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Translation diary: 4 - Infidelity

  • By Daniel Hahn
  • 18th November 2013
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Daniel Hahn continues his blog tracking his progress translating 'Blue Flowers' by Carola Saavedra. This week, how faithful should a translator be to their source?

If you've missed Danny's blog up till now, you can catch the first installment here, and the whole series to date here.

About four pages into the letter that opens the book, this happens:

I haven’t left the house for days, I’ve told you that already, right, haven’t I? I could even be dramatic, tell you I haven’t left the house for days, haven’t eaten for days, haven’t washed, haven’t brushed my hair, you remember, my hair, which you used to like me to wear loose, remember?, which you used to praise, you used to say it looked like a dark curtain, dark as a bird, dark as the night, did you ever say such a thing, I wonder? No, you never would have said something like that. But no, I’m not going to tell you I’m suffering, what would be the point? Better to tell you about other things…

The word I want to look at briefly here is “dramatic”, in the second sentence – which might read better if it were “over-dramatic”, or “hysterical”, perhaps. (I’ve always liked the word “shrill”, too. Maybe that’s a possibility?) Or I could make into a verb, saying “I could over-dramatize, and tell you…” Yes, I might change to one of those in a later draft. None of these options solves my main problem, however.

The word in Portuguese is “dramática”. The meaning is obvious. But translation is never that simple, of course. Because two languages never map onto each other word for word, and there’s something happening in the Portuguese that isn’t happening in the English, just because of the way the two languages work differently. Because in the original, we learn here that whoever is writing this letter, referring to themselves as “dramática”, is female. Everything is gendered in Portuguese and adjectives agree with nouns. Not so in English. In English you could keep reading right past this line with no way of knowing the gender of your narrator. (In the next chapter, the reader of the letter assumes the writer is a woman because of the handwriting, but we don’t have such clues.) 

Now, my job is to make sure the English-language reader isn’t missing out when they read Carola in translation; so I need to construct something in my English that does the same job as that gender-agreeing adjective in Portuguese. And ideally conveys the information just as inconspicuously as Carola does. And in a way that might seem natural for a letter written to a former lover. The Portuguese essentially says, “I could even be {dramatic-and-female}, tell you…”, but retaining this might seem rather, um, experimental in English. But I also clearly don’t want “I (a woman) could even be dramatic, tell you…”. And though it’s microscopically better, I absolutely don’t want “I could even be a dramatic woman…” either.

Perhaps surprisingly, the solution in this case might be found a couple of words earlier in the sentence, in that easily ignored “even”. What that word is doing is suggesting that there’s some hypothetical alternative, in which if she were otherwise than she is, she might consider behaving in such-and-such a way. (If she were much more manipulative, or much less proud, or much angrier, or whatever.) That idea, then, might be my rescue – by beginning my sentence with something like

If I were that sort of woman, I might…

Or

If I were a different kind of woman, I might…

It’s not perfect, not altogether natural yet, and I’ll certainly tinker later, but that may well be more or less where this sentence goes.

But is this allowed? Does the Portuguese sentence say anything of the kind? Well, I think the “even” does imply it, but no, there isn’t an equivalent hypothetical phrase, not exactly. On the other hand – and I’m sure I’ll repeat this with tedious frequency over the coming weeks of this blog – my job isn’t to translate each word severally, plucking each Portuguese one out and dropping in an English replacement. Translating a book sometimes means looking at it on a word-by-word level, but also sometimes sentence by sentence, page by page, or across the whole book. You’re forced to miss something out here and so compensate for it there; you have to expand this phrase, so you compress the next; a bit of data doesn’t quite fit in the English, so you make sure it gets smuggled in somewhere else, just so long as the readers have it by the time they need it. 

You often hear people discuss translation in terms of “fidelity”. All well and good, but fidelity to what? Ought I to adhere to the kind of fidelity which says, “No, the Portuguese just says ‘Eu até poderia ser dramática…’, so your translation must say ‘I could even be dramatic…’ and no more than that!” ? That would be “faithful”, after a fashion, wouldn’t it? But anxious fidelity to the basic meaning of individual words often means short-sightedly depriving the reader of something far more vital that’s happening behind them, or between them, which is where so much of reading happens. A writer being translated like that would have every reason to feel betrayed.

Comments: Thanks to those of you who commented on the earlier posts – the comments facility has temporarily vanished in the course of migration to this lovely new site. It’ll be back up shortly, but if you want to comment in the meantime you can always tweet me at @danielhahn02 or Sam at @freewordcentre and we’ll post the comments when everything’s back to normal.

Daniel's next post looks at structure. Read it here.

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