A couple of weeks ago I came across Smartling, a website translation company and it made me think about the subject of translating literature. How do you preserve the ‘nature’ of a story, while changing the language it is written in? This made me wonder what would be important in translating my favorite works of fiction. Of course I could never pick just one favorite, so instead I’ll talk about a book that was important to my switch from reading English novels in Dutch to reading them in their original language.
I have praised Jasper Fforde more often, because reading his first novel gave me a craving for books and literature that hasn’t stopped since. The Eyre Affair (and the Thursday Next series) is about a female detective called Thursday Next who works for Special Operative department 27. This means she’s a literary detective, tasked with policing the literary aspects of our world. In this first part of the series, she finds out she can jump into novels and interact with any literary character she wants. When important characters are being kidnapped from their novels and literature seems to be doomed, Thursday travels to Brönte’s Jane Eyre and has to save the day.
The book is filled with references to the western literary canon and it made me interested in learning about the classics. Fforde references so many novels, poems and important literary characters in his series that it’s hard not to find another piece of fiction that peaks your interest. After reading The Eyre Affair I went on a binge of buying classic literature and I’m still slowly making my way through them.
Jasper Fforde is a decidedly British author and his books are filled with references that you may not understand if you’re not well-versed in British culture. The book is so British that the Americans even have their own version and every book gets a guide on Fforde’s website to explain all the little references you might not have gotten while reading. Of course, every writer writes from their own perspective, but when a book is so rooted in a specific culture, it can be even more difficult to translate the work into a different language. This becomes even harder when the book is filled with wordplay that is very specific to (in this case) the English language. A great example of this is one of Thursday’s enemies. He’s called Jack Schitt and the joke here is obvious to anyone who speaks English. However, if you don’t speak English and this name is simply copied into your language, you have no idea why everyone is giggling whenever you read his name. Fforde’s book is filled with little tidbits like that and it’s obvious that he spent a lot of time building his world and his characters so that almost everything has more than one meaning. He plays with language like Benedict Cumberbatch plays with our hearts and sometimes all you can do is just read and reread the lines and stare at it in awe.
This is exactly what I like about The Eyre Affair. On the surface the book can be a ‘simple’ story about a detective in a crazy literary world, but if you pay more attention to it and read more carefully, you’ll find a second and a third layer to the writing. You’ll find clever jokes that you’ve skipped while reading the action and allusions to literature and pop culture that will make you laugh out loud. To me, this makes the book almost untranslatable. How can you ensure that these deeper layers, these hidden jokes, are still in the text when you shift to a different language? How can you translate a book that is so rooted in the British language into Dutch or German or even Thai or Russian? Something will surely be lost in translation.
The Eyre Affair is translated in 22 countries, so somehow that many translators have managed to work Fforde’s jokes into a different language. Unfortunately I’ve never had the pleasure of finding the Dutch version, but somehow I can’t imagine it will be as good as the original. To me, the language is what makes the book, and I wouldn’t even know where to start with translating, especially when it comes to the jokes. Thursday’s husband is called Landon Park-Laine after Park Lane, London, the second most expensive street on the UK version of Monopoly. This is such a specific British reference again, that the American ‘translators’ didn’t even catch it. But if they would have, would they have changed his name to Atlas Park-Place? It took me about fifteen minutes just to come up with that horrible spin on Park Place, Atlantic City. So imagine how much time it would take to do this to an entire book filled with similar jokes that still need to be funny. With a book like this, translators have to make a decision. Do they translate a joke, no matter how bad that may turn out, or do they keep in the original name and risk losing a layer of the work? They can even decide to just make up a new joke, possibly breaching the border between author and translator. Doing that opens up a whole new territory of questions that I won’t be answering today.
Not having read any of the other translations, I can’t say for certain that any of them failed or succeeded, but I’m definitely interested in what choices the translators made. So if there’s anyone out there who can read those specific 18 languages and is willing to write about which translation did what right, please let us know and we’ll give you book recommendations for an eternity in return. Then again, even if all translations are flawed in their own way, it’s still amazing that books and stories get to travel across the world with the help of feisty translators slavering over how to translate Footnoterphone in Greek or Romanian. So let’s all thank translators for ensuring that anyone can get lost in a good book.