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Finding the Words

How does a book travel across cultures? Book translators offer a glimpse at the nuances of their art and reveal what authors can expect during the process.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

When Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli began mapping Mars in 1877, he described dark and light areas on the planet’s surface as “seas” and “continents.” Due to a telescopic illusion that was unknown at the time, he also marked what he believed were channels and labeled them with the Italian word canali. His peers mistranslated that into canals, thus launching the theory that these were artificial structures created by intelligent life on Mars. An American astronomer named Percival Lowell was a fervent believer in the canals, mapping hundreds of them and even writing three books on the subject. Lowell’s work influenced a young writer, H.G. Wells, who would write a book of his own, The War of the Worlds.

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Translations are a delicate art. When handled sloppily, they can undermine foreign policy, sink marketing campaigns, and—in the case of Schiaparelli, Lowell, and Wells—spawn an intergalactic literary genre. When done correctly, a suitable translation isn’t noticed at all.

In her treatise on translation, Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman lays out the paradoxical job of a translator: “Aren’t we simply the humble, anonymous handmaids-and-men of literature, the grateful, ever-obsequious servants of the publishing industry? In the most resounding yet decorous terms I can muster, the answer is no, for the most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write—or perhaps rewrite—in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the second language […] will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers.”

Günter Grass, the German novelist and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature, said, “Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes.” Miguel de Cervantes once described translation as the other side of a tapestry. Consider literature. Beyond the subtlety of language, the way a single word or lone line of dialogue can denote a character’s mindset, intelligence, or social standing, there is the intended rhythm of prose. Baroque flowery descriptions, quick action sentences, misdirection, humor, Hemingway-esque brevity, Faulkner-esque run-on sentences, witty metaphors; these are all tools an author uses to guide a reader through their world. It’s the translator’s duty, through analogy, vocabulary, and critical understanding, to ferry the piece they are translating, stylistic quirks and all, into the alien world of the second language.

I live in Singapore which, as a former British colony dangling off the tip of Malaysia, occupies a unique linguistic crossroad. Though Singapore’s dominant ethnicities are Chinese, Malay, and Indian, English is the language of government and business. When the city-state gained independence, leaders at the time believed selecting, say, Mandarin over Malay, would have needlessly stoked racial tensions. So, street signs are in English, but most residents are bilingual and the island is full of various melting pot creole dialects. Singapore is a rare example of different languages sharing one culture, making it the perfect playground for translators.

I wanted to know exactly how one changes everything while changing nothing. How do plot and character react to their new, foreign environment? Shelly Bryant is an author, researcher, and translator who is fluent in both Chinese and English. She has translated works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and has had her own work translated into multiple languages.

“My approach to translation is to, first, see myself as a reader,” Bryant says. “I’ll do a first draft of the translation before I consult anyone else. Then I have a team of translators that I work with and we always check each other’s work. Reading literary reviews in the original language is huge, to see how it’s impacted that culture. Obviously the words are important, but often a literal translation doesn’t bring about the same impact as in the original language. Sometimes it brings the opposite impact. Ideally, you want to make sure the impact is the same as opposed to the word.”

As a literary person, Bryant subscribes to Roland Barthes’ idea of “The Death of the Author.” This literary philosophy suggests a reader’s individual interpretation is more important than the author’s intention, and therefore, the meaning of a text is always going to be recreated with every new reading.

For a translator, I can see how this outlook makes sense. A translation is often done years after the original work is published, once it has gotten traction in its own language. If the author is still alive, they usually aren’t offered approval of a translation, because they don’t speak the new language so are therefore unable to evaluate it. Plus, if the translation is being written five, 10, or 15 years in the future, the author isn’t the same person who wrote those words. Even when Bryant’s own work is translated into Chinese, which she speaks, she leaves it to the publisher to judge whether the translation is adequate.

What Grossman, Grass, and Bryant are saying is something pivotal to that art of translation: It’s about capturing what the author meant, not merely what they said. The most important thing is that the new piece is relatable to the new audience. Bryant, who also teaches translators as part of the master’s program at Nanyang Technological University, lays out a tough cross-cultural translation that she often uses as an example.

“I translated an author who in several of his short stories—the character, the father in the family, was bathing with his child,” she says. “In the Asian context, there’s nothing strange about that at all. It’s a very nurturing, caregiver relationship. But when you translate that into English, and particularly with English-speaking cultures in the West, you might have an eyebrow raised. They might say, ‘Wait, why is this father bathing with this child?’ And it might raise questions that don’t need to be raised for this character.”

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When a reader pictures a character in their mind, it’s difficult to undo these sorts of orbital traits, so any potential confusion needs to be snuffed out. The father in the original text is meant to be nurturing, nothing else. Here, bathing is the cultural equivalent of “tucking the child in,” and he’s characterized this way to contrast the typical father who’s too wrapped up with work to be involved in his child’s life.

“With that example, I still translated the scene up until the point of saying he actually bathed with the child,” says Bryant, “and instead said he helped the child brush their teeth and prepared them for bed.

“Another example is in Chinese culture when someone sticks out their tongue. They do so because they’re embarrassed or maybe they’re laughing. It’s not mean and making fun. With that kind of thing, I might just add in a short phrase: She stuck out her tongue ‘in embarrassment.’ In those cases, you have to give the cues.”

Sometimes two words is all it takes. Other times, Bryant might suggest cutting a whole chapter. Really, translation is another opportunity to edit. The Chinese publishing industry, for instance, will seldom put a novel through a content edit and will focus primarily on proofreading and line edits. Sometimes, a major structural or narrative change is the publisher’s call and it’s up to the translator to smooth those edges. Usually, authors are honored to be translated and welcome any changes that will make it happen. Many writers reading this will be familiar with the feeling of cringing at their old work.

Whereas nonfiction is usually more topical and therefore requires a quicker turnaround, fiction, especially fiction that is to be translated, will have a certain staying power. Between research and review, multiple drafts and parlays with the publisher, translating is not a speedy process. Bryant says her translations take about a year on average and her longest took four years. So, with all this work involved, how do publishers pick what to translate?

I spoke with Jason Lundberg, fiction editor at Epigram Books, based in Singapore. He told me, with candid disappointment, that it comes down to what will sell. “Sadly, translations do not sell as well as English-original titles, so if it is more of a niche title, we need to make sure we can at the very least break even, either with a government arts grant or other external support. This is in addition to all of the regular criteria in which we evaluate submissions,” he says. It’s a tight rope calculation: what readers will buy divided by what will push their boundaries.

When searching for works to be translated into English, publishers like Epigram look for stories that have won local literature prizes or that were written by notable authors. They consult with editors and critics knowledgeable about literary works in those original languages. Because they need something that will sell in a foreign market, publishers also search for stories with universal themes and messages beyond purely local issues.

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In drafting a translator, Epigram has a full bench of contributors whose work they trust. Any fresh-faced aspiring dragomans are given a sample text so their work can be evaluated for accuracy, clarity, and creativity. Lundberg says the worst thing a translation can be is lifeless. “We are a literary publisher, so we’re not looking for one-to-one academic translations, but rather a lingual interpretation of the text. If there are several candidates, we discuss them internally, as well as with the author of the original work, because we want everyone in the process to be on the same page.”

Though most authors never meet their translators, it’s vital that they vibe. The translator can ask questions with the publisher as a go-between, but, again, authors can only analyze the transformed work if they have a relative or close friend fluent in the new language. Such was the case for Singaporean novelist and Cultural Medallion winner Yeng Pway Ngon. He was having trouble finding a translator that captured the essence of his work, someone who could ferry his writing without it feeling translated. Then he looked across the dinner table.

His wife, Madam Goh Beng Choo, was never formally trained in English literature; she made her living as a social worker and as a journalist writing for the bilingual section of The Straits Times. Born in a low- to middle-income family, her main exposure to English was from a radio station that broadcasted pop songs from England and America. “Listening to all these songs and checking the meaning, I fell in love with the English language,” she says. “I think of English as musical. Thankfully my husband’s writing is very universal. It touches the human heart and doesn’t use complex words. He’s influenced by Western philosophy, Sartre, so you can translate his work into any language and people will enjoy the philosophy, the style, the technique it conveys.”

For Madam Goh, the first step to translation is comprehension of the text. From there, the most important tool for building a story’s essence into another language is a robust vocabulary. Selecting the right word, without misconstruing the cultural context associated on either side, can be a translation shortcut if used correctly. “It’s a question of making the two languages equivalent,” she says. “You don’t want it to sound like you’re explaining every sentence.”

Under the same roof, Madam Goh often consulted her husband on what he meant. She was able to extract the essence of his stories in a way that other translators couldn’t. In “Misdelivered Mail,” a short story about a young man who tries to mail himself to the U.S. and instead ends up in a mental hospital, Madam Goh successfully captures the humor that exists throughout the original. Comedy is probably the most challenging literary device to communicate across cultures, but through ironic dialogue, rhythm, and absurd descriptors, she made it work.

“For a long time, good writing in Chinese hasn’t received much attention—and while people won’t believe me if I say my husband’s writing is the best, I can say he is one of the best—so I felt his work should be translated into English. I thought, What the hell, you know, just do your best. If I don’t do anything, nobody will know about him.” Once these short stories were published, his work started to receive more attention. A publisher in Milan discovered the work and soon there was an Italian translation of the English version Madam Goh produced.

Past the diction decisions and structural tweaks, this is the key to why good translations are important. There is an argument on the snobbier side of the spectrum that claims a true translation is not possible. You’re just going to butcher the original prose, they say, so don’t try. Madam Goh told me she thinks this perspective is cruel to translators. Considering how many translated works we all grew up with—The Diary of Anne Frank, Pinocchio, The Alchemist—I agree. But even beyond that, such close-minded beliefs kneecap authors writing from obscure markets and deprives readers around the world.

One of the main reasons authors write is to share their ideas and stories with as many people as possible. Without Madam Goh, her husband’s work would have never escaped the Chinese section of Singapore’s bookshops, a country where Mandarin isn’t the dominant language. Translation offers an exponential boost to readership, allowing talent and technique distilled in one culture to inspire and intoxicate their colleagues across the world and across time. From the earliest stories, such as Gilgamesh and The Iliad, we get the hero’s journey which is present in nearly every crime novel and Hollywood thriller today. Where would modern fiction be without Don Quixote? Where would foreshadowing be without Chekhov’s gun?

In Why Translation Matters, Grossman points out the fruitful exchange translation enables. When a young Gabriel García Márquez devoured the fiction of William Faulkner, he digested the “mythic, megahistorical, multigenerational” depictions of land and its people and used authors like Faulkner as sort of long-distance mentors. With these influences, Márquez developed his own style, and translations of his work inspired a younger generation in other countries in the form of Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison, and more. “The more books from more places that are available to fledgling authors, the greater the potential flow of creative influence, the more irresistible the spark that ignites literary imaginations,” says Grossman. “Translation plays an inimitable, essential part in the expansion of literary horizons through multilingual fertilization. A worldwide community of writers would be inconceivable without it.”

Years ago, I lived in Buenos Aires. One night, near the beginning of my stay, a friend and I were splitting a bottle of wine with his new French housemate. She, of course, spoke fluent French, no English, and beginner Spanish. My friend and I spoke English, some Spanish, and not a lick of French.

We sat on the balcony for hours attempting to bond despite the caverns between our native languages. Spanish was the shoddy suspension bridge between both sides; it did its job, though there were many missing planks and weathered ropes. There was an understanding, through the eyes and friendly mannerisms, that we were all amiable people with much to say to one another, but it was a night plagued by trailing sentences and grasping hand gestures. In the end, we communicated primarily through the international language of charades which is, you guessed it, a French word.

Of course, we all know the word charades. Just like we know haiku from Japanese and schmooze from Hebrew. Like these words, translators make the foreign feel familiar. The cultural exchange of ideas that is translation broadens the horizons of not just literature, but language itself. Even if Japanese or Hebrew are as alien to you as Martian would have been to H.G. Wells, every story that is translated brings us closer to a universal understanding of one another. WD 

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