I have just finished reading a book of short stories called ‘The Elephant Vanishes’ by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. It was written in Japanese originally and I read the English translation.
Overall, I thought the book was good, though a little odd a times, with elements of the surreal weaving through each story. This was mostly in the form of magical realism – surreal or imagined things presented as perfectly regular.
I like magical realism for the most part – it can be fun or poignant, or both at the same time. My criticism of the book is that many of the stories seem to end abruptly, or have an odd structure to them. I also found the central protagonist in each story to be much the same character – young man, womaniser, drinks a lot of beer. I don’t know whether this link was intentional, but it didn't work for me. If it was intentional, it wasn’t obvious. If it wasn’t intentional, I shouldn't have noticed it.
There were a few occasions where I wondered if my confusion or lack of understanding of an undertone or hidden meaning may have been lost in translation. For example, one of the stories made use of the word ‘kit-chin’, italicised to emphasise the spelling. Having studied Japanese, I understand how some western words are adapted to fit with Japanese pronunciation, so I presumed that was what was going on, though I was unsure why there was an emphasis. Later, it transpires, another person in the dialogue says ‘kitchen’, and the writer identifies that she used the Japanese word. The person is corrected, as this particular firm like to use the English word ‘Kit-chin’. You can see why this particular part of the story didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. However, I think the translator probably did the best they could while keeping the integrity and original meaning of the story intact.
It made me think of other works I have read in an English translation rather than the original text, for example, Jostein Gaarder. Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie’s World, is a Norweigan writer whose work has been translated into English among many other languages. I began to think about how much work the translator had to do on his books because of the many deep philosophical concepts, ideas and metaphors that won’t translate directly or easily. I’ve always felt the depth and philosophy in Jostein Gaarders translated works shows that little, if any, can have been lost in translation. But it occurs to me – how would I ever know?
Which brings me to one of my old lecturers, Dr Mariau, who taught a module in Metaphysical fiction. He is French, but speaks fluent English, as well as a fair few other languages. This gives him an advantage in translated works, because he has enough understanding of each language to gauge what is lost through translation. We studied The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille (I don’t recommend unless you have a strong stomach and a very, very open mind). The version we read was a bad translation from the French according to him. He said that the language used in the translation changed a lot of the impact and focus of the story, making it a lot more explicit.
So how far do you think the quality of translation affects a story? Do we give enough credit to the translators of works we know and love?