Lost in Translation | Karen Kao

When I first moved to the Netherlands, I worked as a translator. A catalogue for the Rijksmuseum, a Ph.D. dissertation on patients’ rights, an environmental law journal. I translated because it was a way for me to learn Dutch, word by word. It felt like an algebra exercise. Each sentence was an equation. All I had to do was work out the variables.

hidden works

In my second job as a lawyer, I continued to translate though the work got a lot harder. I explained to foreign clients how Dutch law worked, using words borrowed from another legal system. That’s a tricky thing to do. Legal terms come with deep roots, a judicial pedigree and legislative baggage. It’s not enough to know the words in order to translate.

Now that I’m on my third career as a writer, I am in awe of translators. I love to read about peoples, places and times that are not my own. Nine times out of ten, you’re talking about a work in translation. It could be Spanish or Japanese or Danish. And since I can’t read all those languages, I need translators to reveal those hidden works to me.

So I don’t understand the sneers dealt out to works in translation. At Blackwell’s, for example, the Oxford booksellers proudly display original English works in the front of the shop while the books in translation cower in the back.

a bum rap

If books in translation are treated like second-class citizens, then their makers are treated even worse.

traitors, handmaidens, human dictionaries 
are some of the slurs according to Deborah Smith in her essay Finding the Words. She should know. She translated The Vegetarian by Han Kang. In 2016, that book won the Man Booker International Prize.

In 2017, the award went to A Horse Walks Into a Bar, a seering indictment of Israeli society as seen through the eyes of a stand-up comic. No small task for translator Jessica Cohen. As Smith notes:
Humour is notoriously difficult to translate […] but Cohen acquits herself with aplomb, swapping a Hebrew neologism meaning, broadly, “top percentile bloodsucker”, with the brilliantly barbed “eau de one per cent”.   
This is no Google translate. A computer could not have made that leap of imagination. “Eau de one per cent”  is translation as an art form.

love at first sight

Every author hopes to write a bestseller. You want it translated into a dozen languages. A deal with Netflix wouldn’t hurt, either. So the publisher or the agent or even the author schleps to the Frankfurt Buchmesse or the London Book Fair to sell the foreign rights. I imagine a huge open air market with publishers as fishwives. Hot cockles here!

Maybe it’ll happen for me someday. Or maybe I should hope instead for someone like Lisa Dillman. She translated the work of Andres Barba as a labor of love. For years, Barba didn’t know she existed. Yet Dillman went on translating, eventually corresponding and finally meeting with Barba in person. Even then, she had no guarantee of publishing her translation of Such Small Hands.

Enter Transit Books. Based in Oakland, California, this new press publishes primarily works in translation. Or, as their mission statement puts it:
Transit Books is committed to the discovery and promotion of enduring works that carry readers across borders and communities
Such Small Hands was their premiere novel. Lisa Dillman was the translator.

crossing borders

translation magazine
Image source: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org

There are other kindred spirits out there. Like Words without Borders, an on-line magazine for international literature. Their mission is to promote:
cultural understanding through the translation, publication, and promotion of the finest contemporary international literature.
That vision extends well beyond a magazine. Words without Borders encourages teachers to include international literature in their curricula. And publishing houses to produce print anthologies. Like Literature from the “Axis of Evil”: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations (The New Press).

Thank you Smith and Cohen and Dillman, Transit Books and Words without Borders. I’m seeing a future with lots of translation in it. I can’t wait to start reading.

Note: Lost in Translation was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.


Bill Kirton said…
As an ex-prof of French, (from which it's relatively easy to translate compared with some of the examples you give), I endorse all the points you make. And I particularly liked 'It’s not enough to know the words in order to translate'.
I'd like to have included a picture of a sample of text from the Korean translation of one of my non-fiction books, where words are replaced by (to me) magical symbols, but technology is another language to which I don't have access.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for this illuminating tribute to the underappreciated art of translation. It reminded me how many translations (to English) I count on the short list of books that have moved me most in all directions - a list that travels through time as well cultural space, and without which I would be provincially impoverished, as would the cultural soup in which I swim.

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