Friday, November 13, 2009

What's in a Name?

Or a word, even. I've been thinking about translation issues lately, specifically translation from English into, say, Polish or German.

No real reason.

I wonder how much of voice is language, how much of humor is culture and wordplay. Evie's a funny narrator (Kiersten says, very humbly and grateful that other people agree); how much of that will translate easily over? If she's shifted and squeezed and changed to come out another language on the other side, will her personality change, too?

I'm absolutely fascinated by this idea, how, by changing languages, we become different people. My sister knew a girl who grew up in another country speaking Spanish. When she moved here for college, she spoke strictly English, dating and eventually marrying someone who also spoke strictly English. I'll never forget the comment my sister made, saying, "I hope he knows that she's very different in English than she is in Spanish."

Obviously I'm totally dependent on language for self-expression. I like being able to precisely express myself, to play around with words and phrases for humor. I can't do that very well in other languages (okay, just singular other language, and it's been so long since I studied Spanish I probably can't do anything, period). So for someone who speaks both Polish or German and English to be able to take a book, a character, a voice, and translate them floors me.

I think it's incredible.

My only problem with the whole thing is that I won't be able to read and see what German Evie or Polish Evie is like. Because I'd love to meet them. Regardless, I'm grateful and amazed and thrilled that whole countries of people I couldn't communicate with will be able to meet my writing.

But here's something that really got my over-tired brain whirling last night: what if someone translated Paranormalcy into German, and then someone took that German version and translated it back into English? THAT would be interested to see.

Am I totally geeking out on my own here, or do you, too, ponder the mysteries of language and how they define us culturally?


Natalie Whipple said...

Well, I studied linguistics, so yeah I've thought about this a lot. Some things don't quite translate, but there are equivalents and I'm sure foreign Evies will be just as great as English Evie:)

CKHB said...

All. The. Time.

I have studied French, Japanese, and Greek. The most obvious cultural differences are reflected in Japanese as compared to English (like German, Japanese leaves the verb until the end of the sentence, which completely changes how one communicates) but there are subtle reflections in all of these languages that fascinate me.

I did my college thesis on the translation of poetry between French and English, and I argued in favor of a more literal translation method, even if it meant that something that sounded "natural" in the original text would sound stilted or off-rhythm in translation, because I felt there was such value in maintaining the precision of language... but poetry is different from a novel. If you've got a teenage girl, then OF COURSE you want her to sound as natural as possible for her own language and culture, even if it means that she uses completely different idiomatic expressions, etc.

The main character of my novel speaks both English and Japanese. Language is a very big deal to her.

Hey, what if my novel gets published and translated into Japanese? How would the use of her "foreign" (to us) language translate when it becomes the core language? Whoa...

Ina said...

With Norwegian being my first language, I can relate to what you're saying about being a different person in another language. In my early teens, I would say I was more shy in English than I was in Norwegian, simply because I didn't have the fluency yet. At this point, where I write, speak and think in English every day, my Norwegian "personality" completely matches my English one.

So, since you have now landed a fabulous German publisher (squee!), I think you can rest assured that they will provide a translator who is equally comfortable in German and English. Although some of your character names or place names may be changed slightly, I bet Evie will still be her hilarious self when she comes out on the other side.

She may just have more of a sweet tooth for marzipan, that's all.

Kiersten White said...

CKHB--Now your mind is spinning in circles, too, huh? : )

Ina--That's so interesting! I think a lot of the personality differences definitely come from what you said--hesitancy until you are truly fluent. I'm very, VERY jealous of bilingualism!

And I'm certainly not worried, I'm sure my translators will do a fantastic job! It's just fun to think about. And I have no doubt Evie would love marzipan : )

Mariah Irvin said...

I've placed out of Spanish classes in my school and am now taking Mandarin, so I'd definitely say language can define individuals culturally. I think that Evie will be able to win over hearts in, I don't know, let's say Germany and Poland, though!

Mary said...

I've never thought about before in regards to books, but I have thought about it in regards to movies. I tried watching an Adam Sandler movie in Spanish and it just wasn't the same.

Ina said...

I do remember reading the first Harry Potter book in Norwegian right when it came out and before it became more popular than skinny jeans. The character names (with the exception of, well, Harry Potter) had all been slightly changed and there were some very literal translations of places like Gringotts, Diagon Alley etc. I discovered this while watching the first movie: the subtitles seemed epically stupid compared to what they were actually saying.

But then I realized two things. First of all, the translation allowed much younger kids to read the books/watch the movie. Kids reading at a young age = good. Secondly, although the Norwegian Dumbledore to this day remains Humlesnurr (WTF?), the magical world of Harry Potter is not lost in translation. (Magic that mages you giddy = also good.)

And now I've written a small essay and arrived at a place where I am eager to see Paranormalcy published in Norway. Maybe I should get cracking on those translations.. :)

Caroline Starr Rose said...

We sometimes pick up some picture books from the library that are translations. Often, the wording does seem a little off, but the story works.

Two of our current favorites are called One Stormy Night... and One Sunny Day... . A wolf and a sheep, trapped in a shed during a rainstorm, learn they are more alike than different. Perfect theme for a translated story!

Tawna Fenske said...

Hey, Kiersten!

I'll join you in your translation geek-itude for a moment, since this is an area I actually know a bit about (my day job is in marketing for an international translation and localization firm that specializes in the life science industry . . . say that five times fast!)

The "translation" part of the equation is something most people are familiar with, but "localization" refers to adapting a language to fit the culture/region/linguistic nuances. It's actually quite a fascinating process!

And the notion of translating into German and then back into English is actually a very common technique called "back translation" (also sometimes called "round-trip translation.") It's used a lot in medical translations or other industries where quality control is crucial, but I have no idea if they use it with novels. I'd be fascinated to know that, actually, so let me know if you learn anything about the process they'll be following with Paranormalcy!

Congrats on the international sales and keep us all posted on all the exciting news!

Your sister in geekdom (and agency representation),

Rachel Bateman said...

I am studying to be a Russian translator, so I think about stuff like this all the time.

What it boils down to is how good a translator is. Like Natalie said, there are some things that can't translate directly across, but there are always ways to get the feel and meaning there. How well Evie's voice is preserved really depends on who translates your work.

For example: Crime and Punishment is my favorite book. I have read every English translation I can get my hands on and am working on reading it in Russian.

For years, the standard of Russian to English translations was set by Constance Garnett. She has a huge library of translated works and she was the most well known (and probably still is). She had a voice problem though. When reading her translations, I find the voice is the same in every book, regardless of who the original work was written by. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin all ended up with the same voice.

It is only when I read a different translation of the same book that I got a taste of Dostoevsky's distinct voice. And I loved it.

Okay, my comment is long enough. The short comment is:

I do think about things like this all the time. And I am sure Evie and her voice will be in good hands!

Kristan said...

You know, I'm half Taiwanese from my mom's side, and I grew up seeing those different sides of her: the Mom in Taiwan or with her Chinese family, and the Mom with me and my dad and the rest of America. At the core, of course, they're the same, but at a superficial level they come across a little differently. Especially since my mom has always been sort of insecure about her language abilities -- she's not as "fluent" as she'd like to be. (Okay, she's fluent, but she has an accent and sometimes a hard time pronouncing certain words, including my dad's name haha, and sometimes phrases things funny.)

Or, another example, when I went to Spain for the first time, despite the fact that I was completely fluent, I stayed MUTE for the first two weeks. I was THAT PATHETIC AMERICAN who can't fit in because she's terrified of saying something ridiculous or wrong (and because Spaniards speak so dang fast! it's hard to understand, much less get a word in). But anyone who knows me knows I am NOT normally mute; the exact opposite, in fact. So, I guess I got lost in the translation?

In other words, I totally know what you mean, and I think on a personal level it's a deep issue for many people.

At a book level, I think you have the benefit of professional translators who, hopefully, can capture the essence if not every word of your book. I know when I took Spanish translation classes in college, we were always told that "spirit" comes before "letter" (as long as the document is not legal!!). Because that's what can get lost in a translation: the spirit.

ALL that said, I think most people have different "translations" of themselves, that show up in different situations. So I don't think language is the biggest defining factor, although it's definitely one of them.

Kiersten White said...

Good golly, Miss Molly, what smart and thoughtful readers I have.

I'm really enjoying all of your comments! And I agree about the whole literal/spirit translation. I'm sure my foreign publishers are going to do an awesome job : )

Isn't it interesting how much--and how little--language defines who we are.

Susan Quinn said...

I'm not an expert, like your other commenters, but I imagine it must have something to do with the person translating. If the German version of a book was orally translated for you and another author . . . even though you heard the same words, I would have to think the two translators would interpret it slightly differently and write different books. Similar, no doubt, but with a different tone? Very interesting question . . .

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

Ever read the scriptures in a different language? Like, totally new nuances and meanings come out. It's really cool. I guess I should read mine again in another language.

Dominique said...

Okay, I admit to being a language geek. And I tend to slip into French without meaning to, much to the annoyance of my anglophonic friends. So I think about this stuff a lot.

I think things can sound different in different languages, and some things really are only funny in their original language. But I think a good translator can find the right nuances to make up for that fact.

Grimmster24 said...

As an English major/nerd, Kiersten, I constantly think about things like this (and, as a consequence, often end up writing about them). So, to answer your question, no, you're not geeking out. As a writer, language choices are paramount to my success (and sanity, haha), and I'm guessing that your writer conscience is merely searching and discovering ideas that are, in our minds, inevitable, yet totally fascinating and completely worthwhile.

Happy trails, and I hope you find this continuous journey through language to be a great adventure.

Kristi Faith said...

I've been having computer issues and haven't been able to use comments on and off. My pc has a mind of its own. I wanted to wish you the BEST with your overseas sales, that is SOO exciting!!

I don't think you are a geek, but certainly a wiser person to ponder such issues. :0)

Lynz Pickles said...

Ooooh, fun topic! I love thinking about this kind of stuff!

I think that a successful translator needs some of the same qualities a good editor (and by editor, I mean someone who physically edits another person's work) should have. You need to be able to know when something isn't culturally relevant and feel comfortable cutting it out, and you need to be able to adapt to different voices. Translation is tricky, because while you want to stick as closely as possible to the original author's work, you also want to make sure that the book is accessible to readers in your language.

At the same time, if the setting and culture attached to the original language play a large part in making the work what it is, a translator needs to find a way to explain that setting and culture to new fans without tiring old ones who are already familiar with it. A perfect example of this is manga: new English fans may find many things they don't understand if the explanations aren't detailed enough, while long-time fans may get frustrated with the constant explanations of things they already know. A good translator needs to strike a balance between the two.

Basically, no, you're not geeking out on your own here (as many other commentors have said) and yay, fun subject! I'm sure Evie will be just as fun in foreign languages, if slightly different from her English self.

Jessie Oliveros said...

I have nothing to add like your other very smart commentators. I'm still working on throwing small phrases of Spanish into my novel without sounding completely stupid. However, I have often wondered the same thing about how exactly the book comes across in another language. I imagine it hits especially close to home when it is YOUR book and a voice YOU created. Maybe you'll find your German to English translator among your fans.

Hayley said...

I think about this too, but I'm pretty sure that whoever translates your novel will take into account the culture of the said language its being translated into. I'm sure that they'll try to get across Evies humor just as she's portrayed in the English version.

Sarah Laurenson said...

First - major congrats on all these good things coming your way. You deserve it!

The Germans have dialects similar to what we have here. It would be interesting to find out which German dialect they translate it into. And idiomatic phrases can make translations very interesting.

I read The Master and Margarita which was translated from Russian. It seemd to me that it carried Russian culture with the translation which was very cool. Of course, I don't really know Russian culture so I can't be sure.

Years ago, there was an exercise in translating from language one to language two to language three and back to language one to see what you ended up with. I played with that for awhile. Interesting results.

Megs said...

Um, former language teacher speaking here. I totally know what you are saying. And I too ponder these (among other) ridiculous questions. ;)

Megs said...

Oh dear. I didn't read the comments before I commented. You can just put me out of my misery and delete these comments please. I feel quite humbled, and frankly, inferior to say the least. I've pondered many things, but lately, honestly, it's mostly been baby stuff. Nothing deeper than, "How in the heck can I get this baby to sleep as long as she needs to (or I need to)?!?" Or, "Now what was I going to say/think/do?" I don't know how in the world you seriously write with two darling but needy munchkins. It's all I can do to just be a good mom and wife! :) (Ultra-admiration and wonder vibes totally going your way!)

Kiersten White said...

Megs, there's a reason I didn't write novels when I had tiny babies : ) Also, my apartment is a WRECK.

Stephanie Perkins said...

Yes. I can safely say that (Anna and) I have spent a lot — A LOT — of time thinking about translation.

Maya / מיה said...

I think about this kind of thing all the time-- I moved to Israel a year and a half ago, and I can totally relate to the idea of having different personalities in different languages. I post about this kind of thing all the time on my blog, which is about my attempt to blunder into something resembling Israeli-ness!

I have tried to read some of my favorite books in Hebrew, and I am struck by how different my experience is. I own a (supposed to be good) recent translation of Pride and Prejudice, but when I read it in Hebrew I entirely miss the humor... but I think that reflects my Hebrew limitations rather than the translation. Totally different lines jumped out at me in different versions, and it was hilarious to hear Mrs. Bennet call her husband a "nudnik" (Yiddish for "idiot").

Do you have any idea how the title will be translated? Because that's where I see the most hilarious mistranslations in movie titles here. Even "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" became "Geshem Shel Falofel," Rain of Falofel, and "O Brother, Where Art Thou" basically became "Hey Bro, where you at?" (Achi, Aifo Atah.)

Katie said...

Wonderfully geeky post! I have NEVER thought about this and now I am geekily pondering it as well. I think you might be right. I bet our characters ARE different in another language. That makes me sorta sad. How to preserve their adorableness in russian? Or polish?


Shelli said...

yes I would think the character would come off differently. The humor will come off differently. My hubby is from UK and his parents dont get half my jokes. (And trust me - I am funny! :)

Little Brother said...

Reminds me very much of 1984, where Newspeak is used as a means to personality. Language is important, folks.

Then again, right now everything reminds me of 1984.

jckandy said...

WHOA. That just went way over my head.

KIDDING! I actually found it really interesting. Nice food for thought. It was crunchy.

You said foreign Evie might be different than English Evie. Strictly speaking of people, I think that typing is like translating, in a way. If you talk to me in real life, I'm a lot different. When I write I use more formal words and sentence and punctuation, as with a lot of my friends. And then if you talk, we say "like" a lot and mispronounce words and stuff. I find that cool.

I wish I was bilingual. Then I could follow Evie.

I wish I was, like, octo-lingual. Eight languages. I could follow Evie EVERYWHERE, and listening to her different personalities. Although I'm sure she'll be awesome, even if she's from a different place.

Kiersten White said...

I hope everyone read these comments, because they were all super interesting.

Also, JC, I'm totally with you on being octo-lingual. So far my choices are:

Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese, so that might take up two spaces, the jury is still out)
Romanian (Hubby speaks it, along with Arabic)

And I'm torn between Farsi, Italian, and Russian. Oh, and Polish, because they have excellent taste in books, too.

Juliska said...

Thankfully not too much was lost in the American to Australian translation of Paranormalcy! Except maybe Evie saying G'day instead of hi! ;) Now i'm picturing a thoroughly Aussie-fied Lend, maybe wearing Hugh Jackman....
Excellent read btw, and thanks for keeping it clean!