Our resident translation expert, writer, and jack-of-all-trades, Daniel Hahn, is back to respond to reader questions on the fine art of translation. Today’s question comes from, once again, Romanian reader, physicist, poet, and translator Marius Surleac.
Throughout your career, what was the book that you found the hardest to translate?
I have two very different answers to this, depending on your interpretation of the question. I’ll give you one of them.
The first thing to say is that there are, of course, lots of interesting ways a book can be difficult, lots of writerly qualities to tax a translator’s re-creational skills.
A book might be, simply, hard to grasp fully in the original, hard to figure out what the hell the author is actually doing or meaning. There might be stylistic issues that don’t travel well, or at least not easily—long, nested un-English sentences, say, or effects that depend on certain idiosyncratic syntactical structures that don’t match our own. (Sorry, “certain idiosyncratic syntactical structures” is a horrible phrase. In English, at least.) There might be the distinctiveness of a voice—perhaps slangy or in a dialect—that resists recreation without feeling forced or oddly accented. There might be any number of seemingly intransigent linguistic tricks, clever wordplay, that don’t have direct equivalents in the new language and so require building entirely new acrobatic effects from scratch. There might perhaps be jokes. READ MORE…