On translations

Let’s put a quick trigger warning for sexual assault here; it’s an unavoidable plot point of a book I’ll be discussing several paragraphs into the piece, and it won’t be dwelled upon.


I’m on my third book in a row that I’m reading in translation, and my fourth in a row that wasn’t written in especially modern English, since the Ernest Shackleton book was published in 1909. I haven’t loved any of the three that I’ve finished, but I’m not far enough into the fourth one to really have an opinion of it yet– maybe 40 pages deep on a 600-page novel. And the bit that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around is that I’m not sure how to discern between a book that I didn’t enjoy and a translation I didn’t enjoy. I can think of one particular series where the first book was translated by one person was great and the second was translated by someone else and it was so bad that I couldn’t get even a third of the way through it; that I can blame on the translator. But when it’s the only book I’ve read by a given person, or sometimes the only book by that person available in English, it’s a lot harder to tease that apart and it may actually not be a difference worth bothering to tease apart in the first place.

It’s the most recent book that’s really got me thinking about this, honestly– and if you’re wondering why I’m not specifically naming the book, it’s because this is pretty clearly running into my Don’t Shit on Books Without a Good Reason rule, and my Goodreads is right there anyway– because this book was very clearly deliberately written in a certain way, and I’m not sure it survived translation into English very well.

(Let me reiterate the trigger warning)

The book is about a woman whose father sexually abused her for several years when she was a child, and she is, as a result, estranged from her family, most of whom don’t believe her. She is very much not over her trauma, and in fact dwells upon it more or less constantly. The book is told entirely from her perspective, and, well, she’s not in an especially mentally healthy place; the entire book is about disputes over inheritance, and her father passes away partway through the narrative. Now, I think what’s going on here is that the author is trying to mimic in text what is going on in this person’s head, and as a result the entire text is very very repetitive, constantly circling back to the same events and the same conversations, and also with insanely long sentences that can sometimes take up a page or more. The text is never pauses for breath, never slows down, and constantly loops back to retread the same material, sometimes phrased differently and sometimes repeating the exact same language several times in a (paragraph-length) sentence.

I made fun of this on Twitter while I was reading it, and the fact is this isn’t that far off from what’s going on:

So, like, I can see what the author is trying to do here, and I even appreciate the technique, but the unfortunate result is that, in English and to me at least, the book is really damn difficult to read. Imagine a book where every sentence was like that Tweet, and each sentence in the book was similar to the Tweet in a way that was very like the Tweet, and not like things that are not like that Tweet, that’s what you’re trying to imagine right now, you’re imagining a book where every sentence is like that Tweet, because the sentences in this book are all like that Tweet and you’re imagining them.

I am not kidding. Like, I’ll post examples if I have to.

And the thing is, I didn’t dislike the book, I just didn’t enjoy it at all, if that’s something that makes any sense. I mean, I finished it instead of putting it down, and I don’t think I regret buying and reading it, and it made a big splash in its country of origin when it came out so it even remains a good choice that way. But I wish I could read it in its original language to see behind the scenes, so to speak, on how the translator did her job, because this book must have been a nightmare to translate.

I need to be able to read all of Earth’s languages, is what I’m getting at here. Is that the Moderna shot, maybe?

On wanting to know stuff

You may not know this about me: my first semester in college, I was enrolled in an Arabic class. I took Arabic out of pure intellectual curiosity, nothing more; at the time it wasn’t really part of any long-term plan of study or anything like that, it was just as far away as I could get from the languages I’d been offered in high school and it sounded neat. I lasted about three weeks, maybe; it turns out that despite being an excellent student, high school had not taught me to study, and as it happens mastering the Arabic alphabet, which not only has a handful of letters with no English equivalent but where each letter looks different depending on its position in the word– letters that start or end a word look different from letters in the middle, and the primary and final positions look different from each other as well– was more complicated than I could handle at the time. I would eventually fill my language requirement with Hebrew, which isn’t quite as complicated as Arabic, but that was the class that finally taught me to buckle down and study.

I have two big academic failures in my life: Arabic and calculus, and I still want to achieve at least a working knowledge of both before I die. I took calculus my senior year in high school but a bad case of senior burnout combined with a math teacher who was, inexplicably, one of the best math teachers I’d ever had for sophomore Geometry but was utterly unable to reach me for senior Calculus meant that as soon as I was admitted to IU and fulfilled all of my graduation requirements I dropped the class and took an independent study period of Spanish.

Stick a pin in that; we’re gonna take a left turn for a couple of paragraphs.

I’ve never particularly considered myself a weeb– a lifetime of aversion to any sort of Japanese animation not involving Hiyao Miyazaki will kind of nip that in the bud– and while it’s not entirely accurate it’s fair to suggest that the presence of a Japanese voice track on really any form of entertainment is an indicator that I may not be into it. That said, I’ve spent approximately six thousand hours since March playing Nioh and Nioh 2, both Japanese-with-English-subtitles and very loosely based on sixteenth-century Japanese history, and I have sunk a similarly obsessive amount of time into Ghost of Tsushima in the last couple of weeks, which is based on the (real) invasion of Tsushima island by the Mongols in 1274.

And god help me if this hasn’t woken up a previously-nonexistent desire to learn more about Japan.

I keep trying to find a decent English biography of Oda Nobunaga, who appears in both of the Nioh games, and I’m discovering, after spending half of my waking hours listening to people speaking Japanese for five months, a certain interest in learning to at least fumble my way through speaking Japanese. I’m not even sure where to start with that; there are apps and such, but anything reputable is way more money than I’m willing to invest. There are probably some reputable textbooks out there, but I haven’t taken the time to look for them yet.

Which, depending on whether this desire sticks around once I get past these few games, will add another complicated long-term intellectual goal to my list. I feel like I probably ought to get started on at least one of these at some point, right? Which one would you start with, at gunpoint if necessary? 🙂