Found in Translation

As I reread the classic work Love in the Time of Cholera, by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, I am struck by its flowing lyricism and dynamic wordplay.

That said, I cannot help but think of the contribution made to the work by translator Edith Grossman. “Needy Edie,” as she’s known in our translator circle, is a master of taking the already beautiful Spanish language and making it even more beautifuller. Take, for example, the opening line of the novel: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

Nice, huh? Pure Edie. If you look at the original Spanish version, a literal translation reads thusly: “What stinks in here? Oh, it’s almonds.” Not exactly Shakespeare.

As a licensed translator, I find that it’s best to give yourself to the text and let the author’s words shine through. Except in English. This isn’t as hard as it appears if you have a superior mind like mine. Now, I may not be exactly “fluent” in the languages I “speak,” but in the past 17 years that I’ve been translating, it hasn’t slowed me down a bit. In fact, I’ve translated novels, biographies, pamphlets, eulogies, and wedding vows in my own signature style. Whether they were originally in Spanish, German, or – if they exist – any other languages, I’ve been there making word bagels from inferior language dough.

Want an example? I thought you would. I am currently in the process of translating the work of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish essayist. Here are just a few lines of his work from 1914:

No creo deber repetir que me siento más quijotista que cervantista y que pretendo libertar al Quijote del mismo Cervantes, permitiéndome alguna vez hasta discrepar de la manera como Cervantes entendió y trató a sus dos héroes, sobre todo a Sancho.

Pretty dry stuff, right? I mean, he’s absolutely unclear here. In fact, I can’t understand a word he’s saying! So, I turn on the translator in my brain and create a much more entertaining English version:

Don’t give me credit for using my debit card to repair scented moss. Let me jot something down for the servants and pretend that the Quijote Library is missing servants. Permit me algebra with pasta descriptions! Man, this era comes with servant-ending traitors and sassy heroes, and sorbet with Sancho.

At least 10 times more beautiful, wouldn’t you say? Or as my Spanish brethren would say: Moy beautifulito!

German, frankly (Get it? FRANC-ly? Like their currency? Classic!), is much easier to translate, and therefore more easierly to make beautifuller. The following comes from my upcoming translation of poet and novelist Günter Glass’s “Die Blechtrommel,” which Wikipedia says means “The Tin Drum.” Lame! I plan to call it “Drachen Gesicht,” which Google Translator says means “Dragon Face.”

I’ll save you the boredom of having to read his first line. It’s just so pedantic, which Dictionary.com says means “Sign up for Dictionary.com premium for this definition.” Here’s the first line I suggested:

Es war die beste aller Zeiten, es war die schlechteste aller Zeiten.“

While Google Translator says this means, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I would spice it up a bit and change to:

“When the dragon lands on your face, you become the Dragon Face.”

When you have that talent that Edith Grossman and I have, you just don’t question it. You go out into the world and help writers reach their potential in the language they only wish they could write in.

© Will Siss 2012

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