It has been a life goal of mine to read and understand a classic Russian novel. I have picked up and put down Crime and Punishment more times than I can count; I approached Tolstoy with gusto but then backed away slowly. I was a third of the way through The Brothers Karamazov when my husband told me, “you know, so-and-so said that the new translation is so much better than that one”. He waited two hundred and forty pages to tell me this?!
I put Dostoyevsky down and started googling (always a bad idea). I found that there were indeed scholars who said that the newer translation was better than the classic translation I was reading. But other internet scholars said the exact opposite.
It then occurred to me that I wouldn’t know a good translation from a bad if it came up and … misconjugated itself?? So what does it matter if I was reading the “bad” translation? I wouldn’t really know unless I read the whole thing again in a different translation and, frankly,
I picked up my book, kept reading and felt damn proud of myself when I finished it five months later, knowing I’d never have to read it again to compare translations.
In my quest to read books from around the world, I’m finding that language can be translated, but culture can not. Language is only a small inch of the gulf that lays between an intended audience and those reading a translation, although a great deal of emphasis seems to be set on it. When you read a book that’s been translated from another language and culture, you can no longer trust your intuition because subtlety in story-telling relies on a shared culture. More than language, it is cultural nuance and history that keeps a translated book slightly out of reach.
Names, fashion, even colors are significant in different ways depending on what culture you’re from. If I read a book from a Middle Eastern country and the author tells me a woman is wearing a hajib, I am not familiar enough with the nuance of Middle Eastern customs to know if the author is just describing what she looks like, or signifying something important. In my quest to read more international books, I’m finding a lot of such issues that keep me wondering if I’m missing something important that would be obvious to a native reader, things like history, pop culture and names.
The name of a character is important; a character either lives up to their name or succeeds in spite of it. Beautiful girls have beautiful names and fat guys with pimples are named Ignatius. That’s obvious. Unless of course you’re reading a translated book. The Shadow of the Wind, originally published in Spain, is an all time favorite of mine. I read the book at least twice and then later, because I loved the story so much, listened to the audiobook. It always bothered me when I read it how the protagonist’s love interest, who was supposed to be a 16 year old girl in beauty’s first bloom, was called Bea. Such a plain and geriatric name for someone who is supposed to be the object of adolescent desire. It wasn’t until I listened to the audiobook that I learned Bea is not pronounced [Bee] in Spanish but rather a much more sultry [Bay-uh]. To the intended audience her name matched her beauty, it is only in translation that the name brings to mind The Golden Girls. Oops. Sometimes, though, it isn’t just about something you know being used in a different way, sometimes, you just don’t know enough to begin with.
For example, 6 months ago, the sum total of my knowledge of South America was this: Evita comes from Argentina and Brazil is big, likes soccer and speaks Portuguese. I’m sure at some point in school I learned where the Rainforests stretch and where the Andes lay, but until my reading excursion to Pantagonia last year, I didn’t have anything to attach that knowledge to. I was a completely blank ignorant canvas. Until I learned the setting, my mind had no where for the stories to play out. The bigger story of political upheaval in My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain and Something Fierce had to be put on hold until I sorted out how Bolivia fit in to Peru and Chile. Only then did stories of border crossings and warring dictators have any sort of context. Granted, geography did not teach me South American politics; I still have a hell of a lot of reading to do to even start understanding that labyrinth. Culture can’t always be learned, however, there comes a point, where you just have to be from a place to understand it’s fiction.
For instance, I just finished the book, The Story of My Teeth by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli. As you’d expect from a book with such a title, it was weird. I could tell I was missing something big, but I kept reading because I wanted to know what happens to that strange little man. I took little away from the story until I saw the additional chapter written by the translator. The particular translator for this book included a timeline of not only the main character’s life, but also important historical and pop culture happenings at the same time. Come to find out, the book was riddled with Mexican allusions to history, politics, movies and music and every single one of them went straight over my head! The book was originally written as a serial publication to factory workers. The workers recorded their book club meetings and sent their thoughts back to the author who adjusted the story multiple times before releasing the final edition. This was a living book breathed to life by factory workers in the suburbs of Mexico City. While it was translated to share with English speakers, it was never really intended for us.
I do not lose sleep wondering if I read the best translation of Dostoyevsky or not. A mono-linguistic, non-academic, like myself, will never really be able to experience a book in translation to it’s fullest. There’s always a piece of it that was never truly intended for me and that’s ok. Great stories come through anyway and even if the picture in my mind is out of focus from the one the author originally painted, I’ve still been given a glimpse of something I otherwise wouldn’t have known of.
The only thing that does keep me awake at night is translated books I didn’t like: was that a really bad translation of a good book? Or a good translation of a really bad book?