Translating – The Pains and Pleasures

BY BERLIN FANG
Apr 23, 2010

“It is easier to be a pig farmer than a literary translator.” Still, Berlin Fang ruminates on the art and beauty of translation.

Another kind of equivalence has to do with writers’ style. I find this to be the most challenging. All writers are fundamentally idiosyncratic. Some are more so than others. When I translated Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland”, I often found uncommon comparisons, for instance, comparing an Arizona landscape with a dysfunctional TV screen, or little towns in the outskirts to “poop” from a bigger city. I had to translate it the way he wrote it, with full knowledge that some readers would think that it is just my Chinese being strange.

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This brings me to another topic about translators. Translators are also readers. We are the most intensive readers. We do not get to skip or skim. We do not pass a scene about shopping or football because we don’t like it. We have to deal with each sentence, each word, each nuance, each joke, each irony, each pun, and each word play. We get to appreciate what works. We also see what sucks. Sometimes only a translator knows when something doesn’t work. If someone writes the word “brother” without ever mentioning whether it is an older brother or younger brother, I become furious. In Chinese, we have two phrases for brother: “Ge Ge” for the older one, and “Di Di” for the younger one. A writer may argue that it doesn’t matter in the American culture in terms of sibling seniority, yet it is not good literature because you fail to present a clear mental picture about the person being an older person or a younger one. You are guilty of vagueness. In this sense, it does matter. If someone writes “cousin,” I just explode, what do you mean there, my elder brother, when you say “cousin”? Is it a boy or girl at least? Is the cousin older or younger? Is the cousin on mother’s side of the family or father’s side of the family? You see, in Chinese we have eight words for “cousin.” I have to choose one of them. Unless you give me some clarification somewhere in the context, I am not responsible for any linguistic sex change surgery your cousin might go through. It’s just you being vague.

I have a lot of such things that I guess I could share with writers, but I cannot afford to do it now. I have a dream, that one day, I will have so much free time after my day job, my translation and my writing assignments that I can write a book called “A Translator’s Guide to Good Writing”. Not that I am a good one myself, but at least I can provide a different perspective.

You might ask: Why would you care? Your job is translation. Yet we do care. As I said we are readers after all. We cannot be good translators without being good readers.

Translating after having read the book is like watching a Hitchcock movie the second time. The suspense is gone. I have to have a big question hanging in front of me to keep me moving. Everyday I renew my translation asking myself, 'What’s next?'

To transform translation into reading, I do something that most translators would not do. I do not read the complete book before I start to translate. I have to have something to sustain me through the long process of translation. Translating after having read the book is like watching a Hitchcock movie the second time. The suspense is gone. I have to have a big question hanging in front of me to keep me moving. Everyday I renew my translation asking myself “What’s next?”

Of course I lose something by not reading the complete book first. I risk having some inconsistencies and errors during the translation process, which I fortunately can correct while proofreading it. Also I could be researching a topic for nothing, as I would have known what was going on if I had read the whole book. But I wouldn’t trade anything for the joy of a curious reader. As an extremely intensive reader, I get to do couch traveling to places that the authors described. London. The Hague. Berlin. Paris. Oklahoma-Texas Panhandle. Brooklyn. Bronx.

In other words, if we enjoy it, translation gives us a second chance at life.

 

Berlin Fang blogs at Berlin Fang's Blog