Translators: It's not you, it's the author!

Yesterday I had a pleasant surprise: the book I translated (English>Hebrew) last summer, called The Last Summer, has been published, and I got two free copies in the mail! Since most of my work is not in the field of fiction, and I am not used to seeing my name on the title page, it was really neat. I was tickled pink.

Leafing through the book, I was reminded of the tricky bits. The unclear sentences, the glaring grammatical errors. The things that annoyed me as I was working and made me wonder whether the novel had been edited at all, and if so, why had the editor done such a shoddy job.

A few small examples:
1. "She looked over his shoulder, straight past his head, but still he caught the dot in her eye." – Excuse me? What dot?

2. " Riley had her sock feet on the kitchen table…" – Yes, we do understand that she was wearing socks (as opposed to being barefoot or having shoes on) – but that doesn't make it good English.

3. "When she felt joy, Alice stayed small and to the edges."
- I know there's such a thing as poetic license, but... This simply does not strike me as good writing.

4. "I'm having lots of dreams." [Says Riley, who is running a temperature.] "Nice ones?" "Some. All kinds. I don't think I could divide out nice." – Don't tell me this is good English.

3. "She gave him/her a look." – Perfectly legitimate expression. Except when it's overused, and appears without enough context, so there's no way of telling what kind of look it was!

And these examples are mild ones, compared to the more baffling expressions my colleagues have been coping with!

More recently, I was helping out Daughter #1 who was translating a novel, English > Hebrew. That novel, which the publisher obviously expected to be a best-seller, suffers mainly from atrociously written dialogue. The writer seems to have made every conceivable mistake that creative-writing workshops try to warn against and nip in the bud. So much worse for this novel, because content-wise it is quite interesting, and the epilogue even made it rather touching. I suspect that the publisher, in the interest of making money fast, figured he could get away with little or no editing, counting on the exotic aspects of the book (the Far East, sex, blondes, men, booze, drugs) to sell the book, regardless of really crappy dialogue and other major stylistic faults. I found it insulting that the publisher assumed that the readers would either not notice or not care about the poor writing and editing, so long as the subject matter was titillating enough.

As we all know from experience, translating poorly written texts, whether in fiction, expository prose, user manuals or whatever, is the bane of our existence; what we call in Hebrew "maka she'lo ktuva ba'tora". But I find it most annoying when it occurs in fiction. When a novel is written by an acclaimed author of whom you've grown to expect good writing, you take the obscure phrase or sentence quite seriously. You question yourself before you question the writer. You give the author credit and try to figure out what the phrase means and why he/she chose to make the meaning ambiguous or obscure. Then you proceed to find the best equivalent. Sometimes it's possible to consult the author, and I am told that in such cases the author is very happy to explain.

But what about Grade B or C novels? Pulp fiction? Sloppily written books, novels by dilettantes, amateurs, untalented wannabe-writers who somehow nonetheless get their stuff published? What are we to do when we come across meaningless babble? As professionals, we of course must do our best. For years I've been telling my colleagues (in my Editor's Letters, in lectures, presentations, and any other opportunity I get) that the GIGO approach doesn't work; it just boomerangs and ruins one's reputation.

Nonetheless, I think some translators exhibit too much misplaced respect for the printed word.

I expect some to come down on me like a ton of bricks for making the above statement. But I stand by my words. C'mon guys, admit it: some texts are simply badly written. We all occasionally come across pretentious, obscure phrases that don't mean anything. The writer may have had something very specific in mind, or not. We will never know, because he/she did not communicate it properly.

Again: First you make sure that it's not you, it's the writer. So you consult your native-speaking friends and you post questions to translators' lists. In the case of unintelligible gobbledygook, opinions will vary vastly. As I said above, when the writer is Henry James, you give him the benefit of the doubt. Ah, you say, he made this sentence ambiguous on purpose, because he wanted the reader to see that Mr. Highbrow could have understood it to mean xxx while Miss Prettyface might have understood it to mean yyy. But when the novel is by an as-yet unknown quantity (or worse, by a Known Previous Offender) you have got to trust your own better judgment.

Good luck!


N said...

Hear, hear!
How could anyone of us disagree w/ what you wrote? I've translated stuff from people who really are Hebrew language experts. Really. I'm not being sarcastic here. I know one of them personally. But when it comes to writing clearly.....Fuggedaboutit!

And we won't discuss the others.. . . Those whose sentences span 17 lines and whose paragraphs run on for 3 pages (literally!) At least, if those 3 pages of text were written clearly and they just forgot about the paragraphs . . .

Have they no shame?

But it's one thing (in a way)to see this in academic articles and the like, but when we see it in stuff for which the gen'l public is expected to pay, it's a different sort of insult to the reader. (. . .disregarding the translator's frustrations, if the text is meant to be translated)

So thanks, Nina, for providing the opportunity to vent. None of what I wrote is unique...we've all come across this stuff.

Nina R. Davis said...

Hi, N.,


I'll tell you how "anyone can disagree": I actually had in mind a certain Eng>Heb translator who finds it difficult to accept that the writer/s of the novel/s he is asked to translate sometimes produce rubbish. I think that translator goes out of his way to find (or invent) meaning where there is none.
Which is why I'm calling for less respect and more judiciousness towards the printed word.

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