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?

In which I read The Witcher

… or, rather, I read the first two hundred pages of Blood and Elves, which I’ve come to discover is technically the third Witcher book, after two books of short stories, but is branded as the first book because it’s the first novel.

And it’s terrible. Absolutely unforgivably terrible. I went and looked at other bad reviews of it on Goodreads, and many of them seem to feel like the first two books (the short stories) were pretty good and then this one shit the bed, but that sentence with all the arrows pointed at it up there is where I decided I really was going to put this down, and then I read a few more pages anyway, and it’s just a Goddamned awful book. I’m going to lay a bit of the blame on the translator– I am willing to wager a small sum that the words she translated as “bite your own backside in fury” are a Polish proverb expressing angry frustration, but if that’s the case it should never have been translated literally. As a guy with a couple of degrees in Biblical studies I take translation pretty seriously, and there is no good reason to ever translate a proverb literally when you’re translating for a different culture. But it wasn’t the translator who wrote the endless conversations where characters explain things to each other that they already know, or the utter disgrace to women everywhere that is Triss Merigold’s character, or who decided to write two hundred pages about a guy called a Witcher where he does no Witching of any kind.

Seriously, the dude’s supposed to be a monster hunter. There is none of that in this book, or at least not in the first half. It’s dreadfully boring. And I was dumb enough to jump straight to the box set of the first three novels, so I not only have this thing sitting on my shelf now but two other books that I have no intention of reading. Bah.


And so long as we’re talking about works read in translation, the book before dipping into the world of the Witcher was Jin Yong’s A Hero Born, which is the first book of a massively successful series in China that has only recently been translated into English. This is one of those books that I ordered because I got flooded with people talking about it in a short period of time, and the phrase “Chinese Lord of the Rings” kept coming up.

I don’t know what the Chinese Lord of the Rings might be, but it is not Legends of the Condor Heroes. To be honest, having read it, I cannot for the life of me imagine what the hell possessed anyone to compare those two books to each other, other than the knowledge that it would get my specific subtype of nerd to order a copy. They were both initially published in the fifties. That’s all I’ve got. What A Hero Born is is a perfectly serviceable wuxia novel, or in other words a book set in ancient China that is all about powerful martial artists going around and doing things.

What things are they doing? Hard to say, because rather than describe the action most of the time Jin Yong just names the move and either expects you to know what that is (which I can’t believe is actually the case, but I suppose might be) or expects you to fill in the details yourself. In other words, you might have one character attack another with a Rooster Masturbates the Moose move and have that move be countered with an Insipid Charlatan, but the variant from the Batman Eats a Blueberry Crepe school of kung fu, not the normal one.

What’s that mean? Hell if I know. And clearly this works in China, and I didn’t hate the book by any means, but it was sort of a slog.

So, yeah. So far, not regretting writing my Best Books of the Year post with a couple of days left in the year.

On actual helpful ed tech

I am tired– okay, that’s always true, but it’s basically bedtime and I just wanted to take a moment for this– and so this will be a brief piece, but: my lesson for my 8th graders today involved something that I don’t do a lot in my classes: note-taking. I defined and provided a bunch of examples of rational numbers and irrational numbers, mostly me talking and writing on the board and the kids being surprisingly dutiful about writing it all down.

I have a student in one of my classes who speaks basically no English at all. She is– there is some debate about this, and every time I remember to just cut to the chase and ask her about it, she’s not in the room– either from Mexico or Guatemala, or possibly Guatemala via Mexico, I’m not sure, and she only speaks Spanish.

She uses Google Translate to get by in my classroom. I’ve got her paired with another kid who speaks a moderate amount of Spanish and they have their Chromebooks out at all times and the one kid will translate anything important I say into Spanish for her. Unfortunately, this wasn’t working very well today, since I was writing quite a bit and the other girl had to take her own notes as we were going.

She came up to me and told me (in English, which I was impressed by) that she didn’t understand what I’d said after the lecture, and the amazing thing is that between my own limited-but-not-nonexistent Spanish abilities and the translation software I was able to translate all of the notes for her in maybe an extra five or six minutes. At which point she happily– and, I noted, accurately– did her assignment.

I am very old-school in my teaching despite having spent last year literally working as an ed tech advocate. It’s nice when something works like it’s supposed to and actually makes my job easier.

In which I hope this is funny

ku-mediumI don’t know how to write this post.  I’ve been working on it in my head for over a week now, and in none of the versions in my head have I hit the tone I like, but this story is either funny enough or weird enough to deserve telling– I just don’t know how to do it right.

Also, here’s a phrase I’ve never used on the blog before, but this is important:  Consider this your trigger warning, if you’re partial to such things.  This will end well, but it will not start well.

I was out of the office for a good chunk of last Tuesday.  When I got back the guy who had been acting as our principal designee (because the principal and AP were both also out of the office) said that there had been a really weird spike in sexual harassment issues during the time we’d been gone.  These things happen in middle school, but they’re not super common, so for multiple things to happen in the same day is odd.  I’m not around for the explanation or the ensuing phone calls; I just know Stuff has Happened.

The next day, I walk into a parent conference with the designee and the assistant principal because I need to talk to my boss for a few minutes, and end up sitting down and being part of the meeting.  Mom is the parent of a fifth grade boy, and he appears to be in grave trouble.  She is expressing two emotions: the first is horror and the second is an almost craven sense of apologeticness, if that’s a word.  She’s so sorry for what he did that it almost hurts me to listen to the conversation.

She keeps saying that when he used “the word” or “that word” that he didn’t really mean what the word actually meant, that they are immigrants and “that word” is used differently in their country.  She looks Hispanic, and so does the boy, and he has a unique first name that really doesn’t scan to any particular ethnic group or nationality that I’m aware of, so I assume “their country” is somewhere in South America.  Then I hear her speak to her son in whatever language they speak at home and it’s clearly not Spanish, but she doesn’t talk long enough for me to get past hey wait that isn’t Spanish and start listening for whatever the language actually is.  The general mood in the room is solemn; I consider leaving but she begins addressing her remarks to me as well as the other two as if I belong there so I don’t.

Eventually, she leaves, insisting that not only will she tell her son to stop using “the word” but that she will stop using “the word” herself, because she knows that the reason this happened is that she’s been setting a terrible example for their son and that she realizes that this is not how things are done in America.

One guess on what I think the word is, right?  There’s only one word in the English language– well, two, maybe— with enough power that someone would refuse to even say it while talking about it.  So he’s called someone the N-word, right?  But that’s not sexual harassment.  It’s a lot of things but it’s not sexual harassment.  So… huh?  Weirdly, though, there’s talk about how she’s pretty sure her son likes the girl he used “the word” around, and… huh.

They leave.  The AP and the other guy exchange a look, both take a deep breath, and then crack up laughing.

“What the hell happened?” I ask.  “What was the deal?”

“He threatened to rape a fifth grade girl,” the AP says, practically wiping tears from her eyes.  The boy, remember, was also a fifth grader.

My eyes widen.  What the fuck are you assholes laughing about?  This is, as you might imagine, a big deal.   I’ve literally never had to deal with a rape threat in a school before.  That’s major.

I express that sentiment.  They laugh harder.

“They’re German,” the AP says, as if that explains it.  I give her a yeah, so the hell what? sort of gesture.

Apparently there is, and if you are German or speak German better than I do please feel free to enlighten me here, some sort of German proverb, or slang expression, or figure of speech, or something, that basically means “stop bugging me” or “leave me alone,” meaning mild, possibly even affectionate harassment– that, when translated into English, comes out as rape.

This woman has been using this phrase, translated, around her son, for years.  She has apparently, and at this point my AP does a picture-perfect impression of this lady, one that causes me to lose it and crack up out of sheer disbelief, on multiple occasions said the phrase “I’m busy, go rape your father” to her son.

Her son, in saying “I’m going to rape you,” to a little girl in his class, meant “I’m gonna get on your nerves.”

And, understandably, this has caused all sorts of merry hell to break loose.  Apparently Mom is fully aware of the word’s connotations in English– how could she not be?– but hasn’t managed to purge the word from her vocabulary, to the point where American friends of hers have actually called her out on it and asked her to stop using it.  You can imagine how this would go, right?  You don’t just drop a loaded term like rape into a conversation without causing a little bit of a hitch here and there.  And, god, if she’s seriously said “Go rape your father” to her son while on the phone with someone else?  What the fuck I don’t even.

This all sounded deeply weird to me, of course, even a little unbelievable, until it hit me that I use the phrases “Are you fucking with me?” and “Are you shitting me?” on a fairly regular basis, and in very much the same way those phrases would be hugely opaque to anyone with no understanding of colloquial English.  This is, presumably, more or less the same phenomenon, only through another filter where it’s been translated.

So… yeah.  I have no idea if anyone reading this is laughing right now, or if you just think that’s an insanely weird conversation to have to have.  I hope you at least understand why I felt like I had to post it.  🙂