Wednesday, May 02, 2012

"The fact that," or Is it possible to be a good translator but a bad writer?

The classic handbook Elements of Style (Strunk and White) includes the injunction that "the expression the fact that should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs," and I see no reason to disagree.

I started tallying the number of the fact thats in Anne Holt's 1222, but I stopped when I got to fifty. 1222 is a fine novel, but I wish translator Marlaine Delargy had avoided that clumsy phrase, which is easily replaceable, never necessary, and wholly characteristic of slapdash, amateurish writing.

There's more weirdness in the book, too, writing that's not exactly bad, but that lacks the polish I expect and generally want. The narrator calls one character "A thief, without a shadow of doubt" — not beyond, but without. When the book's trainload of passengers settle into the hotel where they have been stranded by a derailment, we are told, "Basically, everything was more or less OK." Coffee is described as "red hot," which liquids don't get, except maybe molten steel. A character receives supplies "on a daily basis" (Why not "every day"?) A crowd panics, and "total chaos" ensues. How does "total" chaos differ from any other kind?

Elsewhere Delargy gives us scenario when the right word would have been sceneScenario means script — something written down, in other words, and not something visual. And no, the narrator does not describe a scenario being played out before her. She uses the word as if it meant scene, which it does not. And then "The noise level was rising." Why level?  A character "has been tasked" with keeping everyone calm. And why "With every harrowing experience that occurred ..." rather than "With every harrowing experience ..."?

The narrator recalls an earlier conversation, and "I could literally hear his tense, high-pitched voice." Literally? Really?  Not unless Holt intended an infusion of the paranormal or the narrator was having auditory hallucinations. If you're still with me, you won't be surprised by "This person must also carry within them a hatred powerful enough to make them murder Cato Hammer ..."

Is it possible to be a good translator but a bad writer?

(By comparison, The Devotion of Suspect X, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander, offers only a character "vainly attempting to do some damage control," unnecessary words italicized by me; tarp and prepping rather than tarpaulin and preparing; and three gottas, which is three too many.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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50 Comments:

Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Marlaine Delargy's excellent translation certainly deserves a mention." -- amazon.com reviewer

Thinking this might be a book my Norskie mor might like to read in the original Norwegian, I poked around the Norwegian-language reviews. They were pretty ho-hum so I took a pass. It might be a combination of a so-so source and a so-so translation...? All those written tics you note are the kinds of Things That Drive Me Nuts and make me wish I could have tweaked the translation before it went to the publisher. (One English-language reviewer at goodreads said it was a poor translation.)

May 02, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I should have said, Things That Drive Me Nuts, too. Coincidentally, I am in the midst of tweaking some translated-from-the-French English-language abstracts and it is so true that "it's the little things that count," huh?

There was a kind of magic year when I was majoring in French (back when mastodons roamed the earth) and I could speak and think in French as fluently as I could in English. We had a terrific grammar book, Un Certain style ou un style certain?: Introduction á l'étude du style français. I've often wished I could have had the Italian and German equivalents when I was learning those languages. The book really delivered on how to choose le mot juste not just the close-enough-for-government-work word.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd love to track down that old French book of yours. If I'd known about it a few weeks ago, I could have asked about it when I stopped in at Schoenhof's foreign-language bookshop near Harvard Square.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, Delargy's translation deserves a mention, all right.

In fact, I know no Norwegian, so I could not presume to judge Delargy's translation. For all I know, she may have done a fine job finding elegant English equivalents for untranslatable Norwegian expressions. But there is no excuse for the lapses that I pointed out, and I don't remember ever finding such lapses in Don Barlett's translations of Jo Nesbo or Felicity David's of Karin Fossum. Elegant prose is obviously not a priority at Scribner, and, while the lapses I cited don't sink the book by any means, no literate reader of English could by any stretch call this an excellent translation.

The book ia actually pretty good; I had some quibbles with the denouement, but one can easily set that part of the book aside and enjoy what had gone before.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mske that "Don Bartlett." He's a gentleman, he's a fine translator, and he deserves the courtesy of having his name spelled correctly.

May 02, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I'd love to track down that old French book of yours.

I still have mine and refer to it now and then. I annotated it throughout and am mortified today when I see what fine handwriting I used to have...

There are several copies via abebooks, the first in the list looks like a good, clean copy.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I'll keep it in mind, perhaps for a future book-scavenging expedition. Thanks.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just ordered it!

May 02, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I hope you'll be glad you did! It's so much more than the typical, dry grammar text.

May 02, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

STRUNK&WHITE has problems of its own. Somebody did an expose on that recently. "Scenario" is a good word when it describes a complex scene. And "gotta" is clearly slang, but it would be appropriate in dialogue or in first P. narrative by a character who thinks or uses the word.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, did Hammett or Chandler commit any grammar/writing sins, that made you want to tear your hair out?

May 02, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

It seems to me that the absolute best that a bad writer can achieve is to be a mediocre translator. Of course, bad writers can certainly improve their abilities! Even the most vernacular and conversational prose style can be rendered well in the right hands. For what its worth, when I read in translation I don't read it as the author's work, but as the translator's work. The piece must fail or succeed based on the translator's efforts because the author isn't always intimately caught up in the process of translation. Of course this can be a schizophrenic approach since many authors are handled by more than one translator!!

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I had a French-major friend who used to love to say "donc." I go more for "dont" and "désormais" myself, and I hope the book will afford the opportunity to us eboth.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., "Gotta" may be the translator's attempt to render into English one character's informal, slangy speech from the Japanese original. But nothing in the rest of the book -- and nothing in the rest of that character's speech -- conveys such informality, so the gottas stick out uncomfortably. I'd say from my conversations with translators that rendering the texture of colloquial speech from one language into another is a translator's most difficult task and that most don't even try. That is a wise course.

Strunk & White's problems are immaterial in this case. In the matter of "the fact that," they're right. In any case, I don't need any book to teach me to hate "the fact that." I have enough experience with "the fact that" from decades of reading raw copy produced under deadline pressure by poor writers and sent to me by indifferent editors.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you set your books in Japan; do you speak modern Japanese? Do you know what "gotta" might have been in the original?

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK: If Chandler and Hammett did commit any such lapses, their writing is so compelling that I read right over them. A contemporary reader will notice certain word choices in the stories that have since got out of fashion -- an occasional odd adverb, in the early Black Mask manner. But I would say that both authors were literate and educated enough (self-educated in Hammett's case) and had good enough ears for what constituted good prose, that they did not commit many lapses.

One odd locution that Hammett used once or twice was "What kind of looking man was he?" what asking what a man looked like. The construction makes sense; we'll say someone was good- or bad-looking, so why not turn this into a question?

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., "Scenario" just may be a good word to describe a complex scene, but only in its narrative aspect -- a scenario playing out, for instance. The pictorial aspect of the scene is more to the fore in this case, though.

You'll have to trust me on this if you haven't read the book, but if the translators wanted a fancy word for "scene," "tableau" would have been more appropriate.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aaron: Right. The translator is a writer. Marlaine Delargy won a Dagger Award for a translation of one of Johan Theorin's novels. Theorin is Swedish, and so are the other writers that I know of whose work Delargy has translated. Perhaps she's less comfortable with Norwegian than with Swedish.

The lapses I pointed out are the sorts of things one might find in a first draft so, while I'm not prepared to assail her skills as a translator, the pubisher (Scribner) deserves criticism for the English translation's lack of editorial polish.

May 02, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I accept all of your explanations. If it doesn't work in context then it doesn't work.

No idea about colloquial Japanese. They don't teach it. I once asked my Japanese teacher for English versions of insults and name-calling, as well as curses. There wasn't anything. She did admit they might sometimes say "feces" (sic) among some groups.
I tend to stay fairly formal and make up the occasional colorful term. So far, I've avoided the f-word. But one is rather hard-pressed sometimes. :)

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I would imagine that the sources for your period might be rich in malicious gossip but thin on invective, given the courtly station of the gossipers.

My guess is that the translators of The Devotion of Suspect X could not find adequate means of conveying colloquial speech. "Gotta" is a lazy way out.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I probably should have written:

"I'd say from my conversations with translators that rendering the texture of colloquial speech from one language into another is a translator's most difficult task and that some don't even try."

May 02, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

Peter,

Is it possible that Delargy is also to some extent trying to change the style of her translation a bit from the Swedish ( I've never read Holt or Theorin, so I can't be certain; I have dutifully noted their names TBR, though). I would assume that even a translator would want to offer a wide body of work, and so possibly she merely attempted to colloquialize a tad more, or tried to translate a more colloquial novel. Of course the different languages offer different challenges, but possibly there are cultural differences at work as well, between the different countries ? If she lived in Sweden but not Norway, for instance. The fact is that no matter the assumptions and theories behind her various translations, a better could have helped her shape and hone the work a bit better. I will give her a read soon!

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aaron, I don't remember if I suggested this earlier, but perhaps Holt's style in the original Norwegian is especially terse and informal. Who knows?

I'm especially sensitive to the lapses I found because they are precisely the kinds of things that poor and beginning reporters do. That's why I suspect that Marlaine Delargy is simply not that good a writer. Well and good; all that means is that her work needs an extra edit before it goes to press, the same way a gifted reporter whose prose style is a bit rough might need some tidying up before his or her stories go to press.

May 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., it has just now occurred to me that in a language that uses a partly or entirely pictographic or ideographic script, how would writers render slang or dialect mispronunciations such as "gonna," "gotta," or "I dunno"?

What would a Chinese or Japanese translator do confronted with such terms in an English story? This gets us back to the original problem, doesn't it? The translator must be perceptive enough to discern what the author intends to convey through the use of such slang, then intellectually agile enough to come up with an approximation if the target language offers no precise equivalent.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

I don't know how they do it in Chinese, but Japanese has phonetic scripts as well, and dialect is expressed in it all the time. In fact, I'd say it happens way more in Japanese than in English -- Osaka dialect is regularly written in, whereas you don't so often see American novels have a Southern character say "Ah cain't do this."

May 03, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

There you go. Gavin has the answer.
Modern mysteries by Japanese authors will have much gangster (yakuza) slang in them. They'll also have a lot of American slang because that is in the language by now.
As for my characters: I have many characters from the lower classes, as well as gang members and peasants. Since they are not modern people, I'm still in a quandary and struggle with dialogue. Ultimately, one ends up doing too little rather than too much.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger May said...

Hm, that's really too bad. She seems very earnest in TheCrimeHouse interview.
She's has quite a few published translations to her name. And apparently one that won an award? Have you read her other translations, Peter? Are they good?

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Gavin. I knew the Japanese alphabet had that component and thus had the possibility of transcribing odd pronunciations. Perhaps "gotta" is the translators' rendering of some manipulation of Japanese spelling in the original.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May, she and Johan Theorin won the International Dagger award for her translation of Theorin's novel The Darkest Room. I think all the writers she mentions in the interview are Swedish, so perhaps, as I suggested above, she's a bit less comfortable working with Norwegian.

I've read at least one of her translations from Swedish (Sun Storm by Asa Larsson), and I don't remember noticing any problems similar to the ones I found here. My guess is that Delargy is a good translator but not the smoothest of prose stylists but that her publisher did not notice or simply does not care about such things.

One of the lesser complaints in my post was about the novel's use of "without a shadow of a doubt," rather than "beyond ..." But Delargy says "Without a shadow of a doubt" in the CrimeHouse interview, so maybe that expression is part of the idiom where she grew up.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., that leads to another interesting question: How does Japanese spell new words that come into the language other than romanizing them with the romaji script? Or is every new word in the Japanese language rendered phonetically? Who or what would decide which of the thousands of Chinese-style kanji characters to use for a new word? Is it user's choice, and if the spelling catches on, it's accepted gradually?

I would think that doing too little is probably better in your case. Dialogue alone probably can't bear the burden of conveying class, characters, setting, and time period alone.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May: I suppose it's also possible that the problems I found are the fault of some editor who added them in a misguided effort to lend the book a conversational tone.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

Most new words come in from English (or some other European language), though not necessarily in a form we'd recognize. But I've seen a few places where someone coined a new kanji combination. They just do it in a way that makes sense to readers.

I think it's similar to the way English combines Greek and Latin roots -- there's not really a formal process to it; someone coins a word and maybe it catches on.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gavin, I suppose ideographic and pictographic writing systems are so foreign to me that I can't imagine how people think in them. A phonetic alphabet is objective, to some extent. Play a sound recording of a nonsense word for a hundred English speakers, ask them to transcribe it, and odds are that the hundred transcriptions will be at least somewhat similar.

But play such a sound for Japanese speakers, and what will you get? Perhaps they would just use romaji or other phonetic characters? But what if you then told them what class of words the nonsense word belonged to?

I;ve just found this in an article on Japanese writing systems, so perhaps I've answered my own question:

"In modern Japanese, Katakana is used to write: Words and names from foreign languages; Onomatopoeia; and Emphasized words (similar to italics in English)."

May 03, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

You mwntioned Edogawa Rampo. Edgar Allen Poe. That's the way it's done, in Romaji, I think. I gave up on Japanese when I realized that I would never learn enough Kanji. Besides modern Japanese wouldn't let me read eleventh century materials.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger May said...

I find it difficult to imagine that even if Delargy was less comfortable in Norwegian than Swedish that this should have an effect on her writing in English.
I am curious to know how much editing gets done on a translation. Things can easily slip past us, even after several re-reads. And of course, we don't know how much time she was given. I've heard that the deadlines can sometimes be very tight.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., answers lead to more questions. What stands between a reader of modern Japanese and the ability to read Heian-era texts? Orthography? Grammar? Vocabulary?

I don't know how old you were when studied Japanese, but if natives learn Kanji all their lives, reading knowledge must be especially difficult to acquire for outsiders later in life.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May, I can only guess at the reasons. One would hope that publishers would treat a translated text the same way they would one in the original language. But I suspect (in some cases strongly so) that publishers will give less editorial scrutiny to material that has perviously been published elsewhere.

And sure, some things can slip by, but the lapses in the translation of 1222 were so frequent and of such a piece that I have to think something more must be to blame.

May 03, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

For my sins, I tried to tackle Heian Japanese at one point. The difficulties are largely grammatical and in the vocabulary; kanji don't particularly enter into it for me. (Many major works like "The Tale of Genji" are written entirely in kana, anyway).

The big barrier is that the world has changed a lot since then, and so has language -- it's sort of like the difference between modern English and the English of Chaucer. The letters are all the same, but Chaucer is hard to read without a translation, or at least a heavy gloss. (Side note, but I think kanji aren't the heavy barrier they're made out to be; in the end, they're mostly just annoying. Japanese grammar, I think, is very odd, and the really long sentences can be hard to unravel).

May 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read that the kanji are not so much annoying as they are difficult to learn. One reference I found before posting a comment here said that Japanese speakers continue to learn kanji throughout their lives and that the number of kanji one knows is regarded as an index of how much education the person has had.

May 04, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

I think that's about as true as saying that English speakers learn new vocabulary through their whole lives. It's kind of true, but not really a barrier to learning English -- most of the time, your high school vocabulary will do you just fine. (For example, if a person happens to know the meaning of words like "autochthonous" or "fuliginous," he's probably pretty educated. But not knowing their meaning isn't going to stop anybody from reading 99.9% of English literature.)

Kanji are a bit like that. Back in the day, I was studying from a book that listed the kanji in order of frequency, and also had a list of percentiles of usage. I don't remember the exact numbers, but with 100 kanji, you could read something like 10% of words, 200 kanji got you to 20%, and so on up till around 600 which got you to 70%. From there on, you start to drop off pretty rapidly, to where 1000 kanji gets you to 90%, 1400 to 95% and so on. Having just typed all that, I got smart and looked it up on the web: http://pomax.nihongoresources.com/index.php?entry=1223039457

So I was pretty close. The upshot is, if you're reading, say, Akutagawa, the kanji are going to be painful (or they were for me), but so is the grammar and vocabulary in general. But if you're reading Miyabe Miyuki, to take someone who's sort of middle-of-the-road, your average high-school kanji list is more than sufficient. To me that's a lot like English, where you need a bit of a specialized vocabulary to read David Foster Wallace, but a decent high school vocabulary will get you through even authors like John le Carre.

May 04, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

One more quick follow-up on the # of kanji as a proxy for your level of education... Some kanji are only used in a particular academic context, like physics or sociology. So, to that extent, knowing 2000 kanji makes it more likely that you've been to college than someone who knows only 1000.

But for those of us who don't read textbooks, those kanji may as well not exist :-).

May 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gavin, you put the matter in commendably practical terms. Will those 1,400 kanji enable a moderately educated Japanese person to read a wide range of materials from the past and the present? And at what level of education do Japanese students typically attain mastery of those 1,400 kanji?

May 04, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

One other note, is that Japanese has a way of giving the pronunciation of unfamiliar kanji, and this gets used a lot with older texts. So I'd say, that with that help, 1,400 would be enough to get you through most of the modern classics. But the real sticking point is not the kanji, it's the vocabulary that they represent.

For example, I was recently trying to read some short stories by Akutagawa, who was writing in the 1920s. The footnotes explaining concepts and issues of his time took up about 1/4 of the space for some stories. That's just huge (and this is in Japanese, for a presumably educated Japanese audience).

I gotta run, but I can go on about this subject in long and boring detail if anyone wants...

May 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gavin, off topic, but I've just ordered a book of Akutagawa's stories — in English.

May 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did you mean that Japanese books will give the pronunciation of unfamiliar kanji in footnotes?

May 04, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

No, the pronunciation is given in smaller letters over the kanji (about 1/4 size type). They occur in lots of texts, for names if nothing else. Footnotes are for things like, Akutagawa has a story about a guy who wears a mask and gets drunk, so there's footnotes explaining the connotation of the kind of mask the man wears, that sort of thing.

What struck me was that Japanese society has changed so much since then that the footnotes were so necessary. For comparison, most of us can read, say, Mark Twain without copious footnotes.

May 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So these pronunciation notes will appear in more than just elementary texts for students? That is an interesting and practical solution. We are used to the proposition that languages grow simpler over time (the relatively complex case systems of Latin evolving into the relatively inflexion grammars of the Romance languages). But there, too, spelling is more conservative than grammar, at least since the advent of standardized spelling. In effect, I guess, the kanji represent standardized spelling that has been around a long time.

May 06, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

The pronunciation notes are used pretty idiosyncratically. It's hard to give concrete examples, though. But they're definitely used in texts aimed at adults.

It's also true that kanji use has declined over time. For example, the word "anata," which means "you," is always spelled phonetically now, whereas 80 years ago you often see it in kanji. The same with "arigato" (thank you), and a number of other common words. And in comics, you can go for pages at a time with no kanji.

May 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So Japanese spelling has followed that path of simplification, in a way I take as analogous to what happened with grammar with Latin as the Roman empire spread and fell apart? Sounds like a practical solution, though I suspect some Japanese traditionalists, conservatives, chauvinists, and grumps must have objected.

I'll try to remember to flip through the pages the next time I see Japanese comic. I can't read the language, but I can tell kanji when I see it.

Thanks.

May 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"the relatively complex case systems of Latin evolving into the relatively inflexion grammars of the Romance languages"

In case anyone stumbles upon this thread, that bit from a comment above should read, "...the relatively inflection-free grammars ..."

August 09, 2012  

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