All posts in Writing

Of Stories Loved, and Lost, in Translation

Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore book cover

Language, communicated across oceans and cultures, is precious cargo. Translators of foreign language bear the responsibility of ferrying messages across divides, with the hope that in the end, they will reach the shore, perfectly intact. It is no small feat translators face, and yet most of us assume, as we read (a book) or watch (a film) that the intended meaning and impact of foreign language translated matches its newfound identity.

Topics of translation have been popping up in the media lately, specifically on the powerful, and enigmatic, role of the translator. What is it exactly, and what should it be?

Recently, in an article in the New York Times, Antony Shugaar, an author and former translator in Italy,  reminisced on conversations with William Weaver, a well-known translator of great Italian literature:

“I remember one specific comment on translation technique that was pure Weaver. The great white whale of Italian postwar literature is “Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana,” by Carlo Emilio Gadda. It’s a big, ungainly philosophical treatise of a murder mystery, interlarded with rich seams of dialect of all kinds: Roman, Neapolitan and various minor subdialects of the areas between those two cities. Gadda was an austere Milanese scholar, the opposite in personality and style of these overemphatic, swaggering, loud forms of speech. But Gadda was an acute observer and a gifted mimic. And the “Pasticciaccio” — “That Awful Mess,” in Weaver’s rendering — takes gleeful delight in lampooning, personifying and ultimately embracing these dialects, Italy’s equivalents of Brooklynese, Bronxese and perhaps Boston’s Southie accent.

‘What did you do about the dialect?’ I asked him, at one of our lunches. He laughed, and replied, ‘Oh, I just left it out!’”

Mr. Shugaar continues:

“At first glance, it’s a little like translating ‘Moby-Dick’ and leaving out all references to boats. But I understood. Weaver explains it better in his introduction to the English edition: ‘To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.’ Weaver asks the reader, therefore, ‘to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.’ In other words, supply the boats yourself.”

This, to me, was captivating. A tenet of Mr. Weaver’s translation method rested on the reader creating, in part, their own story.

Another translator, Michael Emmerich, recently commented on the role of the translator in a piece in Japan’s The Asahi Shimbun. Mr. Emmerich is an American scholar who recently taught a seminar on the works of internationally-acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami. According to Mr. Emmerich, Murakami’s work has been relayed by three translators: Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Here, he speaks of Birnbaum’s method:

“…[he] is not a translator who suffers from the illusion that there can ever be a one-to-one correspondence between the Japanese and the English, so he uses all of his powers to create English sentences that will live on their own in a way similar to the way that Japanese sentences live.”

That is a much more pro-active approach then, say, Weaver’s. Mr. Emmerich, who has read Murakami’s books in both English and Japanese, admits that he finds the author’s work in one language to be “totally different” from the other.

To complicate matters, he says it is not only the translator’s bias that impacts perception, but book cover designs and of course, our own cultural orientation.

All of this begs the question: Do we really know the message and intent of any given foreign language artist, if what we receive is a filtered, perhaps diluted, form of the original?

Mr. Shugaar, in his New York Times piece, highlights his, and maybe others’, greatest obstacle, when he said:

“People talk about untranslatable words, but in a way, there’s no such thing. It may take three words, or an entire sentence, or even an interpolated paragraph, but any word can be translated. Short of swelling a book into an encyclopedia, however, there is no way of dealing with the larger problem: untranslatable worlds.”

Because in the end, on the arriving shore of a translated message, that is what we’re talking about—not just words that are tweaked, ever so slightly, but of a collective whole—a world that can not fully be realized, or understood, by those waiting eagerly, on the other side.

Photo credit: Book Cover Archive

On Writing and Our Love of Maps

Maps and Writing

As a record of places traversed or those yet discovered, maps are synonymous with exploration and adventure. For the mapmaker, they’re also an artistic canvas—a space within which to express a point of view. Casey Cep, in her article “The Allure of Maps,” describes why writers love maps, how maps serve as a metaphor for the craft and the importance of map-making to novelists, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Ursula Le Guin and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Here are some highlights from her piece:

Writers love maps: collecting them, creating them, and describing them. Literary cartography includes not only the literal maps that authors commission or make themselves but also the geographies they describe. The visual display of quantitative information in the digital age has made charts and maps more popular than ever, though every graphic, like every story, has a point of view.

Every map tells a story, and writers yearning for new ways to tell stories are drawn to them.

And a favorite paragraph:

Peter Turchi argues in his book “Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer” that all writers are mapmakers and that all writing is like a map. For Turchi, the map is more than metaphor: it is an organizing principle of narrative. Language is like a land, paragraphs are districts, sentences are streets, and words are only lines and curves constructed the way maps are made of lines and shapes. Letters are like wild canyons and chaotic seas that the writer maps into words and then into sentences and then into scenes.

Cep’s message on map-making isn’t exclusive to writers’ circles or the like—for even as everyday texters, emailers and status posters, we are each expressing unique points of view, and thus constructing our own literary maps.

For Cep’s full article, click here.

photo credit: DimitraTzanos via photopin cc