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?

3 comments:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The very best translators are heralded by me!

I do what I can to write about translation - I acknowledge translators, compare them, try to think about the hows and whys of what they do.

All pretty basic stuff, actually. Translation is its own art, if a minor one.

Dwight said...

I pay attention to translators when I have a choice. Given my recent interest in Joseph Roth, for example, I definitely look to see if Michael Hofmann has translated it. Many of the writers I’ve been exploring lately, though, seem to be recently coming to light for English readers. Some examples of these, where there is usually only one translation available, include Bolesław Prus, László Krasznahorkai, Vladislav Vančura, or Bruno Jasieński. Regarding Vančura it’s clear that there was a lot lost in translation and the translator acknowledged that. Still, I’ll take a noble attempt that hints at what’s there over never having read him.

My concern lately has been finding translations of books that have been long out of print—somebody thought them worthy of translating years ago but for some reason they have fallen out of favor. I almost feel guilty posting on these since if someone else is interested in them they aren’t always easy to find. While there seems to be more online alternatives on finding these books, I’m hoping increased interest will spur new editions since several publishers seem to have found a niche in just such markets.

Isabella Kratynski said...

Tom, I'll follow your example and try to acknowledge translators more often. Translation is definitely an art! But I feel ill-equipped to comment on the quality of translation when I don't know the source language and the linguistic choices they've made.

Dwight, I know what you mean -- I've shopped around for translations when reading the Russians (though, shame on me, I rarely remember the translators' names), but with most foreign fiction, you get what you get (I would've read Prus no matter who translated him -- no option).

I wonder if those translations long out of print are similarly out of print in their original language, or is it more to do with what fits with the prevailing trend in English fiction?