Gained in Translation: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Stanislaw Lem and Umberto Eco

TranslationConsider The Bible.

The first list of books of The Bible was assembled at the Council of Rome in 382 CE. Saint Jerome was commissioned to produce translations of the original Greek and Hebrew texts into Latin, later known as the Latin Vulgate Bible.

I don’t read or write Latin. So I’m reading one of the English translations – The King James Bible, for example. There are approximately 7000 languages in the world today. The Bible has been translated into over 500 of them. According to Wikipedia, there are 120 complete translations in English alone.

That’s a Lot of Translation

According to Yardenne Greenspan, writing in Plowshares at Emerson College, the Hebrew language is profoundly steeped in biblical references, passages and turns of phrase. In her article ‘Out With the Old and in With the Ancient: The Bible as Literature in Translation’, she writes that no other language has so many such allusions.

“When translating Hebrew literature, these allusions would usually be transformed into an equivalent English phrase or slang, whether biblical itself or not. While ‘hoseh shivto sone bno’ would be translated into ‘spares the rod, hates his son’—an accurate translation of the same biblical quote, equal in meaning and awfulness—a phrase like ‘b’rachel bitha haktana’, which originates from the story of Jacob and Rachel and translates literally as ‘in exchange for Rachel, your youngest daughter’ (used in Hebrew as a metaphor for being painstakingly clear about one’s intentions), would probably be translated in the context of a non-biblical story as ‘explicitly’ or ‘no two ways about it’—leaving the matriarch entirely out of it.”

Translating Culture: The Advent of Translation Studies

The challenge of translation transcends merely finding words to replace words. The greatest challenges facing translators occur when language is being pushed to its limits, in poetry and word-play. Translators have been around for centuries, but translation studies as a formal pursuit is still relatively new. In translation studies they talk about the SC and the TC – Source Culture and Target Culture.

In her paper ‘Translating Culture: Problems, Strategies and Practical Realities’, Ana Fernández Guerra wrote about the theory behind translation studies:

“One of the problems a translator can face arises from the fact that some words or phrases denoting objects, facts, phenomena, etc… are so deeply rooted in their source culture (SC) and so specific (and perhaps exclusive or unique) to the culture that produced them that they have no equivalent in the target culture (TC) be it because they are unknown, or because they are not yet codified in the target language (TL).”

Further, some theorists support untranslatability when terms are so culture-bound as to defy translation.

Translation practice and theory have been split. The study of translation (usually literary) saw its origins in comparative literature and has expanded greatly.

In ‘On linguistic aspects of translation’, Russo-American structuralist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) described categories of translation: ‘The first, intralingual translation, is an interpretation of verbal signs in the same language’.

Consider this expressing a concept ‘in other words’. You are trying to express a concept within the same language, but seeking other words to express the same concept.

The second type is interlingual translation – translation proper. This is the focus of translation studies. The goal of interlingual translation is to achieve “close lexical fidelity” between the SL (Source Language) and the TL (Target Language).

Finally, intersemiotic translation, or ‘transmutation’ – ‘an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of non-verbal sign systems’.   Emphasis is on the overall message that needs to be conveyed rather than the ‘words’. Thus the translator, instead of paying attention to the verbal signs, concentrates more on the information that is to be delivered.

Translating Garcia Marquez and the Language of Magic Realism

Gregory Rabassa is referred to as ‘the translator’s translator’. He translated Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold”, and ‘Autumn of the Patriarch’.

The challenge he faced wasn’t so much translating the author’s work from Spanish to English. The challenge was translating the surreal sensibilities of ‘magic realism’. This is a genre in literature and art in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique combine with fantastic elements of dream.

According to Rabassa, the translator is invisible. The translation never calls attention to itself.

“I am not sure that I have any technique. I certainly have no strategy (I am more of a tactician, if it comes to that) and I am not sure whether I have an approach or not. It is really very simple: I just sit down with paper and a dictionary handy and go to work. About the only preliminary effort expended was a reading of the book. Sometimes this had taken place a while back so that it is all a bit hazy. This might be to the good, if my experience is any example.”

While Rabassa has engaged in convoluted processes involving as many as five drafts back and forth between author and translator, he has also worked quickly and instinctively.

“I must confess, and I have confessed to Julio (Cortazar), that I translated Hopscotch as I read it. I did have to go back and change some things, but only a snippet here and there, nothing important. I think that this bears out my contention that a translation is nothing but a close reading, perhaps the closest reading possible. When I do a book I go along as fast as I can, trying to get the meaning down so that I can use this first draft with confidence. If a phrase resists me I put it down in some awkward but accurate form to be dealt with later. More to give myself a break in routine than anything else (although it enables me to ship chunks of translation off to the author periodically), I will stop after twenty or thirty pages of manuscript text and go back over it for the re-write.”

Translating the Poetic Science Fiction of Stanislaw Lem

Michael Kandel has translated the Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s work and has received accolades for his abilities with the difficult material.

Writer and Editor Franz Rottensteiner described Kandel’s work:

“The quality of his translations is considered to be excellent; his skill is especially notable in the case of Lem’s writing, which makes heavy use of wordplay and other difficult-to-translate devices.”

As with Rabassa struggling with Magic Realism, Kandel’s greatest challenge translating Lem’s writing was the totally original and complex universes Lem conceived and described.

Kandel, a fan of science fiction, explains how he approached this aspect of translating Lem, as well as the work of other authors.

“Well, if you know that this happens in science fiction, then it’s not so strange and you don’t have a problem with it at all—in fact, it’s almost easier to make up words because you know how to do that, to come up with something that corresponds to what the author’s made up.”

Kandel described the frustration of finding so many words he didn’t know when reading an early Lem novel.

“The first book I read in Polish that was SF was Lem’s The Invincible, and I really had a hard time getting through it. I thought it was a great book, but I spent a lot of time looking through the dictionary, and later someone told me, those words aren’t in any Polish dictionary!”

Relay Translation vs. Direct Translation

According to the blog ‘Life in Translation’, one of Lem’s most famous novels was once only available in poorly translated versions.

“Now it turns out that the only available English version of Stanisław Lem’s 1961 Polish science fiction novel Solaris had been relay translated from a poor French version. The Guardian reports that a new direct translation by Bill Johnston has just been published which ‘removes a raft of unnecessary changes and restores the text much closer to its original state’.”

Umberto Eco Translates Himself

Umberto Eco’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, has been translated from Italian into many languages. In addition to writing extensively on semiotics, the language of symbols, he has written several novels, including ‘The Name of the Rose’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’.

Eco has written extensively about his experiences with the translation of his work, and the phenomenon of translation in general. In his book ‘Experiences in Translation’, Eco expresses a similar notion to the one presented earlier by Michael Kandel.

Matteo Poles, writing about one of Eco’s speeches on the website Terminology Coordination, describes Eco’s observations about translations and translators:

“He (Eco) concludes that even though the Italian translator failed the translation, a reader, even though not so experienced and skilled, will always perceive the ‘world’ of the book. Eco states that in his search for the perfect translation he first tried to use images taken from his own cultural world and only afterwards he counted on his linguistic knowledge, in order to verify if the pun can have an equivalent in Italian.”

Eco enumerates his ‘commandments’ for translation:

“A translation, Eco states as a first commandment, is not simply the comprehension and an interpretation of a text. Second rule, an interpretation introduces us to multiple possible “worlds”: an idea that Eco, as semiotics professor, had always underlined in his essays. Third, in the translation of a book it seems legitimate to violate some rules in order to produce the same effect the original author intended.”

Eco provides an additional rule: the translation can be more complex than the original text.

He points out that in Italian there is only a word for the concept of nephew, while in English we could have niece, nephew, grandson or granddaughter, which define more precisely the family relationships and the sex of the person.