Friday, June 21, 2013

A Universal Language: The Power and Mystique of Translated Texts, and Why We Need Them

By Christina Freitas

Ever wanted to read a novel written from a different cultural perspective, and found your path blocked by a language barrier? The answer is probably yes. And it is at this moment that we all say in unison, thank goodness for translated texts! Our most recent translation, The African by J.M.G. Le Clézio (on sale now!), is an inspirational memoir, originally scripted in French, which chronicles the journeys of Noble Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio, particularly his relationship with his father. And without the wonders of the translated text, we might never have experienced this masterful read for ourselves.

Just two semesters ago, I was enrolled in a history course at my university circulating around the life of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, the man responsible for the birth of the USSR. For our final assignment, we were tasked with a twenty-page research paper on a topic of our choice. We visited the library’s Russian stacks for inspiration, but met with a slight dilemma. While many of the texts were written in English, many more had been published in Russian, or even French, limiting which books we could feasibly use for our papers. Our professor noted our dismay and said something that strikes me even as I write this post: when you can’t speak or read any language except your own, entire worlds are closed to you, whole tracts of ideas and experiences that you might never taste for yourself.

Anyone speak Russian? 

But we shouldn’t despair. Because even with this truth in hand, there are plenty of literary ventures penned hundreds of miles away, in foreign, unfamiliar tongues, which have been translated for the benefit of readers worldwide. It is a reality that we should be thankful for every day, one that enables us to peel back the blinds of geographic separation and immerse ourselves in worlds quite unlike our own. It’s pure magic.

Throughout my three years in college as an English major, I have encountered several incredible literary worlds, some of which would have remained closed to me without the aid of translators. For example, I am perhaps overly fond of Russian literature. Let me be clear: I do not speak Russian. I speak some French and Italian, but beyond dasvidanya (goodbye), I'm lost. Without translated texts, I never would have fallen in love with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and later, in college, the monumental works of authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and – my favorite –Vladimir Nabokov.

Of course, there are those individuals who argue that translated works can do as much harm as good. Certainly a poor translation can result in the meaning of a particular passage being totally lost, and mistranslated words can make entire lines, particularly in poetry, nearly undecipherable to a nonnative audience. Regardless, I think most people can agree that translated works are as necessary to the literary world as the authors who supply their tales. There’s something to be said for reading a novel written by someone who has actually experienced such a diverse or unique reality – say, Dostoevsky’s time spent in a Siberian labor camp – versus an author writing about the same situation from a removed, rather distanced perspective. Not to mention the valuable insight you can receive from the works of authors who may hail from an entirely different social and cultural background than you are accustomed to.

Here at Godine, we offer a number of translated works for the benefit of our readers, introducing them to tales whose spirit, imagination, and artistic genius is truly unique. I’ll list a few below but please check out our website, as well for further suggestions!

The African by J.M.G. Le Clézio (translated from French)
. . . In Le Clézio's characteristically intimate, poetic voice, the narrative relates both the dazzled enthusiasm the child feels at discovering newfound freedom in the African savannah and his torment at discovering the rigid authoritarian nature of his father. The power and beauty of the book reside in the fact that both discoveries occur simultaneously. While primarily a memoir of the author's boyhood, The African is also Le Clézio's attempt to pay a belated homage to the man he met for the first time in Africa at age eight. . . .

Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Applefeld (translated from Hebrew)
. . . The vacationers arrive as they always have, a sampling of Jewish middle-class life: the impresario Dr. Pappenheim, his musicians, and their conductor; the gay Frau Tsauberblit; the historian, Dr. Fussholdt, and his much younger wife; the "readers," twins whose passion for Rilke is featured on their program; a child prodigy; a commercial traveler; a rabbi. The list waxes as the summer wanes. To receive them in the town are the pharmacist and his worried wife, the hotelier and his large staff, the pastry shop owner and his irritable baker, Sally and Gertie (two quite respectable prostitutes), and, mysteriously, the bland inspectors from the "Sanitation Department." . . .

Gypsies and Other Narrative Poems by Alexander Pushkin (translated from Russian)
. . . In this selection of five of his finest narrative poems, all his essential qualities are on display – his ironic poise, his stylistic variety, his confounding of expectations, his creation of poetry out of everyday language.

"The Gypsies" is modern Russian literature's first masterpiece. Telling the anti-Romantic tale of an effete city-dweller whose search for "unspoiled" values among a band of gypsies ends in tragedy. . . .

What about you, wonderful readers? Ever experienced a truly remarkable translated text, one that opened your eyes to experiences you might not have heard about otherwise? What are your thoughts on the benefits (or hazards) of translated texts? Share your comments here or join us @GodinePub on Twitter! For more information about any of these texts, and more from our Verba Mundi collection, please visit our website!

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