Lost in translation

I had the most interesting email conversation with the woman who is doing the Brazilian Portuguese translation of “One Good Dog.” Professor Regina Lyra emailed me with a question about a reference to the actor Lawrence Olivier and we “got talking.”

As she writes: “Translation is, sometimes, a sort of puzzle and maybe that’s why it’s such a fascinating craft. I’m also a professor of literary translation at the Catholic University in Rio and these are the kind of difficulties that surprise my students as well, although they have been reading translations all their lives. As a matter of fact, readers do not give translation any thought, unless it bothers them, preventing the illusion that the book has been originally written like that — in other words, when the translation is bad.”

One of her first problems was that there is a specific word for the term sister-in-law, which created difficulty as the difference between sister and sister-in-law is a key element in the plot and without it, a lot gets lost.

Lyra writes: “The solution that came to me, after a sleepless night, was: ‘If only she’d been attentive enough with regard to that critical, essential, defining information when she listened to the message and then transferred it to the slip of paper… Sterling’s sister — and not his sister — had called suggesting a surprise party.’”

The Olivier reference that gave Prof. Lyra a little pause was, as she explains: “There are also the cultural differences. For example, the name of Lawrence Olivier is familiar to people of my generation, but not for most of the younger generation, so I also changed that for: ‘my performance was worthy of an Oscar.’”

I had never given much thought to the challenges posed to the translators of American fiction into Portuguese, French, Spanish, Norwegian, or any of the other languages my books have been translated into. I guess, being the poor language student that I was, I thought that it was a word-for-word process. Not so. This is an intellectual Suduko exercise. Evidently, America idioms are not always comprehensible in other languages. For Prof. Lyra, translating the sentence “on the other paw” was its own challenge. Because the familiar, to Americans, idiom “on the other hand” means something, substituting the word paw isn’t incomprehensible to the reader. But, because the sentence didn’t actually have the word “hand” in it, not only was it hard to translate, but the joke is lost too. She writes: “The same goes for some alliterations, like ‘greasy wheat sheaves in a breeze,’ for which, as of this moment, I haven’t yet decided what to do. That’s what the adage ‘lost in translation’ is all about.”

Good translation from English or into English requires more than an excellent comprehension of the language — the words — but the more instinctive quality of understanding the culture into which the words are being translated. It’s not just language; it’s also customs, experience, national identity, and nuance. As a reader of translated works, such as the outstanding “Out Stealing Horses” by Per Petterson (“Ut og stjæle hester”), a 2003 Norwegian novel that was translated into English in 2005 by Anne Born, I was unaware of the transition between the author’s language and the words on the translated page. That’s good translation. I even thought that at the time. On the other hand, I have read British authors whose work has been “translated” into American English that absolutely stunk because it was so obvious, and obviously unnecessary. It’s why some books do well in some countries but not others.

What’s really cool for me are the translations of the titles of those of my novels I was lucky enough to have sell in other countries. “Beauty” became “Passion Interdite (Forbidden Passion)” in France. “Hawke’s Cove” has become “Salatut tunteet (Hidden Feelings)” in Finnish, “Verao na Enseada (Summer in the Cove)” in Brazil and J”estrabi (Hawk)” in Slovakia where I became Susan Wilsonova. I kind of like that. I can’t wait to see what “One Good Dog” becomes.