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Lost in murder Lost in murder
by Thanos Kalamidas
2007-09-30 10:03:19
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My favorite Finnish literature book has long been Väinö Linna’s Under the North Star, when I finished the trilogy my first reaction, since I’d read it in English and not in its original language, was what an amazing translation. Linna’s trilogy was not my first contact with Finnish literature, on the contrary, but it was the first that didn’t have a disappointing end. Actually, from my very first visit to Finland I searched for English translations of Finnish literature, which is an old habit I practice every time I visit a new country.

This first time I ended up with four books and in the end I nearly dismissed Finnish literature totally disappointed; they were all bad translations of books that might be fantastic. The translators had missed the point and they translated word after word keeping the reader away from all the action and the feelings of the writers, while the worst of all was the often use of Finnish words without any explanation and the only excuse being that it is impossible to translate. Unfortunately this is one excuse I have often heard in this country when it comes to translations, even in everyday language; true or false, it is still a case of semantics.

Semantics is a big part of the translation, the translator must be aware of the semantics in the country that he/she translates for. The beauty of Richard Impola’s translation in Väinö Linna’s trilogy is the good knowledge not only of the English language but also of the semantics of the time in an English-speaking country. The story begins in the late 19th century while Finland was a Russian province, so in the first part of the trilogy Impola very cleverly uses a Dickens-style language.

I used the example of Linna’s novel to start talking about translation for two reasons; the first reason has to do with Finnish literature in general. There is good Finnish literature; actually I think there is really good Finnish literature, apart from the well-known but childish books of Mika Waltari, the problem is that there are no good translations. My experience from reading the Finnish national poet, Alexis Kivi, was at least traumatic and proof that it would be better to master the language before I try to read any of his works again.

The second thing is the role of the translator, Mr. Impola actually rewrote the book and what I read in the end was a combination of Linna’s inspiration with the translator’s work. I’m sure if I had the chance to read the original in its original language I would find differences and that’s exactly what makes a good translation. The translator is aware of who is going to read the book, is aware of the semantics that constitute the reader, appreciates them, works with them and forms a book that maintains the spirit of the author but is easy to communicate with the reader.

A long time ago, while living in England, I had the chance to look at The Bible in English. Being Greek and having read The Bible in its original language, I was surprised to see that there were differences. Actually, during that period I started forming the idea that the different churches were caused by a …loss in translation; a word here and there could totally change the meaning of the whole idea. If you add to that the semantics of the periods in which The Bible was written and the semantics of the periods it was translated you end up with a major headache.

One last example that I think better shows the work of the translator is Giorgos Seferis and T.S. Eliot, who happen to be two of my favorite poets. Both were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and were close friends who often translated each other’s poems. Murder in the Cathedral is a very famous T.S. Eliot play that Giorgos Seferis translated into Greek. A magnificent play I have had the joy to read in both languages, but to understand how …different the two plays were you just have to start from the title.

If you can step aside and try to read the title as a film scenario. Murder in the cathedral; England, there's a gothic cathedral with heavy statues, dense fog outside; clerics with deep red capes walking slowly and shapes behind the dark shadows of the alleys. A cleric walks slowly towards an obvious noble who’s praying and suddenly a shadow comes out from nowhere with a knife, the music is strong, heavy, pompous!

Now close your eyes and travel to a small Greek island, a narrow hill with small white churches on the side, the sun is burning hot and the only music comes from the wind and the sea. In front of the small wooden door is a man standing looking at the sky, holding a knife with blood dropping upon the marble steps of the little church. Just behind him there is a woman’s body all dressed in black with the only other color being the red on her heart. A murder in the …church! You see, in Greece there are no cathedrals and when you are thinking of a church the picture that comes in your mind is exactly that: a small white island church.

When you think of England, murder and church it has to do with the conspiracy and murder of a king or somebody else in the British aristocracy, but when you think of Greece, murder and church it usually has to do with a crime of passion! Both plays are the same, at least regarding the story, but they are also so different. The question is when you read T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral translated by G. Seferis are you reading T.S. Eliot or the result of both works?


    
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Emanuel Paparella2007-09-30 16:50:43
Dante devised the slogan "traduttore traditore," which when translated into Engiish sounds as "translator betrayer." It retains the meaning but loses the rime and therefore some of the meaning too. And there you have the problematic of translations: the juggling between form and content. You are quite right, it comes down to retaining the spirit of the work but being able to communicate it in the reader's own language, which requires a great mastery of both languages to begin with, not to speak of the technical jargon of the discipline or the genre to which the work belongs. It is especially difficult with poetry.

A few years ago I tranlated a philosophy book by Vittorio Possenti (Reason and Revelation), an essay of approximately 150 pages, a rather slim book. I informed the editor (Ashgate of London) that it would take me a month to complete the translation. I was wrong. It took two months at a pace of a couple of hours a day. Indeed, tranlation is a daunting and challenging task, not for the fainthearted or those rationalists who consider languages a mere means of communication.


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