Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reading in tongues

I took a break from crime yesterday to read a bit of Fernand Braudel on the history of Mediterranean civilizations.

I can always read Braudel in French. His style is lucid, his prose bold and enthusiastic, and his thrust and intent always clear enough to overcome the occasional gaps in my French vocabulary. (Context is a fine teacher.)

But I have never been able to read fiction as easily in a language not my own. One cannot as easily skip a word in fiction without missing the gist, I think, and the resulting doubt ruins my enjoyment.

When I find my copy of Andrea Camilleri's novel The Snack Thief, I'll try reading it side by side with its Italian original, Il ladro di merendine. For now, the parts I can comprehend most easily as I flip through the Italian version are the language-mangling Catarella's speeches.
***
I'm not the only one who approaches fiction and non-fiction differently. Sian Reynolds, who has translated Braudel into English and has also shared three CWA International Dagger awards for her translations of Fred Vargas, had this to say about her approach to translation in the first-ever interview at Detectives Beyond Borders:

"I always read the text first if it’s fiction. For non-fiction it’s not so essential – you’ll get there in the end."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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29 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Great cover on that Camilleri. The novel is fine, too. I'm very fond of Camilleri.

As for the translator's very perceptive observation: that puts the difference between fiction and nonfiction in a nutshell. With fiction, the image may shift and become irridescent; non-fiction is always black and white.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger RSG said...

Has anyone ever found the script for the Italian in the TV show "The Snack Thief". I'd like to study my Italian by watching without the subtitles but following the script.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.:

I made a post some time back that includes two of Camilleri's Italian covers and links to an entire gallery.

I don't know if all non-fiction is black and white, but the social sciences, or Braudel's "human sciences," must certainly be.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

RSG: I don't know if the Montalbano scripts have been published. I'd check the RAI Web site or an Italian books site. Sadly, the only one of the latter I know off-hand is amazon.it.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I'm not sure I entirely agree with the separation, though. The range of non-fiction includes much that is not so black and white, and can be very lyrical and nuanced in its expression.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Few arguments can be summed up as neatly as all that, but the fiction/non-fiction separation is a useful and provocative starting point. For one thing, non-fiction of the kind I like to read (generally history and related social sciences) should be harder for a non-native speaker in at least one respect: It often is full of technical terms. Yet is still easier for me than reading fiction in the same language, quite possibly because the authors will have tried to employ the terms as clearly as possible, stripped as far as possible of ambiguity.

A poetic, allusive memoir rich in metaphor, let's say, could be just as hard for me to read in French as fiction would be. I suspect a Sian Reynolds would treat such a piece more like fiction than non-fiction.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some of the Italian Montalbano covers look a bit like paintings by Giorgio de Chirico or like the landcape background in a Piero della Francesca.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Right, and I'm more likely to read the second type, which is why it strikes me. But obviously I'm not speaking from the position of a translator, and would certainly defer to one.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Montaigne, whom I love to read in English translation but cannot read in French, came up in my discussion with Sian Reynolds. She agreed that Montaigne was exceedinly difficult, and she attributed this to his having written in the sixteenth century, before French grammar was standardized.

I am more inclined to blame Montaigne's long, meandering sentences for my difficulty, but that goes hand in hand with my previous comment. Montaigne, of course, was the most personal writer we have. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers such as Voltaire or Tocqueville, on the other hand, were publicists writing for a wide audience and hence had to be clear and accessible. And I can read both in French a hell of a lot more easily that I can read Montaigne.

Montaigne's translators in our time, by the way, have included Donald Frame and M.A. Screech, two of the more colorful literary names I know of.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have also had trouble trying to read Yasmina Khadra's fiction in its original French, and I read later that his language is highly idiosyncratic. Yet I have been able to read selections from his memoirs with little trouble.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

It's been a long, long time since I read Montaigne in any form whatsoever. I should correct that.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Start with "On Cannibals," perhaps more relevant today than ever for reasons that have nothing to do with eating.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Okay.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have sworn never to say that anything ought to be mandatory reading, but that essay sorely tempts me to break my vow.

December 29, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I can't read Yasmina Khadra in English, and I would certainly not blame that on the translator.

Still, I guess translators can do as much damage as some readers of audio books.

December 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your feelings on noir are a matter of record, so to argue that Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob novels are among the noirest would be no inducement. But the bit of his memoirs that I've read includes the interesting, even touching reason for his decision to write in French rather than Arabic.

December 30, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Happy New Year DBB'ers from the frosty (and delightfully almost technology-free) coast of Vancouver Island!

Just a quick note to RSG...

The Italian-language script for the teleplay of Il ladro di merendine may be found at www.montalbano.tv

On the homepage click on the "Sceneggiature" link and from that page to a link to the pdf of the script.

You may have to register at the site to access the pdf.

Buona fortuna!

December 31, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks on behalf of all readers, and Haappy New Year!

My verification word is what RSG hopes to do: compro

December 31, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I forgot to mention that my reading of the alpha and the omega of modern crime fiction continues. I'm reading The Big Sleep now.

December 31, 2010  
Blogger Lauren said...

I have a lot of friends who are extremely fluent in multiple languages, but who still prefer to read fiction in translation into their native language. This includes people who have written PhDs in language number 2 or 3, so the choice of reading language is clearly a fairly idiosyncratic process.

I can read German fiction almost as easily as English unless the dialect is really heavy. (They subtitle Swiss German on German television anyway, so this is clearly a common failing.) It's also a matter of practice, as there's twice as much Scandinavian fiction available in German as in English, so I go for that option more often. I read the final Wallander novel some time ago, for example.

However, German academic prose is horrendous - not because I can't understand it, but because it has stylistic tics that are frankly unpleasant. Getting to the point is clearly not a priority. I haven't read much lighter non-fiction, but I'd hope it's better - as it is I can read 18th century philosophy more easily than modern literary criticism. I wonder if there's any temptation for translators to 'tidy up' that sort of prose...

I prefer non-fiction that I can read as if it *is* fiction, but that's not a standard of writing I come across that often, and certainly not in academia. I only translate in tiny portions for articles and work reports, so the rules are different, but non-fiction translation in that context can seem awfully plodding - one sentence after the other, with the only impetus a deadline rather than overriding plot.

(I've done some interpreting recently - that is an entirely different situation! And possibly more analogous with subtitles - it took me years to get over their lack of 'literalness', which is clearly not possible sometimes given the constraints of space and time. After all, you don't want to 'read' the film.)

January 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Lauren, and Happy New Year.

If people like me, who can read non-fiction but not fiction in foreign languages, and also those like your polyglot friends, who still choose their own languages when reading fiction, the preference of one's own tongue when reading fiction seems well established -- more than idiosyncratic, in other words.

I note with interest that you call German academic prose horrendous, since virtually everyone in this country, at least, must read German to get an advanced degree. I'm not up on my history of scholarship, but I have this idea that German scholars essentially founded modern learning in just about all the art and humanities in the eighteenth century. Does crappy German academic prose date from that time? Did the German founders of modern humanistic scholarship just happen to be bad writers? Did their bad prose set a fashion that persists to this day?

January 01, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Great to hear your insider's perspective on this, Lauren, and I hope you have some answers to Peter's questions.

January 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I hope Lauren will be able to spread some light on the origins of German Abscheulichakademischprosa.

January 01, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

The only appropriate response to that is a very American "Me too."

And now, off to listen to some Strauss waltzes.

For reals.

January 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Waltzes and reels!

I think I'll listen to some Cuban son to end my work evening, then head home for a bit of The Big Sleep.

January 01, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Okay, am too tired from all of the parties, dinners, and toasting to the new year, but can say that I spent part of the last two days devouring Camilleri's "The Smell of the Night."

At a few moments, I was knocked over by the humor in this book. It is a terrific read, which I'm passing on to a friend.

I must say that I regret not having appreciated Camilleri sooner, but now that I have, steely self-discipline will be required to not rush out and get all of his books and read them at once.

So, on that note, Happy New Year to all, and forward to a year of blogging, good reviews of books past and present, and, of course, great books.

January 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You've done some good reading to begin the year. I did not appreciate Camilleri right away, either. My affection for the Montalbano novels grows the more I read.

And a Happy New Year to you, too.

January 02, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, can say, still apropos New Year's, that at a dinner, while I was regaling all with anecdotes (the twin parrots, one human, one feathered) from Camilleri's "The Smell of Night," my friend, who has seen the tv movies at least three times, burst out laughing at the very mention of Catarella.

Cannot wait for the next book...

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Catarella is a fine character in the books and on the TV series. He's funny, and he has his touches of nobility in some of the stories, too. And Salvo's reactions to Catarella's language-mangling and door-slamming are very much a part of the fun.

January 07, 2011  

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