Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Books on Language – Latin

To continue with the theme of books on language, I’d like to look at Latin.

I studied Latin in middle school and high school and I realized immediately that it was a really useful language for any speaker or learner of English or Romance languages (and, of course, it has influenced other tongues as well). Even though I unfortunately can’t read it today, what I remember still helps me, both as a teacher of English and also as a user of the language myself.

But though I learned the language (including all those declensions), I didn’t get a good sense of the culture surrounding it. Tore Janson’s book A Natural History of Latin fills that need. Mr. Janson explains the origins of Latin, how and why it became important, and why it is relevant today. I wish his book had been available when I was in school, because it would have helped me understand Latin in the context of its cultural and historical background.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Books on Language – English

As a certified “language nerd,” I really enjoy reading books about the history and culture behind languages. As a translator, you have to understand the grammar and vocabulary of a language, of course, and having a sense of the cultural is also important, but learning about the history of a language is not only helpful, but also fascinating. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that many people who teach languages too often ignore the cultural and historical aspects, which I happen to think would entice students and get them more excited about their language learning. Language is not just a way to communicate (unless you’re speaking Globish!), but also offers a whole culture and a worldview.

In this post and the following two, I’ll write about some of the interesting books on language that I’ve read.

My all-time favorite book on English is Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue. Mr. Bryson is an excellent, entertaining author who could probably make any subject interesting. His book enthusiastically describes the history of English, how it has become a global language, and so forth, but it also includes chapters on word play and swearing, and has examples of bad English. I admit that I laugh aloud as I read (and re-read) Mother Tongue, and I’ve shared the book with students, who found it both amusing and interesting.

The Stories of English by David Crystal has a different perspective than most language books in that it doesn’t just discuss the history of standard English but instead includes many varieties of English. Hence, the title is not The Story of English but rather The Stories. Many people view the standard varieties of languages as the only correct ones (in part because that is what is taught in school), but the fact is that the majority of the speakers of any language do not speak the standard. This book looks at the development of English, in all its varieties, over time. The prolific Mr. Crystal, by the way, has recently started a blog.

What about you? Do you have favorite books on languages?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Translator Joachim Neugroschel

I happened to find an interview with translator Joachim Neugroschel, who has translated from French, German, Italian, Russian, and Yiddish, and also to German. I found some of his ideas about translation a little different from those of other literary translators. For example, he never reads a book before translating it, because he says he has “[n]o reason to.” How, then, does he decide what to translate and what to turn down? Apparently, money is the answer, as he says, “If the publisher pays me enough, I will do the translation.” Many translators say they need to feel they have something in common with the authors they translate, or at least some feeling of empathy and interest, but Mr. Neugroschel doesn’t feel it is necessary to even have much knowledge of the author’s work, because he can just “get the style” by reading a page.

Interestingly, he also claims that you can tell a bad translation just by reading it, which suggests that all you need it the target text and then you can judge the translation. Obviously, I disagree with that, and feel that you do need to know an author’s work and the source language to be able to truly judge the quality of a translation. Bad grammar could be part of the source text on purpose, so if it is in the target text, that doesn’t necessarily mean the translation is poor. Also, many other things could make a translation bad, such as if the translator has misunderstood the original document or has tried to improve it, or if the word choices don’t accurately represent it. And it is difficult for a monolingual reader to judge any of that.

As a side note, I wonder if Kafka really would find Mr. Neugroschel’s translation excellent. It isn’t that I doubt the latter’s abilities, but if Kafka didn’t even want his work published, what would he think about it being translated and made available to even larger audiences?

Here are some excerpts from the interview with Mr. Neugroschel.

Interview with Joachim Neugroschel

EG Do you read a whole work before translating? Do you translate the words literally?

JN I never read a book before translating it. No reason to. I do not translate the words literally. Only a bad translator would translate literally.

EG In order to not write a literal translation, don't you have to have a sense of an author and their work? How do you capture that uniqueness of an author and transfer it to another language?

JN You don't have to have a sense of the author's work to translate. I read a page and get the style. It is a question of music and rhythm. It is like being an actor. An actor can take on different roles. A translator takes on different roles.

EG Does anyone go over your translations before publication?

JN Yes, often a copy editor. One copy editor changed the words spiral crack to spinal crack. If you get hit in a certain way the crack is spiral.

EG How do you recognize a good translation?

JN Just read it. Grammatical blunders are a clue. Example: when it comes to adverbs, first you have place and then time.

“I went to school yesterday.” To school is an adverbial phrase of place. Yesterday is an adverb of time. This is correct usage. A phrase such as, “I'm going tomorrow to school,” is bad grammar. Poor grammar is obvious in bad translations.

EG You are taking a little of the mystery of translation away. I don't speak a foreign language; thinking about the art of translation is new to me.

JN If you don't know a foreign language, you can only judge a translation by its use of English. Think about this. Most of the books you've read are translations.

EG I never thought of that. When you think of it you are not getting the direct voice of the author. What if Kafka was around today and he knew English, what would he think of your translation of "Metamorphosis"?

JN He would find it excellent. I've captured the flavor and the quivering of his voice. He would be very grateful to me.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Pseudotranslations and Anti-Plagiarism

A really fascinating subject has come up in some of my recent reading: pseudotranslation. In his book Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond,

Gideon Toury defines pseudotranslations as “texts which have been presented as translation with no corresponding source texts in other languages ever having existed – hence no factual ‘transfer operations’ and translation relationships”. In other words, it is a fake translation.

But what is the point of that? Mr. Toury suggests that this is a “a convenient way of introducing novelties into a culture” and is especially useful “in cultures reluctant to deviate from sanctioned models and norms.” He also mentions that there may be times when either translation itself or else a particular type of literature has prestige, so authors try to get in on the action, as it were, by creating pretend translations. There are also occasionally political reasons behind them, and an example he gives is of a supposed Kazakh folk singer whose work conveniently existed in Russian, but never in the original language.

After reading the “excursus” on pseudotranslations in Mr. Toury’s book, I happened to read an article on looking for literary plagiarism that described a similar phenomenon, anti-plagiarism. The article said “Literary critic Terry Eagleton has written entertainingly of “anti-plagiarism,” a 19th-century literary wheeze favored by Irish critics, who pounced on poets or novelists for plagiarizing or surreptitiously translating some little-known domestic or foreign work and presenting it under their name. The trick was that the “original” work presented by the prosecuting critic was itself a forgery, written after a new work’s publication to frame an enemy.” This article then linked to Mr. Eagleton’s on literary forgery.

Although both pseudotranslations and anti-plagiarism can seem to be a kind of literary shtick, designed to get an author noticed, or even an abuse of the form, meant to accomplish a political or cultural goal, there might be times when such a style can be successful and witty.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

All the best wishes for 2007, and for translators that includes interesting and challenging assignments, pleasant customers who value your work, and lots of translatorial success in general.

I’ll be taking a break from work in January, which means I’ll be posting less, but do check in, since there will still be new material.