Can any book be translated?
To answer the above question, I am going to say – gulp – YES.
I am basing my declaration on personal experience.
Firstly, a brief history about my novel Echoes from the Lost Ones – part of The Song of Forgetfulness series:
In the summer of 2013, the first of my YA dystopian/Sci-fi novels was published by an independent publisher. I was thrilled. On two levels. You see, I had written a book that used somewhat experimental language. I knew I was taking a chance and that I would probably be turning off a lot of readers because of my choice of language. However, I knew in my gut and heart that the distinctive narrative style worked perfectly for my imagined futuristic world.
I wrote about the use of distinctive language in literature in an earlier blog post:
I sent Echoes off to a few agents and was turned down. I had a lot of positive feedback about the story and characters, but all said the same thing, ‘We aren’t sure about the language you use as we feel it may disengage potential readers.’ They also went on to suggest that it could never be translated because of the unusual language, therefore, the revenues from oversea sales would be lost.
Despite that reaction, I did not waver. So decided to approach independent publishers. I had quite a few acceptances and decided to go with the one I believed would do justice to my work. Long story short – they closed down.
So I self-published.
Can of worms!!
However, I’m glad I did. Now I have three books and a novella in the series.
Then I began to wonder if I should try to attract readers in foreign lands. How would a translator be able to turn my English/Scottish slang-based narrative into believable colloquialisms in a different language?
How the heck should I know!
I decided to not even think about it.
Enter Mattia D’Agostino – the translator!
Out of the blue, I received an email from a B.A. student of Cultural Mediation from the Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy – wanting to use Echoes as the subject of his thesis on the difficulty of translating made-up languages. I readily agreed. At last, I could put an end to the critics and sceptics who said that my novels were untranslatable.
This is what he said when I asked him to translate all of the titles in The Song of Forgetfulness. “About the titles, I would suggest La Canzone della Dimenticanza as a translation for The Song of Forgetfulness. It’s very literal and it sounds non-standard enough: “dimenticanza” is not a word I would use in my everyday speech. A more standard alternative would be La Canzone dell’Oblio, with “oblio” as a direct translation of “oblivion”, which you did not put in your title.
A literal translation for Echoes from the Lost Ones would be Echi dai Perduti.
A Silence Heard would be Un Silenzio Udito, where “udito” is a literary synonym for the normal translation of “hear”, which would sound ambiguous in this context.
Whisper Gatherers has to be expanded with a preposition, since in Italian a noun cannot usually describe another noun. The most literal translation is Raccoglitori di Sussurri.
Thanks to Mattia’s rather brilliant thesis I now believe that any book can be translated into almost any language. It all depends on the skill of the translator.
Below are answers to some questions I put to Mattia about the difficulties in translating books that use obscure/artificially created languages.
Why did you choose Echoes for the subject of your thesis?
When my thesis was just a foggy concept, I wanted it to be about conlangs – that is languages that are artificially created from start to finish – for artistic purposes. Something like Elvish in The Lord of the Rings, or Dothraki and Valyrian in the show Game of Thrones. But there’s only so much you can do translation-wise in such cases. Those languages are not created in order to be translated, they sort of exist precisely to stay untranslated, to convey a feeling of otherness.
So, if I wanted my thesis to be about translation, I had to look into something a bit different. Which led me to 1984 and A Clockwork Orange and the peculiar languages in which they are written. The problem with those novels is that they had already been translated into Italian. This is when I somewhat virtually stumbled upon your article “Creative use of language in novels”.
After reading it I decided I had to read Echoes from the Lost Ones (which I believe at the time was the only novel of the series to having been already released) if only for my own enjoyment. After reading it, I was completely sold. Echoes met all the requirements for my thesis. Besides, it was a novel that I really enjoyed and I wouldn’t mind reading multiple times from cover to cover (which I ended up doing).
What was the greatest difficulty in trying to translate Echoes?
The greatest difficulty was finding out that some things that I thought were made up were actually real words in the English language. Made up words are generally easy to translate, they have few constraints. While real words have a lot of constraints.
While translating, I had a specific aim: to make the reader of the translation feel as if they were reading the original. Which means that every shade that a word may have had in the original, had to be transposed into the translation.
When I thought I was pretty much done with the thesis, I found out that in some cases the suffix –like was a substitute for the suffix –ly. What I thought up to that point, to be an approximation was actually a grammatical feature with a clear archaic shade, reminiscing of traditional English ballads and folk songs. In the end, I managed to find a solution that brought both the adverbial meaning and the archaic connotation into Italian.
Do you think that any book can be translated?
Absolutely. I’ll go so far as to say that any text can be translated into any language or dialect. Not everybody knows that the difference between a dialect and a language is merely political and/or historical. From a structural point of view, there is no difference between the two. Any language (or dialect) can describe anything.
For example, very remote mountain dialects usually only have words that describe everyday life, because that’s what people who live in remote locations are usually concerned with. However, it would not be impossible to speak of, say, medieval philology in those dialects. It would take longer than in standard English, because you would have to explain every concept with periphrases, or you would have to make up some words as you go.
But it would not be impossible, as every language has embedded in itself the tools to create new words that quickly describe a fragment of reality. Suffixes are one of these tools. An extremely productive suffix in English is the suffix –er. So if you know what paint is, and you want to describe «someone who paints for a living», you only need to add the suffix –er. This is much more effective than using the periphrases someone who paints.
Basically, everything can be translated into any language. The problem with literature is that any given author has his or her peculiar style, so it takes a good translator to convey that particular style into the translation.
Do you think authors should approach translators in order to publish in other countries?
I think it would be beneficial for translators to have at least a bit of correspondence with the authors. However, if an author wanted someone in particular to translate their work, it should be the author’s right to approach that translator.
Correspondence between author and translator would leave less space for random guessing and, therefore, errors. For example, the translation of Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series is completely wrong in Italian. The Italian translation was based on the dumb part of the name, which gives Silente (silent). Dumbledore is actually an ancient name for bumblebee.
The character was called that because the author imagined him as constantly humming, which is quite different from being Silent(e).
I feel that such plain errors could be avoided with a bit of correspondence with the author.
Does genre matter when translating?
Absolutely. Genres have specific rules, which may be different from one language to another. For example, English cooking recipes instructions are given in the imperative mood, while Italian and German cooking recipes use the infinitive. As a translator, besides translating meaning and words, you also have to keep the rules of the genre in mind.
The same goes for literary genres, which usually follow specific formulae. This is true for every aspect of them, from their language to their covers. If you were to translate the Italian infarto into English, the translation would be different when dealing with medical fiction (infarction) as opposed to almost any other genre (heart attack).
I was so impressed by Mattia’s paper that I think it only right and proper to give him a separate blog post.
Stay tuned for Mattia D’Agostino – The art of the Translator. Plus – cats!
You can learn more about The Song of Forgetfulness here: