Sunday 17 June 2012

Translation Matters

I was on Facebook a couple of days ago when I noticed a short exchange about a rude comment left on a blogger's site, a rather pretentious remark concerning a book challenge.  The Introverted Reader is running a Books in Translation challenge, and Jen, the host, was unhappy with what her visitor had said (or how they had said it).  When I read the comment, I agreed that it was a tad snide (to say the least), but the point being made was actually a fairly valid one.  If you need a challenge to make you read books which were originally written in a language other than English, there's something very wrong with what you're doing...

The top level of the challenge is Linguist, which entails reading 10-12 translated books over the course of the year.  For the average blogger, reading around seven to eight books per month (a conservative estimate!), that would mean that just one of those books needs to be a translation.  To be perfectly honest, if I couldn't manage that I'd feel... well, frankly, the word that comes to mind is 'embarrassed'.

To be fair, Jen accepts the validity of her visitor's opinion (if not the tone it was expressed in) and has decided to leave the comment on her blog, and I am certainly not trying to belittle her or her challenge.  Rather, the incident got me thinking, once again, about translated fiction, and why people seem to see it as a novelty, not a perfectly normal state of affairs.  I've discussed this in passing several times before (most notably here and here), but I thought I'd use today's post to toss around some more ideas on the subject.

The big question, I suppose, is why we should bother to read translated books anyway.  Well, I have a number of ideas, but here are a few to be going on with:

To experience new places and cultures
One important reason is simply to transport ourselves away from our everyday lives, to visit new places, meet new people and experience new cultures.  It's true that many English-speaking writers enable us to do this anyway, but reading something written by a native, straight from the horse's mouth as it were, is always likely to be more accurate - and possibly more interesting.  I can't imagine simply reading the latest releases in English one after the other; it would be a bit like having the same thing for dinner every night...

To reconsider things we think we know
Reading works in translation can also help readers acquire a different viewpoint on topics they thought were familiar.  A good example of this would be works about the Second World War written from the German point of view.  The more I read about how the war was experienced on the other side of the front line (and indeed elsewhere in Europe), the greater my understanding of the whole event becomes.  If you only read one side of the story, you'll never get close to understanding the whole truth.

They're often very good :)
One more reason for opting for translated fiction is that there has often already been a form of selection in place, sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Books translated into English, especially those which have had a little time to mature, are usually the best of their vintage, works you can rely on to be good reads.  Of course, there are exceptions: just as is the case in English, once a certain genre becomes successful, the quality control may be less important than getting derivative works out there (Scandinavian crime fiction being an obvious recent example...).  On the whole though, those books which do make it into the English language are quality works.

So why don't people read more translated literature?  I'm obviously not the right person to ask, but I've had a bit of a think and come up with the following ideas - and some responses:

You're not reading the "real text"
When you read a translation, you're not actually reading what the author wrote, and the gap between the original and the English can be very wide.  A bad translation can also seem very stilted, turning a beautiful piece of writing into dry, inappropriate sludge.  In good hands though, a translation can be a work of art in its own right, not better than the original, but different.

Translated fiction is difficult.
Just as many readers run a mile whenever the word 'classics' is mentioned, the mere thought of translated literature can bring people out in a cold sweat.  It's true that a lot of what is translated into English is literary fiction, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's difficult to read.  In many cases, the books can be page-turners, stories you can't put down - and they're often fairly slight as well :)

There are too many books to read already
I suspect that one reason many readers fail to try translated fiction is that they are happy to stick to authors and themes they know and trust, especially when there is a never-ending flow of new releases in English (particularly if you're a blogger who is lucky enough to get some review copies...).  However, it would be naive to think that there is nothing better out there, and anyway - how did you get to know about your favourites in the first place?  Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith...

I don't know what to read
Whether you don't know where to look for translated fiction, or you just don't have any idea whether a book is going to be any good or not, being unsure about what's actually out there is always going to prevent you from reading more widely.  Luckily, there are many places around that you can turn to, whether they be organisations such as Three Percent and Booktrust, small presses like Peirene Press, And Other Stories and Dalkey Archive Press - or blogs like Winstonsdad's Blog and The Parrish Lantern - or even yours truly ;)

That's enough pontificating from me - over to you!  Do you read a lot of literature in translation?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  If you've managed to get this far in my lengthy post, please leave a comment - I'd love to hear what you all think on the subject :)