Found in Translation
- by Carole McKellar
Many literary classics were originally published in languages other than English. “War and Peace,” “Les Misérables,” and “Don Quixote” are among the titles recognized by most readers.
“Madame Bovary” was first translated from French into English by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Karl Marx’s daughter, in 1886, and most recently in 2010 by Lydia Davis, an American short story writer and novelist. In between, at least 15 translations of the iconic French novel were published, each translator thinking that they found some new meaning or coloring to bring to the reader.
English translations account for only about 3 percent of all books published in the United States and the United Kingdom. By comparison, 27 percent of novels published in France, and 28 percent in Spain, are translated from other languages. What accounts for the difference? Are Americans more insular due to geography and lack of cultural curiosity?
Special skills are required to translate literature. Not only does the translator need fluency in at least two languages, but he must also be an avid reader and a masterful writer in each language. A good translation requires an intimate knowledge of the original work and research into its historical context.
Daniel Hahn, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, was asked in an interview if translation should faithfully capture the original text, “Assuming the faithfulness you’re aiming for is fidelity to something more than just literal meaning, then any attempt at being faithful to the original piece of writing should entail making something that lives. Every translation is an interpretative act, as well as a creative one.”
Haruki Murakami, a popular and prolific Japanese writer whose most recent work is “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” has also translated the works of Raymond Carver and J.D. Salinger into Japanese. I’ve tried to read Murakami, but struggled to finish “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.”
The New York Times’ five best works of fiction for 2015 featured two works of translation: “The Door” by Magda Szabo, and Elena Ferrante’s “The Story of the Lost Child.”
“The Story of the Lost Child” is the last of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, which began with “My Brilliant Friend.” Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of a writer who has published six best-selling novels in her native Italy. Although her true identity is unknown, Ferrante was chosen in 2016 as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
I’m currently reading the second of the four novels, “The Story of a New Name.” Lila has married a successful grocer, but she is unhappy and a bit destructive. Elena is worried about her future, and is afraid to leave the neighborhood. Their friendship is a source of strength and stability for both. The emotional lives of these girls entering adulthood is richly detailed and authentic.
- Muriel Barbery: “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” (French)
- Dai Sijie: “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” (French)
- Per Petterson: “Out Stealing Horses” by (Norwegian)
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (Spanish)
- Irene Nemirovsky: “Suite Francaise” (French)
- Peter Hoeg: “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” (Danish)
- Fredrik Backman: “A Man Called Ove” (Swedish)
Whatever the reason for the limited availability of translated books, a reader can gain much from stories told from the perspective of writers from diverse backgrounds. Literature helps to remove stereotypes and broaden our understanding of other cultures. Hearing unique voices, we can recognize our common humanity and accept our differences.