Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Translating Talk

Now this is something that has interested me before: the Literary Translators' Association of Canada is hosting a talk on March 3rd on "Translating the Spoken Word" in The Book of Negroes.

It fascinates me because so much rests on what characters say in a story, and what they say is so dictated by the language, the time, and the culture that they live in. It's vitally important (as came up in an Ottawa Storytellers meeting I was at last night) that the words of the characters - and their diction, and their idiom - serve the story and convey more than just what they're saying. And in translation that becomes a whole separate challenge.

I remember, while rereading Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, years back, suddenly becoming aware of his (frankly brilliant) translator, William Weaver. It was because I was reading along in a passage where the characters were engaged in a funny, witty, snappy bunch of dialogue, and I noticed ... a bit of slang, or a reference to something in pop culture, that had seemed completely natural to me. Until I remembered that the whole passage had originally been in Italian. The novel is set in Italy. The characters are undeniably - essentially - Italian. And I caught myself thinking, "what the hell did Weaver have to go through, if this is not an idiom in Italian, to find an idiom that would make sense in English and still fit the characters?"

Since then, I've been, in a sidelong kind of way, really interested in the question of translation. I remember talking to Marie Bilodeau on Literary Landscapes a year or so ago: she is a native French speaker who didn't really speak English until adulthood, and who now writes fantasy and science fiction novels - in English. And she told me that she wouldn't translate her own work into French, and isn't sure if she's got a 'voice' in French.

It's fascinating. I don't, and can't, translate. But I think I'd like to catch this talk.

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