How to explain the word choices translators make in literary translation?
These past few weeks I have been studying works of other translators in my language pair and though I always talk about how important the decisions translators make in their translations are, I never really talked or speculated on how or why they make certain choices and come up with certain solutions to constantly arising problems in translation that might, at first glance, seem ‘wrong’.
Translation is not math though we do have some equations to solving some problems too. It is just that most of the time those equations do not cover all the problems or simply are not working within the context.
Mighty Russian language
Russian language is so diverse that at times, when attempting to translate into it, the word choice might be overwhelming. Which word to choose? Which one works the best within the context and writing style? How to better word it?
There is no ready solution for this vast range of speculations in translation – only choices and decisions the translators make
This kind of choices and decisions take a good amount of creativity as well as professional intuition and general experience. It is a bad tone to call whichever choice translators make in regard to wordings a wrong or ‘bad’ translation, but I think to those who are not translators but are interested in literary translation and international literature, it can be kind of hard to understand why certain things are translated in certain ways.
Challenges of translating diminutive forms
Russian language has a long list of diminutive forms and this list goes far longer and way more diverse than in English language, for example. So when translating from English to Russian the translator must keep this difference in mind and be courageous enough to operate it when needed.
The first chapter of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is called The nuclear family: His Talk, Her Teeth which was translated into Russian as Счастливая семья: его слова, ее зубки.
As you can see, the word ‘teeth’ here was translated as ‘зубки’ instead of obvious and direct ‘зубы’. ‘Зубки’ – diminutive form of the word ‘зубы’.
Or in the same chapter, in the sentence:
...“before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!” – the word ‘dreamlets’ has been translated as ‘причудки’ (which is a diminutive form of a word that does not really exist in Russian language *says in a whisper*).
So what’s going on? Why ‘зубки’ and why ‘причудки’?
The answer is simple. Both of these words are the translator’s choice. This choice can (and most likely is) based on personal perception of the book, previous translation of other works of the author, and may even be a team work of some kind of the translator and publisher. To non-translators it might look like a wrong translation, irrational choice, or even unsolicited word contribution but from professional point of view, these choices are working the best in the context of this provocative and fascinating piece of literature.
*A short lyrical digression*
I am currently working on a detailed analysis of the translation of this book that I will hopefully be able to share with you soon, so if you are interested in literary translation or just in this particular book, subscribe or join me on my social media to stay tuned.
Language adaptation / rephrasing in translation
One idea can be expressed in so many ways and as cool as it is, when it comes to translation, it causes a range of challenges.
Why when literal translation seems to work just fine, translators still choose to add a challenge to their work by rewording, rephrasing, or readapting it in a certain, at times incomprehensible way?
The good example of this is the book that I have recently put on my reading list ‘How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease’ by Michael Greger and Gene Stone. Into Russian the title was translated as ‘Не сдохни! Еда в борьбе за жизнь’.
The first part of the title ‘How Not to Die’ could be translated literally into ‘Как не умереть’ which kind of sounds fine but honestly would be a bit boring.
‘Не сдохни!’ — the literal translation of this is ‘Don’t die!’ which, unlike the original title, is in the imperative mood. ‘Не сдохни!’ is a cheeky, rephrased way of ‘How Not to Die’ which sounds so much funnier and more harmonious to me than the original title.
The second part of the title ‘Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease’ could potentially be translated directly too but again, it would be too long, and sound boring and slightly awkward. In this case, ‘Еда в борьбе за жизнь’ is a shortened and reparsed translation of ‘Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease’.
It must be said that title translation quite often is a team work of the translator and publisher, for the goal standing here is not to just translate but also make it commercially neat.
So, all of these is a demonstration of translators’ choices that are based on multiple factors: personal perception of the work in question, experience, creativity, general courage to make radical and at times risky decisions for the sake of literary value, even age and interests of the translator in work.
Literary translation is a labyrinth of decisions and since it is a creative kind of work that heavily relies on personal factors that differ from translator to translator, explaining why the translators make certain choices in their translation would be as effective as punching the air.
We can try, of course, and sometime we might even grasp on a reason or a general idea standing behind this or that word choice. But in most cases, all we can is to learn from and be inspired by these kind of choices and decisions, because sometimes the only answer to them is ‘because it works the best!’