Monday, February 04, 2013

Random thoughts on reading certain translations

Someone once told me that they hate reading translated books because the place names stay the same and seem out of place with everything else being in English.

The thing I find a challenge sometimes when I read a book that's been translated into English is the fact that the cultural differences - the accepted norms in the culture of one language don't always (or even often really) translate very well into another language.

I don't have a lot of experience reading books that have been translated from English into another language.  For one thing, I've only ever had any ability to read in English and French. Though my French is *very* rusty these days, I have read some books that have been translated from English to French, but I've always read the French only after I'd read the English version, so the story was already in my head. Any concepts that didn't really translate from English to French, I didn't notice because I already had the English story in my memory.

I've read a few mysteries translated from Swedish or Finnish to English and right now I'm reading "Against God" by Patrick Senécal which is by a Quebec author and has been translated from French to English.

This book is challenging me for three reasons: 1) It's a heavy story. Sad. 2) It's written in a "different" sort of style - namely, it's one long sentence. Seriously, the whole book is one stream of consciousness sentence without end. 3) It's a translation, and turning a turn phrase in French into English is difficult even without the unusual writing style.

The reason for the translation challenge aside from the style issue, is that the way that words are used, how sentences and thoughts are arranged on the page in French is quite different than how they are arranged in English

To be clear I'm not criticising the translator - I haven't read the French version yet (it's on request through ILL), but it seems like a good translation to me. But for the reader, it can require a stretching of the mind - even reading the words in English, to really get what the author is trying to get at, you have to read it from a French frame of mind. In this case, you have to read it in a French Canadian frame of mind.

For some, this literary 'dipping of toes' into a different cultural frame of mind is exhilarating -
a mental workout almost as enriching as travelling to a foreign country. For others, it's not that it's too difficult a challenge, it's just that it's not what they're after from a book - books are their relaxation, their break from the days full of challenge.

For me, I like the challenge. It's a different sort of challenge than my every day challenges which can be more wearying than invigorating at times.

This book is invigoratingly mentally challenging me and I like it. I'm reading it slowly though because it is a challenge and I want to make sure I'm really getting it. The "easier" reads I'm going through at the same time the gentle stretches between workouts.

A translation of a great work of literature can be like listening to the Queen of the Night Aria (Mozart - The Magic Flute) played on a plastic child's recorder. No matter how technically correct, it's just not the same. Or, it can be like hearing a classical piece like Ave Maria played flawlessly on acoustic guitar - different, but equally stunning. I'm not sure where this translation falls on that scale, but it's a compelling enough read for me to keep going and keep putting myself into the mind of the character in M. Senécal's book.

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