Translations

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).

14 Replies to “Translations”

  1. At one point in my life I had the very good fortune of hanging out with a bunch of translating-types in Italy. Most of them did translations from Italian to English. One guy had spent his whole life translating Petrarch’s sonnets through the framework of different styles based on different eras, that is, he translated each sonnet as though it was being done for 20s English, mid-century and then modern audiences. That really blew my mind. It becomes particularly interesting with poetry as imagery and reference are so very socially specific.

    I ended up teaching myself to read Italian by reading an Italian printing of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen alongside my english version. That was likewise a very interesting exercise.

    To carry on with my random chatter… I was once told that the early translations of Dostoevsky are infact very poor and falsely contribute to the “dull” rep that his writings have in some circles.

  2. At one point in my life I had the very good fortune of hanging out with a bunch of translating-types in Italy. Most of them did translations from Italian to English. One guy had spent his whole life translating Petrarch’s sonnets through the framework of different styles based on different eras, that is, he translated each sonnet as though it was being done for 20s English, mid-century and then modern audiences. That really blew my mind. It becomes particularly interesting with poetry as imagery and reference are so very socially specific.

    I ended up teaching myself to read Italian by reading an Italian printing of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen alongside my english version. That was likewise a very interesting exercise.

    To carry on with my random chatter… I was once told that the early translations of Dostoevsky are infact very poor and falsely contribute to the “dull” rep that his writings have in some circles.

  3. Hey, a fellow Steve! Glad you liked the article. Les gommes was published by Grove Press in 1964 in a Richard Howard translation. It’s endlessly fascinating to compare originals with translations (and can be disillusioning as well — I lost a lot of respect for Gregory Rabassa when I did that with Cortazar’s Rayuela).

    Emira: Try the new Pevear/Volkonsky translations!

  4. Hey, a fellow Steve! Glad you liked the article. Les gommes was published by Grove Press in 1964 in a Richard Howard translation. It’s endlessly fascinating to compare originals with translations (and can be disillusioning as well — I lost a lot of respect for Gregory Rabassa when I did that with Cortazar’s Rayuela).

    Emira: Try the new Pevear/Volkonsky translations!

  5. Wow, do I ever disagree with you on the Rubin/Birnbaum. The Birnbaum strikes me as so clunky — absolutely not what I expect from Murakami. I feel like I’d have to spend an extra two minutes just trying to parse the sentence, “Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossinis La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio.”

    Also, regarding Emira’s comments on Dostoevsky. I only recently read “The Karamazov Brothers” (so it’s titled for the translation by Ignat Avsey that I read) in which the translator freely admits (s)he’s translating the style rather than the words and grammar. I don’t know what other people read, but this translation is actually really funny and I found myself giggling aloud at parts of the story.

  6. Wow, do I ever disagree with you on the Rubin/Birnbaum. The Birnbaum strikes me as so clunky — absolutely not what I expect from Murakami. I feel like I’d have to spend an extra two minutes just trying to parse the sentence, “Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossinis La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio.”

    Also, regarding Emira’s comments on Dostoevsky. I only recently read “The Karamazov Brothers” (so it’s titled for the translation by Ignat Avsey that I read) in which the translator freely admits (s)he’s translating the style rather than the words and grammar. I don’t know what other people read, but this translation is actually really funny and I found myself giggling aloud at parts of the story.

  7. Ahh…but read that second paragraph! The first is so mundane. In the second, we immediately get a glimpse of the narrator’s internal monologue, as opposed to simply he not wanting to answer the phone. It’s more definite that he won’t. Plus, crescendo is so much more evocative a term than musical climax. Also, back to the first paragraph, I really didn’t like that he translated the piece’s title. I mean, it’s always ‘Eine Kleine Nachte Musik’ (sp?), not ‘A little night music’. Generally, it seems to me that classical compositions’ titles aren’t translated in every day speech. Someone much more versed in classical music should step in now and tell me I’m wrong, but that’s my gut feeling about it.
    Now I need to go and read TW-UBC again to see….

  8. Ahh…but read that second paragraph! The first is so mundane. In the second, we immediately get a glimpse of the narrator’s internal monologue, as opposed to simply he not wanting to answer the phone. It’s more definite that he won’t. Plus, crescendo is so much more evocative a term than musical climax. Also, back to the first paragraph, I really didn’t like that he translated the piece’s title. I mean, it’s always ‘Eine Kleine Nachte Musik’ (sp?), not ‘A little night music’. Generally, it seems to me that classical compositions’ titles aren’t translated in every day speech. Someone much more versed in classical music should step in now and tell me I’m wrong, but that’s my gut feeling about it.
    Now I need to go and read TW-UBC again to see….

  9. Yeah, but I *hate* when people say “coming to a crescendo” instead of “coming to a climax (or other suitable climax synonym)”! A crescendo is a gradual increase in volume, and is not at all synonymous with a peak or crucial moment — it’s an ebb and flow sort of thing, and thus an entirely different matter. Ergh.

    On that alone, I’d ditch Birnbaum for Rubin. 🙂

  10. Yeah, but I *hate* when people say “coming to a crescendo” instead of “coming to a climax (or other suitable climax synonym)”! A crescendo is a gradual increase in volume, and is not at all synonymous with a peak or crucial moment — it’s an ebb and flow sort of thing, and thus an entirely different matter. Ergh.

    On that alone, I’d ditch Birnbaum for Rubin. 🙂

  11. Wow. I had no idea. All my life (well, living memory thereof), I’ve equated the two as synonymous. In that case, I retract my support for Birnbaum on the ground of erronous use of the english language. What’s the musical/italian word for climax then?

  12. Wow. I had no idea. All my life (well, living memory thereof), I’ve equated the two as synonymous. In that case, I retract my support for Birnbaum on the ground of erronous use of the english language. What’s the musical/italian word for climax then?

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