Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gianrico Carofiglio, Howard Curtis, and a translator's challenge

(Games People Play)
A reader's complaint, an incautious reply, and a translator's thoughtful explanation have revived one of this blog's oldest questions: What cultural and linguistic challenges does a translator face?

The complainer objected to the name chosen for a poker game in the Gianrico Carofiglio novel translated in English as The Past is a Foreign Country:
"The fat man cut the cards and said, 'Five card stud.' He said it in the same tone of voice he'd used all evening. What he thought of as a professional tone. A good way to recognize an easy mark at a poker table is to see if they use a professional tone.

"He dealt the first card face down and the second one face up. A professional gesture, as if to prove my point."
"Who is Carofiglio kidding?" my reader objected. "There's no other way to start a game of five card stud. Playing the first card face down and second one face up wouldn't tell you jackshit about anybody."

I speculated that five-card stud might be a rough English equivalent for a game in the novel's original version whose Italian name English and American readers would not recognize, and it turned out I was right. Rather than a lapse on Carofiglio's part, I wrote, "We've uncovered some sloppy work by the translator, then."

Today the translator weighed in with a reply that made me ashamed of my flip comment. That translator is Howard Curtis, and here's what he had to say:
"Sorry I've only just seen this thread. As translator of The Past is a Foreign Country, I'd like to comment on the above remarks about my `sloppy work' on the poker aspects of the book. Not being a poker player myself, I had to do some research when translating these sections, and `five card stud' did seem to be the most accurate translation of what was being played at that point. The poker references were checked and approved by someone at the publishing house who knew about poker, and the original UK edition carried a preliminary note explaining that this was an Italian version of the game, employing a 32-card deck. I haven't seen the US edition, so I don't know if this note was reproduced."
Having written about the challenges translators face, I should have speculated about Curtis' choice rather than dismissing it. In any case, it appears this problem was difficult, if minor. The U.S. edition of the book does, indeed, offer an explanatory note, but is that enough? I'd read the novel without noticing the note.  The poker references passed muster at the publishing house, but not with a reader out there in cyberland (Ireland, actually). Could translator or publisher have chosen another way to explain the game?

I suggested that the translator might use the original Italian name a time or two in the text, perhaps with an unobtrusive explanation, and let context take care of the rest. Would that have worked? I don't know, but I am reminded once more of how bloody difficult a translator's job can be, especially if the work in question is popular fiction, where ease of reading is paramount.
***
Howard Curtis is an experienced translator from French, Italian and Spanish. Among novels discussed here at Detectives Beyond Borders, his translations include works by Carofiglio, Jean-Claude Izzo, and Caryl Férey.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , ,

27 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Translation is a thankless job. You do it right, no one notices. You do it wrong, someone gives you grief.

Sounds a bit like copyediting.

September 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The two professions have marked affinities, I'd say, but translation has got to be harder. All one has to know to be a good translator is everything.

September 27, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I read the UK ed. of this book last week. I thought Curtis's translation was exceptionally fine. (Because I can read French and Italian, I think I tend to be fussier about translations from those languages than from languages I can't read, or read as well.) Much of the book consists of delineating the main protagonist's thoughts, his musings on the past, etc. The continually smooth flow of these passages between those of dialogue and action, no mean feat, made for an enjoyable reading experience.

And the expert poker player reader was picking on, as Curtis himself pointed out, something that makes for a very challenging choice for a translator. I would probably have preferred to see a more strict translation from the Italian (and I don't know anything about the card game itself). After all, the card game was being used as a plot device to tell the reader about cardsharps, cheating, etc. and not about "how to play a card game." (I kept seeing Caravaggio's and Georges de la Tour's paintings of cardsharps in my mind during these passages.)

A similar quandary arose for the Australian translators/distributors of RAI's Montalbano series. For the episode based on Camilleri's short story, Il gioco delle tre carte, they just gave up and called it Find the Lady.

September 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Peter, I guess being a translator is like having to know everything, but in two languages.

September 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To know everything in two languages and to have to make the right guesses on how to render expressions for which translation might not make sense. I'm not sure translation is a thankless job so much as it is an exceedingly demanding one.

September 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I'd agree that Curtis translation flowed exceptionally smoothly. (Have you read the novel in Italian as well as English? I'd be interested in hearing from someone who had read the book in both languages.)

As nicely as he may have captured Carofiglio's tone, the nomenclature of poker poses an obstacle. If I think of it, I'll go back to the passage in question and see if a stricter translation or even preserving the original Italian name might have worked.

For some reason, I think of Carlo Lucarelli's Via delle Oche, which was published in English as Via delle Oche.

September 28, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

A translator is also a writer.

The rhythms of language are as important as literal meanings and we were always being reminded by teachers that a translation is a new work in its own right.

Happy the author who finds a sympathic translator. It can be a rare experience.

(And a very Happy Birthday to this blog, belatedly.)

September 28, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Seana said, "Translation is a thankless job. You do it right, no one notices. You do it wrong, someone gives you grief.

Sounds a bit like copyediting."

Sounds a lot like writing books.

But a good translator is a wonderful thing. They make or break a book. I've had both kinds.

As for the "critic": I hate that sort of sniping where people like to show off their own little bit of expertise.

September 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales, a translator is a writer, but this discussion makes me realize he or she must also be an antropologist and a jack of all trades.

Thanks for the kind wishes.

September 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I once suggested that an author sending her book off to be translated into a language she does not know must feel like a mother sending her child off to school or summer camp for the first time.

I have more sympathy for the critic than you do, though, even though I'd read over the poker reference in question without being bothered in the least. Even a small error can jar a reader out of the story, and once that happens he may not return. In my case this will generally involve anachronistic words. In this reader's case it was poker.

This is not to say that Howard Curtis necessaily made the wrong choice, but rather that any choice runs the risk of offending some one person among the (one hopes) vast numbers reading the book.

September 28, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I only read the beginning of the book on Amazon, Peter. The 'preliminary' note must have come later on.

As for the "critic": I hate that sort of sniping where people like to show off their own little bit of expertise

IJ, as the "critic" involved, all I can say is: ouch! That hurts! It's a fine piece of criticism, though. Have you ever thought about taking up the dastardly art yourself? No doubt you would agree with Estragon in Waiting For Godot:

VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!
ESTRAGON: Curate!
VLADIMIR: Cretin!
ESTRAGON: (with finality). Crritic!
VLADIMIR: Oh!
He wilts, vanquished, and turns away

Just the humble opinion of a competent, but by no means expert, poker player. (Thanks for the 'expert poker player' bit, Elisabeth. We horseplayers should stick together!).

September 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, the preliminary note was indeed a preface to the U.S. edition, at least in my copy. But I noticed it only after Mr. Curtis called it to my attention; I'd missed it when I read the novel. This raised the question of whether such a note is sufficient to alleviate any possible misunderstanding.

September 28, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Ouch, I stepped on Solo's toes this time. I would have liked to avoid that, considering that I have the greatest respect for Solo's comments here.

I speak as an author who suffered the occasional barb, and not all those barbs were deserved either. There is so much to a book, and such an enormous amount of research goes into it (well, for me anyway) that the "one tiny problem" business becomes a major irritant. Add to that the fact that the author is usually more concerned with aspects like characterization, theme, setting, atmosphere, believability.
As a reader, I stumble over gross grammar problems in the books of others. I also object to scenarios that are not believable. An anachronism in word or fact has to be huge (like the repeated use of potato recipes in a book about a 14th c. Venetian cook)before I get upset.

September 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J. I had a feeling you might have suffered a big barb for a small mistake in your time. Seems to me that if I were an author, I'd do the best research I could, then send my novel into the world reconciled to the fact that there is no perfect book. Write with fear of error in mind, and you'll go nuts.

September 29, 2011  
Anonymous May said...

I think in the US there is pressure for translations to resemble translations as little as possible. Americans, supposedly, are afraid of foreign works and the foreignness must be hidden from view, similar to zucchini in chocolate brownies for children. If you read reviews of translated works, it is apparent that 'good flow' is of paramount importance and will, for the most part, determine whether the translation is a 'success' or not. But no one ever reads a book in its original language and judge it based on how well it flows. ("Peter, you have just got to read this book! It flows like you wouldn't believe!)

I don't think I would have made the same choice as Curtis to replace the name of the Italian card game with an English-language equivalent. But, I do find it incredibly ignorant that Curtis' deliberate choice was taken for sloppiness. The note proves that, in fact, there was quite a bit of careful consideration. Curtis and the publishers had to decide what was most important: authenticity, fidelity, readability, flow (of course!)...

Unfortunately, there will always be the reader/reviewer of translation who finds one single objectionable thing and declare the whole thing sh*t.

September 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May, I say flow; you say readability. What's the first job of any writer, perhaps especially a writer of crime fiction? Keep the story going. Make the reader want to keep reading. Maintain the flow, in other words (even if that particular term drives you nuts). That's equally important whether one reads the work in the original language or in translation. Perhaps "flow" comes up more frequently in discussions of translation because the myriad problems that confront a translator are yet another potential onstacle to flow. Or to readability.

The reader/reviewer who declares the whole thing **** because of a single objection may be a straw men. Neither Solo nor I is guilty here. Solo acknowledged that he'd read only a small sample of the book. Even when he blamed the author, he never said Carofiglio was a bad writer or that The Past Is a Foreign Country is a bad book. He merely questioned the author's knowledge of poker.

September 29, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Ah yes... readability.

I now spend more and more time with photography and the following may explain why...


The "flow" and story driven narrative gives a lot to think about.

Since the recent crime wave has taken over Ireland, writer friends and I spend a lot of time discussing narrative voice and (I'm a bit worried about admitting this here) bemoaning the lack of description of places and characters that still send some of us back to Dickens, George Eliot and Proust.

One friend, stunned by dialogue in one book I proffered, just gave up.

I intend to soldier on, but really it can call for some heavy lifting...

The same friend hated Carofiglio... but perhaps he is best read in Italian?

I often find that translations into French from Italian or Spanish work better for me than when a work is transposed into English.

Ours is such a pragmatic language that much romance and finesse is lost along the way.

Carofiglio must be very popular... 24 translations underway as I write.

gianricocarofiglio.com/biography.shtml

September 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P a D, mere coincidence, perhaps, but I gave Carofiglio a book to sign for a friend, and he signed it with a quotation from Proust.

For you sportsmen and women, my veification word is: hockey

September 30, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Speaking as someone with size 15 toes that wouldn't be bent out of shape even if an elephant trod on them, I would like to confess that I found IJ's comment stung a little because it jibed somewhat with my own beliefs.

I might well have been in a bad mood the night I commented on The Past Is A Foreign Country. The wife wasn't around to shout at, the cat quite sensibly had gone into hiding and therefore couldn't be kicked, so I took a swipe at Signor Carofiglio, for what seemed to me at the time, and still seems, an unconvincing depiction of a poker game.

I am sensitive to the charge that seizing on such details is unfair. Perhaps, it is. But I'm not entirely convinced.

I think readers know very quickly when they like a book or don't like it. But explaining or justifying that dislike usually involves some questionable rationalisations. Readers simply pick on the weakest point of the book to explain their dislike of it.

I like Dickens, for example. So if you say Sentimentality, I would say: Case Dismissed. But if I didn't like Dickens and you say Sentimentality, I would say: Hang him! Hang him high!

Off topic, Peter, but having recently recoved from the trauma of reading In The Absence of Iles, I plucked up enough courage to pick up another Bill James. Bloody hell! Having read four of his books since, now I know what you were wittering on about!

This comment is probably a day or two late. Sorry about that. I just bought some music software and trying to figure it out has my poor addled brain on the point of collapse.

September 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some expert will always find something to quibble with (or cavil it) in just about any novel, I suspect. One hopes the quibbler will not ignore the book's virtues.

When you've taken a cure and regained your wits, let me know which Bill James books you read.

September 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if Carofiglio plays poker.

September 30, 2011  
Anonymous May said...

I am not making an argument against flow. I just think that flow may not necessarily be the most important criteria for a sentence, paragraph, chapter, book, etc., and the importance of any particular criteria in a translation is up to the translator and, I suppose, the editor. For example, place too much emphasis on flow, and you can sacrifice voice (critics call them 'watered-down translations of so-and-so's work).

But, I agree with Solo when he writes: "Readers simply pick on the weakest point of the book to explain their dislike of it."
In your example, a poker player will find the translation jarring. But your average non-poker-playing reader might find a foreign word jarring (or at least, so say most American publishers).

We actually agree, but I feel professionally inclined to defend a translator.

October 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd agree that we don't disagree. Put a gun to my head, and I might say that flow and voice are the primary criteria for popular fiction and that neither is more of less important than the other.

I've come across clunky sentences in translated novels and wondered about the ethical dilemma a translator might face (assuming he or she in a sensitive enough reader to notice the problem) when faced with an author whose prose is clunky in the original, and not because of the author's voice, but because he or she is simply a bad prose stylist. Does the translator seek to reproduce that clunkiness?

October 04, 2011  
Anonymous Howard Curtis said...

As usual, I've caught up with this thread rather late, and I'd just like to say thank you to everybody for taking the trouble to discuss in such detail this whole strange and troublesome subject of translation. (A translator friend of mine, in an e-mail to me today, said she didn't know whether to call translation "a thankless task" or "a labour of love".)

Peter, you're right about that ethical dilemma. I've translated quite a few writers who perpetrate some very clunky prose. (Obviously, I'm not going to name any names!) My response is usually to try improving it in some way, because if I reproduced the clunkiness I know readers would blame me, not the writer!

October 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd imagine that that all sorts of things get said when translators get together for drinks.

I enjoy Stephen Sartarelli's explanatory notes to his translations of Andrea Camilleri. I very much liked the note Sian Reynolds appended to her translation of Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. (Talk about a tough translator's job. Part of the humor in that book comes from the mutual incomprehensibility of Quebecois and Parisian French. Try rendering that into English.)

I like Don Bartlett's sensible explanation for his English pronunciation of Jo Nesbø's name. I like Mike Mitchell on dialect and Ros Schwartz on working conditions for translators. In short, I think translator is right up there with cartoonist and neuropsychologist among the world's most fascinating occupations.

October 04, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

How cool of Howard Curtis to drop by. I appreciate you translators, Howard--there are an awful lot of books I never would have read otherwise.

October 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain awards its international dagger award to the author as well as the translator of crime fiction translated into English. I wonder what other awards recognize translators jointly with authors or alone, especially of popular fiction.

January 19, 2012  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home