Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Translation in Novels

Over the weekend, I read Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark. I can’t say I felt too drawn to her writing, but I’m not going to write a review of it here anyway. What is interesting is that the first section of the book I chose happened to mention translation (well, actually, interpretation), and I had some definite issues with how our field was portrayed.

The main character, Kate Brown, is good with languages and her husband agrees on her behalf for her to fill in as a conference interpreter for a few weeks one summer. First of all, though she interprets at meetings, her job is always described as “translator”. Readers of this blog, of course, know the
difference between a translator and an interpreter.

Also, Kate Brown is very well-paid; she earns enough from what probably amounts to no more than two months of work to be able to buy designer clothes, go to a fancy hairstylist, travel in Turkey and Spain, stay at an expensive hotel in London, and then still have enough to live on in a rented room in London for more than a month. Are any of you interpreters doing that well?

Finally, after working as an interpreter (not a translator!) for only a short while, Kate Brown’s boss tells her that she is wasting her talents as an interpreter and should instead work as an…(wait for it!)…administrator! That’s right, since you don’t need any talents or skills to be an interpreter (or translator), even though you are apparently very highly paid (to be fair, Mrs. Brown does earn more money as an administrator, but she still got a good salary as an interpreter). Maybe I’m not a good translator, since no one has suggested I go into administration instead!

Besides getting annoyed at all this, Lessing’s novel also made me wonder about how translators (or interpreters) are described in other novels. You’d like to believe that novelists would do research before writing about a field they don’t know much about, but did Lessing? Do you know other novels or short stories that feature translators or interpreters? If so, how are they portrayed?


Andrew Shields said...

What I always found strange about the representation of interpreting in that novel is that it is treated as something one can just do, without any special training. Language skills are supposed to be enough.

I know from my own experience interpreting between my monolingual American family and my mostly monolingual German in-laws that it is most definitely NOT something one can just do. It is exhausting if you want to do it all well, and there are obviously techniques to make it work better.

Your question about other translators or interpreters as characters is striking: one would think that such a "liminal" figure would be of great interest to fiction writers, but I can't think of even one translator character offhand.

As for further Lessing, try "The Fifth Child" next! (Proselytize, proselytize!)

pennifer said...

Well, that takes care of yet another Lessing book that I won't be reading, having recently failed miserably at "The Cleft." Thanks for the heads up! They say her oldest stuff is the best - must start there.

To the other commenter - there's Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - if I remember correctly, much of the narration takes place through the eyes of an interpreter.

B.J. Epstein said...

In the Lessing novel, Andrew, the main character has not interpreted before. She is pressed into service and is remarkably successful. No special skills (except being multilingual) and certainly no training. But, you know, you don't need any real skills to be a translator or an interpreter. And if you do happen to have talent, you should be an administrator or a project manager!
Ah, yes, I have read and enjoyed "Bel Canto," though I confess to not remembering that an interpreter narrated part of it. I wonder how this person's job was portrayed in the book.
It is very telling that we can't think of more works that include translators or interpreters. I see plenty of novels with characters who are writers, journalists, editors, publishers, or work with text in some other way. But I guess no one thinks of our field as exciting or interesting (except as a stepping-stone to bigger, better things, like being an administrator).

Best wishes,

Eric Dickens said...

I just had a quick Google to see what's on offer by way of novels, plays, etc., where translators feature or star.

There's one American-Korean one called "The Interpreter - A Novel" by Suki Kim, about New York's Korean community.

There's another one with the original title of "The Interpreter - A Novel" this time by William S. Hodges. Can't find any information about that one.

Then there's someone called Suzanne Glass who has written "The Interpreter". About a quote-unquote "simultaneous translator". The review says "Dominique is fluent in seven languages".

In 1966, Michael Frayn wrote a comic novel called "The Russian Interpreter".

And that's just interpreting. And now a translation:

In Chapter 33 of "Treading Air" by Jaan Kross, there is an interesting episode where a young Estonian, the protagonist Ullo Paerand, being the only one that knows a bit of English, has to cobble together a Declaration of Independence, a desperate plea to be read out on radio, saying roughly "we are being invaded, please help us" to the Western nations.

This was Estonian Prime-Minister Otto Tief's failed attempt, as the Germans were retreating from Estonia, and the Russians about to return, to establish an independent and neutral Estonia. No luck. The occupation lasted till 1991.

Armed only with a copy of the Silvet dictionary, a later edition of which I use to this day to translate Estonian literature, young Ullo tries his best. On pages 266-269, Kross describes all the hesitations and agonising that Ullo goes through trying to find the right vocabulary.

Someone ought to write a Masters dissertation on this whole subject ot translating and interpreting in novels.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for the names of books, Eric! We'll have to compile a list of novels, short stories, plays, and even poems or memoirs that seem to include interpreters or translators and then perhaps do a review of them. It would be interesting to know if how interpreters and translators are protrayed varies depending on genre or where the creative work is from.

Best wishes,

Anamar said...

There's a great novel writen by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa and titled "Travesuras de la niña mala" that tells the story of a translator/interpreter and gives acurate descriptions of both careers, as well as the training, skills and education required to become one. There's a whole chapter, "El trujuman", dealing with the pros and cons of our profession, the loneliness of a translator, her/his desire to have an own voice, and other aspects of translating/interpreting.
I don't know if this novel has been translated into English, if so I highly recomend its reading.
Best wishes from Venezuela, Anamar

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks, Anamar! I had not in fact hear of that book. It sounds interesting.

Best wishes,

Rise said...

I started compiling a list in 2011 of novels where translators/interpreters figure in. See: http://booktrek.blogspot.com/2011/12/reading-list-translation-in-fiction.html