Tuesday, June 02, 2009

English Translation Issues

Fresh off the heals of Love and Garbage by Ivan Klíma, which was tedious and dull most of the time though a few stand out passages kept my interest, I’m returning to Latin American literature after a break and exploration of some Eastern European jive. The current book, Comrades by Marco Antonio Flores, has struck me as being very interesting, though beset by a similar problem: a British translation.

It’s the same language, right? Not quite. Sure, we speak English, as do the English, Scottish, Irish, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and a rapidly increasing segment of the world’s population, but the colloquialisms differ greatly. I’ve read a fair amount of translated literature. I like it when I can’t notice the language being so obviously… well, translated. This is partially due to my reading translations done by Americans. When I read a translation done by a Brit, as I have with Klíma and am now starting with Flores, I notice some of the words and phrases as being unusual.

Examples: I don’t suspect a Guatemalan or a Czech to be calling their friends “mates” or saying “sod off,” “poofter,” “arse,” “bloody hell,” “knackered” and so on. This very British vernacular detracts from my enjoyment of the work. I stop believing in the characters and what they say. I get frustrated and tend to imagine the other options the translators had that might have worked better.

Then again, this is somewhat arrogant. I’m an American, so I assume that all works translated into English ought to read like they came from the mouth of a Yank? Do I not notice the vernacular in works translated by American translators? I like to think my favorite American translators (Suzanne Jill Levine, Natasha Wimmer, Gregory Rabassa) are going out of their way to make sure the texts read smoothly and are substituting regional slang for something more universal. Hell, even Richard Pevear and his Russian wife—who are so obsessed with maintaining the accuracy of the original text—don’t throw in glaring words/phrases such as those mentioned above.

Take Chris Andrews as a good example of an English translator. He’s tackled some big names in the world of Spanish letters: Bolaño, Erique Vila-Matas and César Aira. While he hails from Australia, you never see any noticeable local flavor in his English translations. I understand that a book like Comrades, which is full of Guatemalan slang, is very difficult to translate, and one choice would be to render the Spanish colloquialisms into their English approximates. Still, if Natasha Wimmer could handle several different regions of slang in The Savage Detectives (which, to my eyes, never seemed weighed down in Americanisms) than why can’t Leona Nickless handle one without making it seem so damn British?

Let me also say a thank you to Ms. Nickless, who brought Comrades (nee Los Compañeros) into English. From what I’ve read, this was a labor of love and an extension of an academic study on Flores. Obviously she has lived with this text for quite some time and feels pretty close to it, much the way Clayton Eshleman spent so much time with the work of Vallejo (and, it seems, feels as though he owns those poems in English). Kudos to you, Leona. Maybe it’s something within me, as suggested earlier, but I still wish the narrators of Comrades didn’t sound like Londoners.