Read Wendy Lesser’s article on translations. It features a comparison of the Rubin translation of Wind-up Bird Chronicles (the novel) & Birnbaum translation (from The Elephant Vanishes). Seeing the two paragraphs side by side is amazing. Here is the Rubin translation:

“When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

“I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax.”

And here is the Birnbaum translation of the same:

“I’m in the kitchen cooking spaghetti when the woman calls. Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio. Perfect spaghetti-cooking music.

“I hear the telephone ring but tell myself, Ignore it. Let the spaghetti finish cooking. It’s almost done, and besides, Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra are coming to a crescendo.”

I prefer the Birnbaum translation much more. Why? The present tense used gives the narrator an air of cool detachment that seems so necessary in the story.

I’ve also thought long about translations. When in grade 13, I wrote a paper comparing three different translations of Yevgeni Zamyatin’s We (one of those twentieth-century dystopian Russian novels), arguing that each one, while telling the identical story, can produce vastly different imagery, themes, and emotional relationships with the plot (if I recall, I preferred the Penguin Classics version the most, if you’re interested). Translating a novel is in some ways like adapting a book for film, or television. You must interpret the author’s intended meaning, and find an equivalent expression in your own language. Spike Jonze’ upcoming film is called Adaptation, which I believe is about someone trying to adapt Susan Orlean‘s The Orchard Thief. Perhaps this film, although most likely exaggerated, will show some of the method in finding the equivalent idioms for a new language (obviously, there is a difference when comparing written Japanese vs. written English, and written language vs. visual language—abstract, people).

Reading the article (which I discovered at Language Hat, incidentally), reminded me of a project I started in highschool which led to my grade 13 paper: I was reading Les Misérables in french, and decided to read the english version I had alongside it. Laziness set in and I stopped making notes of comparison about halfway through. But perhaps I should do this again—take advantage of the fact I can read in both languages, and see if I can

  1. suss out the translator’s voice
  2. examine idiom choice for relevancy (historic vs. contemporary? etc)
  3. find lost meaning, or new meaning
  4. ‘significant’ changes in text, to convey meaning, rather than simply translating content

I’m amazed I can recall these things I wanted to look for. Perhaps I should do this, but with something a little shorter? I’ve been thinking of re-reading Les Gommes, by Alain Robbe-Grillet; I don’t know if there’s an english translation, but I would hope so—It’s a fantastic book, a true classic of the nouveau roman. If I do re-read, and find an english version, I’ll post notes here (I’d be interested to see what they title the english version. Even just that could affect the interpretation of the translation).