Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Lost in Translation: L’arte di ottenerla di destra ...

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Lost in Translation: L’arte di ottenerla di destra ...

A good friend of mine is perfectly bilingual, English and French, and while I can read and understand French, my mind has to work at it. I can get by in a conversation with my rusty vocabulaire (and what does it say about human nature that we all insist on learning swear words right away when we meet someone who speaks a different language?).

With my friend, both languages come as effortlessly as breath to her lungs. She can switch between the two like a train seemlessly diverted to a new set of tracks. But I was fascinated to learn that she dreams in French and thinks in French, because this was her first language. “Thinks in French”. Just think about that for a moment. Think of the implications for writing and reading.

David Bellos’ recent book from Faber and Faber – ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear’ – examines the mystery and art and philosophy of translation. Ever since the Bible was translated, people have been arguing that a translation can never offer an adequate substitute for the original. This has to be true by the simple virtue that a) literal word-for-word translations would render a work incomprehensible and b) anything less than a literal word-for-word translation means of course the original work has been “interpreted.”

And this got me thinking about all of the terrific Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels I would never have read if Edith Grossman or Gregory Rabassa had not painstakingly and lovingly translated them from the original Spanish. I know also that there is debate among Marquez afficiandos as to which of the two was his “best” translator, if best means staying truest to the orginal. Bellos writes that, basically, translation “provides … an acceptable match for an utterance made in a foreign tongue.”

But what’s “acceptable”, that’s the question ...

These rascally kids today use Google and Babelfish to do their French homework, and people my age use it to pretend in emails that we happen to know a few witty phrases in Latin or Flemish. Ego sum a dolor homo, eh?

Back when I worked in advertising just long enough to learn how to convince people to buy junk they don’t need, we accepted as a matter of course that every single flyer and print ad we put out – translated from English to French – would draw letters from insulted Francophones who insisted we got the essence wrong. You can’t win for trying. And people will argue with you on this issue as though the lives of their children depend on it.

I know one thing for sure. Translating a 900-page novel the likes of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' has got to be seen as equal to the art of writing the thing.

And speaking of interpretations, check out 'Decision Points'. It is George W. Bush’s interpretation of 2000-2010.



The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page