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lost in translation

I was talking (read: ranting) the other night about my lack of trust in translations of fiction, despite the fact that (a) translating fiction is one of my dream jobs, one which will definitely remain a dream as there is pretty much no work in translating German fiction to English and (b) translations of the novels on my course got me through my first year in college when I really wasn't up to reading an entire novel auf Deutsch.

But hypocrisy aside, I really don't like reading stuff in translation when I have a choice, because I know how subjective they can be. What sparked off my ranting was my recent reading of Erich Kaestner's Emil und die Detective (I don't think I need to translate that title into its English version, do I?), the story of a bunch of small boys who band together to trap a thief who has picked the pocket of the eponymous Emil on his journey to Berlin. I vaguely remember reading it as a kid and quite liking it but not being overwhelmed. However, as a Deutsch-reading children's literature afficionado, I thought I should give it another go in its native language. And what I got was a lesson in how subjective translations are. A subsequent glance at the standard English translation revealed that in English, Emil and the Detectives is as humdrum as ever. Emil und die Detective, however, is utterly wonderful - subversive, charming and and laugh-out-loud funny. I checked the translation of some of the passages that had made me laugh so much I translated them to a bemused Patsington, and while the words had been translated correctly, the tone had not.

But the bits of the translated text that really stood out were glaring in their absence. One of the central characters in Emil und die Detective, the car-horn toting Gustav, regularly speaks Yiddish - and not just some of the many words that Yiddish shares with German. In the English Emil and the Detectives, however, the Yiddish is translated into plain English (I think meshuggene is simply translated as "daft"), which I find kind of sad and disturbing. Going slightly OT for a moment - glitzfrau told me recently that Yiddish as a first or second language rather than as slang is now almost extinct, which makes me sad. I really wanted to do the Yiddish course offered by the German department when I was in college, but it was only available to Germanic Studies students rather than those, like me, who were doing plain old Germanistik.

You don't need to be able to read another language to know how translations can differ - just read two different translations of the same text. Penguin Red Classics have commisioned new translations of all of the many non-English books they've been publishing, and in some cases they dramatically change the tone of the text. I particularly noticed this in their version of Kafka's Metamorphosis, which I've read in the original German, the old Muir translation, and now this new one. It's this change in tone that marks the subjective nature of so much translation, and it's why I'll never read any translations of German writing - it's the only language apart from English in which I can read fluently, so why I should I read a translation when I can read the original?

Of course, if I do ever get my dream job of translating German books (preferably entertaining ones like Emil, which I would seriously love to translate, even for fun), they will be absolutely perfect and practically the same as reading the original. Won't they?

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
alltheleaves
Jul. 31st, 2006 12:14 pm (UTC)
I'm really surprised that Yiddish is almost extinct. The ultra-orthodox rabbi that served the local synagogue when I was growing up sent his children to an ultra-orthodox school where they were taught everything in Yiddish. And ok, that's just within the ultra-orthodox communities, but considering how fast those communities were growing (the rabbi's wife was one of 15, the rabbi was one of 8, they planned to have 8 children themselves and the ultra-orthdox movement they belonged to is extremely messianic), and the fact that they teach in Yiddish, I can't imagine it dying out yet.
stellanova
Jul. 31st, 2006 03:05 pm (UTC)
Gah, I should have clarified - I think glitzfrau was specifically talking about Israel. I'm glad to see it's still thriving in London!
alltheleaves
Jul. 31st, 2006 03:32 pm (UTC)
But that's not surprising at all. When people moved to Israel they gave up speaking Yiddish and started speaking Hebrew instead. In fact Theodore Herzl, who founded the Zionist movement, specifically only spoke Hebrew to his son so he could raise the first Hebrew-speaking person in centuries. Yiddish was always a European language (specifically Eastern Europe until the pogroms that introduced the Jews into other parts of Europe and of course to the US) and has nothing to do with Israel other than it shares an alphabet with the Israeli language. If anything, the Jewish language that would have been more likely to have been spoken in Palestine would have been Ladino. Ladino was a Spanish Hebrew dialect that was spoken by Jews in the Iberian peninsula and it spread to the Middle East and Northern Africa when the Jews were expelled from Spain. As far as I'm aware Ladino is really not spoken at all and rarely taught as it has been so widely replaced by Hebrew.
stellanova
Jul. 31st, 2006 03:53 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah, I wasn't hugely surprised - I've always been awestruck by the successful revival of Hebrew in such a short period of time (such a huge contrast to the crappily unsuccessful revivial of Irish, although obviously there was a more pressing need for a new lingua franca in Israel). And I understand why there was a turning away from Yiddish. But at the same time, I was a bit surprised that Yiddish has faded away so quickly - linguistic changes usually aren't so speedy, especially when the newly dominant language (modern Hebrew, in this case) was initially the first language of so few people. I suppose I expected Yiddish to linger among people for a bit longer.
alltheleaves
Jul. 31st, 2006 04:04 pm (UTC)
I think one of the main reasons why was because of the great big Jewish melting pot that is Israel. Even though everyone who migrated there was Jewish they were from so many different countries; even though many of them spoke Yiddish, there are tons of different Yiddish dialects not to mention Russian Yiddish and German Yiddish being completely different languages altogether. Then there were tons of Jews from all the Middle Eastern countries that fled in because they were no longer welcome anywhere else and obviously had never spoken Yiddish. Jews from the UK and the US, if they were more than one generation away, were unlikely to speak Yiddish anymore at all. And Ethiopian and Indian Jews - totally different culture. And people wanted to speak Hebrew. It was the official language of the Jewish state and therefore in a sense the official language of Zionism and the settlers were Zionists.

Another reason is that Jews fleeing from Europe before, during and after the second world war wanted to completely dissociate themselves from where they'd come from. If you were a German Jew in 1945, you no longer wanted to speak any German or any German-sounding language.
stellanova
Jul. 31st, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
Russian Yiddish and German Yiddish being completely different languages altogether.

I didn't know that! I always thought that Germanic Yiddish had been carried into Eastern Europe and that Russian Yiddish was a dialect of German Yiddish but not totally and utterly different.

I do understand the reasons for rejecting Yiddish (and embracing Hebrew, of course). It's just the speed that amazes me! I mean, it's been 84 years since Irish independence and over a 100 since the beginning of the Gaelic Revival, and most of us can barely string a sentence together in our supposed mother tongue, despite it being compulsory in schools from age 5 to 18. But of course the need for a lingua franca makes the huge difference. Although Wales seem to have been pretty successful - in comparison to us, anyway.
alltheleaves
Jul. 31st, 2006 04:41 pm (UTC)
As far as I know - and I may not be the Yiddish expert that I'm claiming to be here - German Yiddish is bastardised German whereas Russian Yiddish is bastardised Russian and both really sound like the original tongue and nothing like each other. May have got this really wrong though. There's definitely a whole ton of dialects according to where people came from.

And I totally see what you mean about the revival (or lack thereof) of Gaelic. Perhaps it's also to do with the proximity to England that meant it just didn't go away so easily. Or the mass migration that has occurred to English-speaking countries. Then there was TV and radio from the 1930's which may have impeded this revival.

The Welsh revival is a funny one. It may be simply because they're essentially still a colony and need to prove their independence through their language if nothing else. The number of people I came across in Wales who didn't actually speak Welsh themselves but would send their own kids to a Welsh-speaking school was really astonishing.
listersgirl
Jul. 31st, 2006 01:10 pm (UTC)
I have the same mistrust - I don't generally read translated books for pleasure, because I find it very hard to immerse myself in them. Rather than getting involved in the story I spend all my time second guessing the translation, and wondering if that's *really* what the original author intended to say.
stellanova
Jul. 31st, 2006 03:18 pm (UTC)
That's exactly how I feel about it!
protoainsley
Aug. 1st, 2006 02:37 am (UTC)
...which is why you'd do a better job than many translators, IMO.

It's one reason I'm glad I'll be learning German, loan money permitting.

timeheldinsepia
Jul. 31st, 2006 04:34 pm (UTC)
Friend?
Dear Stellanova,
Hello! May I please add you to my friends list? I found you while searching for a photograph of Alice Lidell. You don't have to friend me back if you don't want to, of course. I just think you have a very interesting journal!

Sincerely,
Mary
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