentence, that eventually it stops making any sense to me and I feel stuck.
This is why direct communication between the writer and the translator can really help the translation process. In my opinion, this is the best way of translating a book, provided the author is still available (i.e. alive!). I know this is a common practice in many countries and I hope it will become a worldwide standard in the industry.
I even read comments of some authors about their translators, such as David Lodge, in the introduction to Deaf Sentence, who thanked his translator and sort of apologised for the trouble he may have caused :), or Isabel Allende, who speaks so nicely about her translator into English on her blog). Here’s what Andrei Makine said about translators, whom he appreciates for being humble despite their extraordinary difficult work:
They see the nuances and interpret things that you, as a writer, just don’t see sometimes. One of my translators called me and asked me: “In your text, there’s a book by the window. Which side of the window: on the outside or on the inside?” I didn’t know what to say because I had never thought of this.