~ On Translation

October 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Languages are selfish. Everyone knows that once they’ve been abroad and struggled to make themselves understood. That is a sad thing, but even sadder is that they separate us from great books.

As a multilingual person, I knew about the cruelty of translation as something terribly frustrating to do – how do you translate Gatsby’s ‘old sport’ in another language without making it sound ridiculous? Is it even worth trying to translate a poem? And if you do give it a go, what do you choose to leave out? The rhyming scheme? The metaphors? The rhythm?

But my frustration deepened and took another dimension recently when I finished a great book. In French. And I wanted my boyfriend to read it. In English.

And there were no translations available.

That is when I started appreciating how lucky I am to be able to read in several languages and how much I have been taking it for granted. This matter is not trivial when we know that some people learn a specific language to gain access to its literature in the original – Dante, for instance (and it certainly is on my to do list). I have always worried about not being able to read everything before I die but once I started taking literature in languages I cannot speak into account, my head started spinning.

And I also started wondering who decides. Who has the power to say that a particular book will be granted publication in a different language and that another one will remain the privilege of a lucky few? I am sure many elements come into play, such as how popular it has been or whether it would translate in cultural terms but it seems sad that some books should be left out simply because only a few can be afforded and all the others do not make the cut. I suppose some take longer than others – for instance, I wonder if J.K. Rowling’s new title would have been translated so quickly (or at all) despite its mixed reviews if she wasn’t the phenomenon that she already is.

And so I can only shout at the top of my lungs on this vast Internet space: To Whom It May Concern, please, please, PLEASE translate Marie-Aude Murail’s Miss Charity into English! It is brilliant, will delight children and adults alike and it takes place in England, for heaven’s sake!


NB: Incidentally, many other of Marie-Aude Murail’s books are fantastic and some have actually been translated (a list can be found here) although my favourite ones are not available in English yet. I may have to write about them at some point anyway.


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