One of the things that kept me extremely busy this past fall was a continuing education course. When I moved to Las Vegas, which has a university and a college, I promised myself that I would return to school. I had planned to register as soon as I passed my year’s residency, but I couldn’t get my creaky old transcripts from 100,000 years ago when I was first in school in time for the application deadline for the fall semester.
So I looked at continuing education and saw a few basic Spanish courses. 100,000 years ago, I was a Spanish major (until I couldn’t afford the trip overseas to complete the major). I described myself as functionally illiterate in Spanish. I knew all the words in a sentence except the important one. I learned that in a subway car in Manhattan when I saw a sign in Spanish that, loosely translated, meant: When you have _________, go to a hospital immediately. I got every word except the crucial one. Have what? To this day, I don’t know.
The class was marvelous and just what I needed. Some days it was much too easy. I knew every word, could understand every sentence, and answer every question. Other days, I felt like I’d never heard the language at all.
The professor was a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in Colombia. But his family was from Venezuela, and the textbook we used, chosen by his predecessor, was all in Castilian Spanish. (Spain.) To make matters worse, the book was an updated version of the same text that one of my other classmates had used in her first Spanish class…in 1977.
So, each class we had that amusing moment where our professor would scrunch up his face at a word, and then give us a different word for the same thing. Or a more modern version of the word. My notebook was filled with five or six options for the same item, often with the country where the word is spoken written in parenthesis.
And sometimes, he would tell us how that simple word, so clear in one country, would be troublesome in another. What got us started late one class was the word for jacket, which, according to the book, was “chaqueta.” But, in Mexico, “chaqueta” means masturbation. The prof told the story of a English-speaking friend with minimal Spanish visiting Mexico. He was about to go out to dinner with friends, but realized he forgot his jacket.
He said, in what he thought was very clear Spanish, that he forgot his jacket in his hotel room and would be right back. His friends waited. It only took him a minute or two to retrieve the jacket, and his friends said, “That was remarkably fast.” It took a while for him to figure out that he had told his Mexican friends he had forgotten to masturbate in his hotel room and would join them after he did so. Surprisingly, at least to me, they waited for him to return.
All of this reminded the prof of a video which he shared with us, and which you should watch before going much farther with this post.
I was taking this class during the Business Master Class. I had to leave the Master Class early on Monday so that I could go to my Spanish class, and ironically, that was the week of the video.
I say ironically because at the Master Class, I had a discussion with a friend about the future of translation. She pointed to all the changes in audio, changes which involve AI and all kinds of exciting innovations, which I will deal with in my next post.
She expected those changes to happen in translation as well. In fact, she told me (as she has in the past) that she believes it can be done now. Using Google Translate, or a similar program, she has translated some short stories, and put them up for sale.
And I shudder every time I think of that. Because translation is an art, not a science.
In this Spanish class, unlike the Spanish classes of my youth, the students either had their phones out or their computers open to a translate program. If they didn’t know the word, they would look it up—and get the word right enough to make their meaning clear, but often wrong in a way that was seriously giggle-worthy. (Watch that video again.)
Hence the discussions that I mentioned.
In the argument that I had with this writer off and on for years, I would mention the problems caused by literal translation, and she would pooh-pooh me. Saying it was really nothing.
But it is something, and finally I have more than my word and a fun video to back me up.
In the Fall 2019 edition of Mystery Scene, Craig Sisterson interviewed several translators about their work. (The article is not online. You’ll need to order the issue to read it. I’d recommend doing so.)
The article deals with the particular difficulties of translating crime fiction. Choosing the wrong word can spoil the story entirely. (Quotes taken from pages 29-31 in the magazine.)
The classic example, cited by two of the translators, was of a German translation of an Agatha Christie novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The young translator took the term “spills vase” and translated it, in German, to mean “vase.”
However, in English, a “‘spills vase was an old-fashioned ornament that contained ripped up paper for lighting candles from the fire, and was vital to Peroit’s deduction and unmasking of the killer” leaving German readers confused as to the story, simply because of the word choice. [MS Fall 2019 P. 30]
According to Sian Reynolds, whose translations from the French have won her international acclaim, such challenges aren’t unusual. Take, for example, prolific Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon.
“Simenon writes in a deceptively simple style, with a very restricted vocabulary,” she told Mystery Scene. “Underneath something is going on, but you need to keep the language simple without repeating too much. English often has a wide range of words for the same French word, e.g. the room in most houses or flats is known as le salon. In English it could be living room, sitting room, drawing room, lounge, parlour—it depends on context, and then you are making a social statement. Which do you choose?”
That choice is why everyone who understands how translations truly work state that a translator is a collaborator with the author. Sure, a machine translation might come up with a understandable translation of the book, but the translation would be literal.
And in storytelling, literal is not what you want. You want the readers to be engaged with the story itself and the characters, not struggle with word choice. (Did she mean chaqueta as in jacket? Or something else entirely?)
David Warriner, who translates French-Canadian and French authors into English, told Mystery Scene, “I’m not just translating their story. I’m translating their voice.”
One of those authors, Johana Gustawsson, whose novel, Blood Song, Warriner translated into English, expressed pleasure at his translation because he caught her voice.
She told Mystery Scene that Warriner “really managed to beautifully translate the jokes, with all my southern sense of humor….I think that, indeed, it became our book, and not only mine anymore.”
I agree. I read books in translation and usually quit when the translation is rote or uses words that aren’t common in English to get that literal translation.
I also feel like the translators who’ve worked on my novels are a large part of the success of those translated novels. I remember spending days on a back-and-forth with my French translator, Luc Baranger, about the title of my second Smokey Dalton novel. In English, the title is “Smoke-Filled Rooms,” which refers to political dirty dealing in back rooms.
We shared a number of emails in which he tried out various French phrases, all of them idioms, that might have a similar sense as smoke-filled rooms, something that would appeal to the French reader. He finally chose À couper au couteau, which literally means “to cut with a knife.” French speakers will have to tell me if the title worked, but I do know that no one complained.
And the amount of work that went into choosing that phrase alone was tremendous. I’ve had other translators do similar work on other idioms, because idioms, when they are literally translated, are ridiculous.
(My French editor, who spoke excellent English, screwed up an idiom in introducing his assistant to me. “She is my left hand,” he said to me. I knew what he meant. But figuring out what he meant as opposed to using the idiom correctly is the difference between enjoying a story and deciphering one.)
Audio books are hitting a level where we can bifurcate the audio experience. A lot of people are listening to flat machine voices read books. They’re also listening to podcasts at 2.5 speed (guilty), just to get the information from them.
My writer friend believes translations will go the way of audio in that machine translations will be the default for some readers. I simply can’t imagine it. While you can get a sense of a book from a poor audio recording of that book, you can’t get a good sense of a book from a poor translation.
Add in the fact that every language grows and changes, and each generation has its own slang, and translation becomes quite tricky indeed.
At this point, December of 2019, I still prefer to trust my work to a good translator than to a machine translation program.
Will I feel the same in December of 2029? I don’t know. I’m not going to underestimate the possibilities of artificial intelligence.
But I do know that right now, AI is not at the level where I trust any program to do even a literal translation of one of my novels. And I don’t want literal translations.
I want good translations.
How do I get them? Well, right now, I’m not pursuing translation, although a number of translators have pursued me. Some of them are connected to publishing companies, and some of them aren’t. I make the decision to work with the translator based on the same factor I would use in any licensing deal. What do they bring to the table?
I know some of you want to pursue your own translations, and let me urge you to start with short fiction in translation. If readers in another country want to read more of your work, they will agitate for it, and eventually, that will come to the attention of someone who can license the work in that language and pay you for the translation rights.
You’ll also find good translators this way. If readers like your work that regularly appears in Japanese from the same translator, then you probably want that translator to work on your novels as well.
The other reason I urge you to start with short fiction is the ease of submitting to the many, many available markets. Douglas Smith keeps an up-to-date foreign markets list here. Be sure to read his post on submitting to foreign markets before you even try to do so.
Technology is helping the world get smaller, making it easier for us to share our work in a variety of formats. We can submit work for translation, easily find out about other markets (see Doug Smith, above) and maybe even find a good translator or two.
Right now, I license my work in translation. I don’t have time to do the work to find a translator, a copy editor in that language, and research proper covers for the language and oh so much more. DIY translation—where you hire it all out, at quite a cost (for someone good)—is time consuming, without a lot of initial return. The return will come, just much more slowly than it does with other things you can do with your precious time.
Will this be different ten years from now? I hope so. But the situation on translation hasn’t changed much since 2010, so all I have at the moment is hope.
And, for the record, I’m not learning Spanish so that I can eventually translate my own work into that language. I’m coming to the language too late to ever feel comfortable using it as more than a rudimentary communications tool (and to go back and read in Spanish again).
Besides, remember the video: Qué difícil es hablar el español. And German. And French. And Japanese. And…and…and…
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“Business Musings: Translation 2019,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / dizanna.