Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Translated books

The winners of this year's Best Translated Book Award were announced last Friday, with the fiction award going to Wiesław Myśliwski's Stone Upon Stone, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston.

Not having read any of the shortlisted titles, I was faintly rooting for New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani and translated from the Italian by Judith Landry, because I actually had a copy of it and was planning to read it soon (in fact, I'm reading it now). My second choice would've been In Red, by Magdalena Tulli and translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, because I've had it on my shopping list since last September.

So now I'm looking for a copy of Stone Upon Stone, only in Polish (Kamień na kamieniu), cuz it strikes me as something my mother might be interested in reading. (Only it's not so easy to find and it will not be done in time for Mother's Day.)

Here's something to chew on: it's not a new book. The novel was published in Polish in 1984. There was a movie in 1995. The English translation was published December 2010. That's a long time for a book to find an audience beyond the speakers of its original language.

I'll add a word of general praise for Bill Johnston, translator of the winning book and one of the other finalists (see above). This winter I listened to his translation of Stanisław Lem's Solaris — "the definitive edition" — and it was unputdownable (something I never thought I'd say about an audiobook). The credit for this is in part owing to the stunning source material, as well as to the impeccable narration (Allessandro Juliani). This audio experience was vastly superior to that of reading the book (and that's another thing I never thought I'd say with regard to an audiobook) — some time ago I read an English version that was translated via French. All this to say: you're doing a great job, Mr Johnston.

Note, however, that the above-mentioned award is for the best translated book. This is not synonymous with "best translation." It might help to think of it as the best book newly brought to the attention of English readers, which is a collaboration between publisher and translator and dependant on the quality of the source material. Maybe?

I read a healthy amount of translated fiction. Over the last year or so, the predominant source languages have been French and Polish — ironically languages that I am capable of reading in the original (given time, patience, and a dictionary, and acknowledging that they will be read at the expense of any subtlety and nuance in the language).

I detect occasional hiccups in phrasing. These can generally be chalked up to the fact that the books were written in another era (for example, Simenon books of the 30s), or they are "historical fiction" and describing another era (for example, contemporary Krajewski noirs, set in the 30s and prior)— they are not of this millennium.

The very best translators are, of course, absolutely invisible. I don't notice them, and they generally go unheralded.

How about you: do you pay any heed to who translates the foreign fiction you read? (Really, barring novels by the Tolstoys of the world, how often do you get to choose whose translation you're going to read?) Are you concerned about what's lost in translation?
Post a Comment