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#FoylesFive: Lost (and found) in Translation

4th July 2016 - Jenny Nicholls

I have long been fascinated by translation: the art of changing the fundamental substance of a text – the language in which it was conceived and crafted – while maintaining the meaning, style and effect of the original. Translators have a hugely difficult task, which is often overlooked and under-appreciated because, when it is done well, translation should be almost invisible to the reader; they should feel as if they were reading the author's original words. It is, however, completely impossible to render a work into another language without altering, losing or gaining intangible elements that are inextricably linked to the language through which you experience the text. With this in mind, I have chosen five brilliant books that address the difficulties of translation.

 

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos 

'Is That a Fish in Your Ear?' has got to be one of my favourite non-fiction books of all time. It is a fascinating look at the nature of translation and the difficulties that accompany translating everything from fiction to humour to news. It also approaches topics such as bilingualism, language acquisition and simultaneous interpretation in an extremely engaging way. Not to be missed!

 

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, trans. Susan Bernofsky

Kafka's brilliant novella The Metamorphosis has spawned a bewildering number of translations into English. Translating from German comes with a host of syntax issues, and Kafka's use of language for the greatest impact is especially hard to replicate in English. There will never be a 'definitive' translation of the novella, but this 2014 edition presents a new solution to perhaps the most challenging part of the text – the crucial first sentence. Bernofsky explains her approach in a very interesting afterword to the text.

 

Multiples edited by Adam Thirlwell

Multiples is a fascinating book with contributions from a variety of well-known authors including J.M. Coetzee, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell and Tom McCarthy. Stories are translated in a chain, back and forth to English via other languages. But there's a twist – none of the translators are fully proficient in the language presented to them, with the result that the texts transform and shift into entirely different pieces of writing. Whether you can read some of the other language versions or not, this is a very interesting look at the consequences of inevitably imperfect translation.

 

Hunger by Knut Hamsun, trans. Sverre Lyngstad

This Norwegian novel, first published in 1890, is credited as being hugely influential on much of 20th century fiction. It is a fantastic, timeless read that has really stuck with me. Hunger has been translated three times into English with Lyngstad's translation regarded as the most accomplished, and in a very interesting addition to the novel he takes a critical look at the translations that preceded his own, comparing in great detail the choice of words and phrasing of certain passages.

 

Embassytown by China Mieville

For a fictional look at language barriers, there is none more imaginative than China Mieville's Embassytown. The plot is centred around the relationship between human settlers and the alien Hosts, who speak a unique language which requires two mouths and in which it is impossible to lie. Only a tiny proportion of humans are capable of communicating with the Hosts, and a particular pair of interpreters set a sequence of disastrous events in motion. A masterfully written and fantastic read.

 

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