One Word to Another

In Others’ Words/Dans les mots des autres Addresses the Role of Translation in the Creation of a Literary Culture

Photo Nikolas Litzenberger

“Raaa don’t make a whole cheese about it!” Have you ever heard a French person being complètement lost in translation?

Words and expressions can simply not always be translated from one language to another. Living in a different country with another language brings challenges to your everyday life.

Being spontaneous about your emotions is not always simple. Words don’t always come out, but you keep trying, you end up mumbling and sometimes you even try translating words or expressions that just don’t fit into the language. Fin de l’histoire. Don’t even try explaining yourself.

For writers, a language barrier can be even more of a challenge. Asking someone to rewrite your book in a different language—especially when there could be cheese involved—is an exercise of trust. Writer and translator, David Homel, will be holding a conference called In Others’ Words / Dans les mots des autres, Feb. 10, at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre. Along with Marianne Champagne, his current translator, they will approach the different challenges of translation.

Before you run to the event, it’s important to understand the role of a translator. A translator is someone who makes translation, d’accord, mais encore. Are they some kind of ghostwriter, living in the shadow of the original writer? Non. A messenger? Pas seulement.

“There is kind of a cliché about translators being invisible, and I don’t think that’s true. Translators have to get deeply involved in the book that they are working on,” Homel said.

Indeed, considering that many words cannot be literally translated from one language to another—don’t try translating “badass” in French—it is important to understand how involved a translator becomes in the rewriting.

“When you’re a writer, you have to love your characters, even if they are very unlovable, ideally you would also feel that same kind of love and generosity for the book that you’re translating,” Homel said.

But being a translator is also an exercise of balance: involvement and restraint, that’s the thin line a translator shouldn’t cross. Un vrai travail d’équilibriste.

“The worst situation is the translator who wants to be a writer and is not, and then maybe tries to be a writer by getting over-involved in the book that they are translating,” Homel explained.

Still, sometimes translators can be a fresh breath of life for the text, which serves to deepen the mystique of the ambiguous role they play.

“Sometimes you get it right, and other times the translation is better than the original because you have a chance to maybe do some rewriting,” expliqua Homel.

The constant debate about whether reading a book in the original version is better than the translation is missing the point. Indeed, let’s keep in mind that a translator puts a lot of effort into transmitting an experience—it’s not only a matter of words.
“You give them an as close and equivalent experience as if they read the original,” Homel said.

This can be quite hard in some contexts. Homel experienced this for himself when he translated Dany Laferrière’s book The World Is Moving Around Me, about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“He was trying to make people understand why he decided to take the evacuation out, and of course, at that point, you don’t want to make him sound too shrill or self-justifying. You have to make sure that your emotional tone is right,” he said.

Yet, sometimes, the relationship between a writer and his translator can be pretty straightforward.

“Some of my kids books were translated into Chinese, and I have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on. Who knows what she said in Chinese,” he said.

But that’s an extreme, and Homel is more the kind of person to get to know the author. He has his own astuce, or trick, during the translation process.

“I like to hear the person talk, so that when I’m working on the translation I can hear the real person talking to me,” he said.

Bien sûr there is not one kind of translator, some will be more involved, d’autres moins. Marianne Champagne, appartient elle-même à un autre genre de traducteurs.

“She’s maybe more of the classic model of the translator, of someone who doesn’t really get involved very much with the author,” confia Homel.

Words are part of a history, a culture, a person—the discussion about translation will probably never come to an end. Some words can probably not be translated to another culture. “Hen,” the Swedish gender-neutral personal pronoun, for instance, is a word that can only by translated by an explanation of its meaning, for now.

Literal translation is the danger in the field, because it can kill the nuanced meaning of a book. That’s probably why Czech writer Milan Kundera decided to fire his French translator once he learned enough French to write in the language on his own.

According to José Saramago, 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, what remains the most important about translation is that “les écrivains produisent une littérature nationale, les traducteurs rendent la littérature universelle.”