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5 January 2009

Found in Translation

I'm reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen at the moment and finding it very entertaining--it even justifies the damage its 650 pages are probably doing to my back as I lug it around with me (the weight was probably the main reason I hadn't bought it before now--only Pynchon (and, more rarely, exceptional others) are allowed to give me back ache).

Then I got to page 74 and a strong sense of déjà vu swept over me--one sentence in particular was very familiar: "Enid enunciated from the kitchen doorway, 'Dr Hedgpeth says you should only sit in high, straight-backed chairs'." Language might be infinitely creative but that was a sentence I was unlikely to forget I had read, thanks to its quirkiness. The following paragraph contained plenty of description of a range of different types of chair in which the father of the very strange family in The Corrections could potentially sit.

It was a passage I had once had to translate into Italian, of course. While my first year "translation from Italian" course was marvellous with the lovely, jolly Prof. KP who believed in "translation for the soul, not for the tripos," my "translation into Italian" tutor in the second year didn't have quite the same inspirational effect on me, especially once we had reached the point in the year when I realised that I was going to switch into the linguistics tripos and my language skills were thus about to rapidly deteriorate so why bother to muster a pretence of fluency (well, for the First, obviously, although thanks to a certain tutor who only gave me a mid 2:1 on one paper, my average was screwed and I was doomed to 2:1 city that year).

I still have most of my university work on my computer, which is sometimes amusing. I panicked today as I thought I'd deleted it in favour of yet more choons in one of my mad hard drive purges, but actually I'd just moved them all to the second hard drive on my laptop (why Sony think it's a good idea to split your hard drive into two is beyond me) and sure enough, there it was!

Dalla porta della cucina, Enid proclamò: “Dott. Hedgpeth dice che tu dovresti sederti nelle sedie agli schienali alti e verticali."

Ugh, what an awful translation. In fact the whole lot was rubbish; The Corrections is a very funny novel as well as being sweet, charming and moving and my translation is absolutely dire--way too literal and just completely flat. I used to get very high marks for my "beautiful" translations from French and Italian into English but struggled with the reverse, mainly because a vocabulary failure can really screw up your wonderful translation when you have to paraphrase. Without a dictionary, it's hard enough to translate the meaning, let alone the tone, the style and the voice of the piece (especially if you're an ignoramus like me and when, in an exam, you have a piece to translate by an "A. Clarke" which is about a strange computer called HAL and you haven't got a clue what's going on). 

What's the Italian for a ladder-backed chair (what is a ladder-backed chair)? What's the Italian for colostomy? For pacemaker? For Khmer? All of these came up in this extract. I remember in an exam in the first year an Italian word came up and I had no clue what it meant so I had to try to guess based on context (the extract was from some weird, post-modernist Italian tome). I think I put down canoe, which seemed to make sense; the real meaning was something like vest or jacket.

Dictionary-less translation thus struck me as pretty pointless because if you were a translator you would have a dictionary while you translated because you would get fired if you translated the word for jacket with the word for canoe. Anyone--or any bot--can do a quick word look-up to give a rough idea of the meaning of a piece but the skill of a good translation lies in the crafting of words into sentences, the ingesting of the writer's voice and the avoidance of translation loss.

That being said, the only ever assignment on which I got a starred first at Cambridge was on a translation into English of a passage from Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu for which I was awarded a 90, which is a score so rare in Cambridge, particularly in April of one's first year, that I was immensely proud, especially as I hadn't been convinced that my translation was that good. I was allowed to use a dictionary and--being Proust--the one side of A4 that was the extract probably contained only one sentence, along with about 6 semi-colons and 45 commas.


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