It still blows me away after all these years that the American publishers of The Harry Potter books decided to have them “translated” from British to American. In fact they were so concerned that people wouldn’t “get” the books that they changed the name of the first book from Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone. This in spite of the fact that the whole book revolves around the item used in alchemy called a Philosopher’s stone, known for its ability to turn lead to gold and being a key ingredient in the elixir of life that grants the user immortality.
To my mind that is an example of translation at its worst. Instead of doing the best possible job of communicating to a new audience the original work and the culture it represents, the work has been homogenised into sounding just like everything else its audience consumes. Readers of the book will get the impression that the people being represented in the book speak just like them – which is not true.
Translation is an incredibly difficult task especially when you are attempting to deal with literature. You can’t just take the words from the other language and change them to the equivalent in your own because you might misconstrue the whole meaning or change the flavour of the book. The Harry Potter example isn’t even translation, it’s just changing the words because you want to with no thought to how it effects the story.
In my one attempt at translation, when interviewing Yasmina Kahdra, I discovered just how difficult it could be. I first had to translate all my questions from English to French and then translate his answers into English. I was able to get away with it only because I used Google’s literal translation device and know enough French to know when Google was making a mess of things. Even then there was one question that got lost in translation: I garbled the question too much and he misunderstood what I had asked.
The most difficult part of translation is the fact that expressions may mean one thing literally, but another all together when used in their appropriate manner. For example, think of the expression “kick the bucket” in reference to someone dying. You couldn’t translate that word for word and expect it to mean the same thing to a foreign reader as it did to us. You have to find a way of saying the same thing in their language and maintain the slang connotations of the expression. Using something formal like “he’s passed over” instead of “kick the bucket” would change the character of the person who used the line in the first place.
I know I didn’t do a perfect job of translating his answers into English and someday I’d like to pass his answers along to someone who is fluent in French and compare the results, but I also think I did a pretty good job of preserving who and what Yasmina Khadra is and what he had to say for himself.
Today, probably more than any other time, it is so important that we understand and respect the things that make us distinct. People feel so threatened by what they don’t know, perhaps if they had the opportunity to see that differences aren’t a bad thing, they wouldn’t be so afraid any more.
The easiest way to get to know a people is to read their stories. The books, the poetry, the short stories, and the traditional stories of a people will tell you so much more about them than any history book or newspaper could hope to tell you. In order to do that, you need to have access to a really good translator service.
Thankfully the Internet is home to an amazing site, Words Without Borders, which does just that. Each month they publish a free online magazine containing stories from around the world that have been translated into English. In this month’s issue (and I confess this is what caught my attention) they feature a story by the earlier mentioned Yasmina Khadra in an edition devoted to stories from Africa.
I’ve no way of knowing how technically good or bad the translation of that story was, but it sounded as good as any of the published books of Khadra’s I have read. Looking over the lists of people involved with the site, and their translation and literary skills, I’d have to say my instinctual reaction of “wow this sounds good” is substantiated by the credentials and abilities of the people associated with the site.
Saying I was impressed with the site is putting it mildly. The proper expression would be over awed. In my opinion it is one of the best uses I’ve seen the Internet put to in terms of information exchange and education. People may talk of the Web bringing people together in terms of understanding and respect, but this is one of the few instances where I have seen this actually happen.
I haven’t had the leisure yet to explore “Words Without Borders” to the fullest yet, but the wonderful thing is I know where it is and, like a library, its collection will always be available to be checked out and enjoyed. You are able to access past issues of the magazine from the site, get a subscription so its delivered to your inbox every month, or you can just drop by and pick out something to read.
“Words Without Borders” is an example of how to celebrate the diversity of the world and make differences – something to be cherished instead of feared. Anyone who has any interest in world literature, or even just finding out more about the rest of the world, should be spending a lot of time at this site.