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COLUMN: The mystery of translations

March 24, 2013

By Silvia Di Natale

Observed from the outside, translations must seem something mysterious. And they are indeed. Sometimes, by reading a text by an author from another country, I wonder if he or she really wrote what I am reading. How should I know? Translations are acts of infinite trust. Even more so, they are proof of the eternal belief in humankind managing to understand each other, some day. Translations are always a step towards this utopia: if translation is possible, maybe universal understanding is possible too.

This is the background, but how does everyday life look? I will first address some questions that people often ask me. First: how does a book manage to get translated?

Readers think that I am the person who decides about the foreign rights of my books, but that isn’t true. I have no power in this matter. I have sold my rights to my publishing house, hoping they will do their best to sell my work to foreign publishers. Or my agent will do so. But even their efforts can do little. Here too — how could it be different? — is the market, in this case, the book market, which influences, if not determines, the strategies of publishing houses. Isn’t it strange that we are still thinking of the ‘literary criteria’ of a book? Sometimes, seldom, both the market and literature come together in happy marriages.

Sometimes cultural institutions intervene to help particularly worthy books with monetary grants for translations. My novel Kuraj took advantage of this when it was translated into Dutch.

The second frequently asked question is: do you translate your own book if you know a language well? In my case, since I’m living in Germany, did I translate Kuraj myself?

The answer is no, never, independent from my skill in the second language. To translate a book means first being true to the text. You don’t have to write it again! But I couldn’t translate my own books without changing them, and this would break the first golden rule of any translation: a text that is to be translated must be considered finished, complete, perfect, even if limited. You, the translator, cannot change it, not even in order to enhance it. If I translated my own text, I would change it, transforming it into a different one. It wouldn’t be a translation.

And now you come to the happy moment when your book’s rights have been bought by a foreign publishing house. The foreign editor will communicate to you the name of your translator, and he or she will soon become a very important person for you. Supposing she is an accurate translator, she will know your text maybe better than you do. And she will find in your text things you never saw. It’s no joke: going through your work so many times, you will in the end no longer see the most blatant mistakes, even the macroscopic ones, as you have with your written work a relation similar to that with a close — loved and sometimes hated — relative. You know him so well, and you are so used to him and to all his faults, that you do not even notice them any more. But the translator will. She will put her finger on those unseen flaws, she will notice the inconsistency of a logical sequence, unmask a contradiction, shine a light on a mistake, discover a misprint. You, the author, will feel humiliated, maybe offended, even angry. Didn’t your editor do a good job? Why didn’t he notice all this blameworthy nonsense? While thinking this you know you are being unfair to him: it’s impossible to see everything. If you are going over a book again and again there will come a point when you will not find any more mistakes. The devil knows how to hide them. Be sure your sins will find you out at the moment of the translation.

Having an accurate translator pointing out your mistakes is by far the best thing that can happen to you. Far worse is if you don’t hear anything from your translator. This is very distressing. You, the author, begin to feel offended and suspicious. You will start thinking that your book is not so easy — I am secretly proud of it — some passages are very complex. How can she understand everything? It’s quite an affront!

Anyway, if you don’t know the language, you have no chance. Your book is delivered, so to speak, hands and feet bound, to the person who will translate it. But it will be circulated in the foreign country carrying your name on its cover. And you will be responsible for all the errors it will contain. It’s an intolerable idea! Better not be translated at all! Anyway, if the book finds its readers, you will be reconciled with your double (the translator). If not, surely it was her fault.

And even worse is the case of the translator who is translating into a language you think you know well and she does not contact you. Then, there is no limit to your paranoiac thoughts: she doesn’t want to communicate with me … she has got very little money for her work and will try to do the job as quickly as possible … my poor unhappy book … what will happen to it?

In fact, this is what happened to Kuraj when it was translated into French. The translator kept quiet the entire time. I couldn’t get his name or his e-mail address. And then one day I got the book. I was so proud of the very reputable publishing house and the fact that it had a nice cover. Indeed, it looked noble. Then I began to read it. Where did my book go? That wasn’t my Kuraj! A lot of passages were transformed, simplified, twisted, distorted … I could have cried with pity and rage. I protested, of course, but it didn’t help. “We are sorry,” they said in Paris. “The novel has already been published.” I had to keep quiet knowing that I’m not very high in the pecking order of the world’s well-known authors.

With the translations into German and English I got more chances. I was aware of my inferiority as an author even though I know these languages. The translator always has the upper hand. His comment, “You can’t say that in my language,” is enough to destroy every objection. But Martin Thom, an Englishman with a fine sense of history and linguistic correctness, thought over each of my proposals and sometimes accepted them. His translation of Kuraj was awarded the John Florio Prize, which is given by the Society of Authors for the translation of a work of literary merit from Italian to English.

With Annette Kopetzi, my German translator, I sat for hours over the manuscript to find a solution for her doubts and mine. But in the end, reading Kuraj in German was like reading it in Italian. However, the real test of a good translation are the passages which should amuse readers. Humour is quite difficult to convert into another language because you should convert the cultural field too. There are a lot of variables which make people laugh or just smile.

I remember a reading in Vancouver, Canada. I was waiting for my turn and Jonathan Coe was reading with such professional skill, the audience interrupting him very often with laughter. I wondered how he could do it. If I could only get them to smile … I had chosen a funny passage — or what I thought to be funny — but I wasn’t sure at all.

I was so nervous I could feel my legs shaking. And then, it was my turn. I was behind the podium. I remember exactly the red velvet of the theatre’s seats, but I couldn’t distinguish the people, apart from the faces of the ones sitting in the front row. The silence was perfect. I was getting to the funny passage, I was reading it. Suddenly, some of the people in the audience began not only to smile, they were laughing! And laughter is contagious. Red with emotion and joy, in my red dress, I wanted to get off the stage and embrace all of them, one by one.

Silvia Di Natale is an Italian author and has written six books which have been translated into various languages