On translating place through literature
Writer Julian Barnes, in his review of Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary, criticized her for veering “too far away from English,” for translating certain phrases in a clunky, literal way.
Many translators argue that to be faithful to a text one must respect its musicality as much as the meaning of its words. If a text isn’t clunky in French, Davis herself explained to The Times, it shouldn’t be clunky in English. And many contend that good translations shouldn’t read like translations at all. I recently spoke with Guatemalan novelist Eduardo Halfon, who said, “As readers we want to be pulled into the pages we’re reading, into the stories, into the words, without stopping to consider how those words landed on that page. Great translations just read like great books. Period.”
But how far is too far? A Guardian review of Halfon’s The Polish Boxer took issue with translation of the first chapter, which the British reviewer claimed had been translated “almost aggressively into American (‘goddam,’ ‘jackass,’ and so on).”
This raises the question — can we translate language without translating culture? Should translators opt for a neutral English, even if it’s unlike the English anyone speaks? According to Halfon, language and culture are inextricable: “It would be as if my publisher in Spain suddenly decided to change my Guatemalan Spanish — my Guatemalan words and forms of expression — into the Spanish more commonly spoken in Spain. That translation process — translating not only my words, but my culture — would alter the book profoundly. It would make it something else.” The same is true from Spanish to English — we can’t expect translations to be both fluid and culturally neutral.
The question then becomes: To what culture should we translate? In Halfon’s case, the choice of American English came easily: “I now live in the U.S., and American English is much closer to me than British English. It was a conscious decision very early on that the voice of my narrator — who so closely resembles his author — should be in American English. Culturally, and creatively, it just made sense,” he said.
The lines between language and culture grow especially blurred when it comes to slang, so tied as it is to time and place. I talked to British translator Annie McDermott, who mentioned Rosalind Harvey’s translation of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole. Harvey considered using the British term chav for the Mexican naco, McDermott told me, but opted against it so as not to “instantly remove the story from its Mexican setting and rehome it in the south of England.”
This difficulty is part of what makes great translation so powerful: It opens our minds to new ways of thinking. Different languages express different ideas, as evidenced by the ever-growing lists of brilliantly untranslatable words. The Dutch word gezelligheid refers not just to “comfort” or “coziness,” but to “the comfort or coziness that comes from being at home with loved ones” (indoor coziness being a readier concept in Holland than the Caribbean, we might imagine). We can come close to translating some of these — lykke is similar to “happiness,” saudade is not unlike “yearning” — but the inability to do so in a single word comes from the fact that in their source languages, these sentiments are common or important enough to merit their own linguistic shortcuts.
In Spanish, we write about different kinds of love: te quiero, te amo. As translator Edith Grossman explained to Words Without Borders last year, “It’s startling to realize how much emotional territory the verb ‘to love’ covers: we can love parents, children, lovers, spouses, friends, film stars, food, clothing, places, holidays, books, music, paintings — everything in our lives, in fact — and use the same verb for all of it.” As a general rule, Grossman does not distinguish between these terms in translation.
I recently translated the story “Snow” by Bolivian writer Giovanna Rivero. Throughout the text, a young mother living abroad makes aimless loops on a city bus as she struggles to connect with her son on the phone. Early in the conversation, she tells him she loves him, using the less serious form, te quiero. Later, moved by a sense of urgency as her son drifts toward sleep, she uses the stronger te amo:
— Wait… — she said.
— Just a moment…
— I’ll call you this weekend and you can tell me your dreams. I’ll call you early.
— I’ll try to remember them — said her son.
— Hey — she said — you know something? I know you don’t know this: te amo. I love you more than anything.
Grossman’s right: In most cases, the difference between these terms is not significant enough to need a clear distinction. Here, though, te amo marks a turning point in the conversation — to simply repeat the English “I love you” would have failed to communicate this shift.
Travel has a similar power to expose us to new ways of thinking. When I arrive in a new place I’m wide-eyed and stupid, constantly struck by new things. I savor those first moments of childlike discovery: coming across elegant fabric printed with cell phones at a market in Dakar; a kitschy, chocolate-themed sex motel in Guatemala City; hundreds of carpets laid over cobblestone streets to prepare for a visit from Morocco’s king.
But like travel, good translations — especially of contemporary fiction — can remind us of our sameness, too. In Buenos Aires, Hernán Vanoli describes the hangouts of two determined lovers:
Our get-togethers are for purely reproductive purposes: Mariela and I agreed to have a child that she’ll look after five days a week and I’ll look after two days. Once the baby’s born, we’ll both focus on finding happiness. We call our get-togethers baby dates. We drink whiskey. We watch YouTube videos. We discuss the sorry state of Argentine literature. We give each other candy. She almost always gets me Nerds.
This is not the Argentina of tango and Malbec — Vanoli’s story is a pleasure to read in part because it’s so relatable.
Of everything published in the U.S., roughly 3% is work in translation, as compared with 25-40% in Europe and Latin America. We often think of sadness, happiness, and love as universal emotions, but there’s value in exploring the way these emotions are described differently across language and culture. For this, and for translation’s power to remind us of our connectedness, we need to keep reading.