Lost And Found In Translation



This past week, I found myself engaged in a task which, for many a writer, has the potential to be both immediately gratifying and ultimately frustrating. I am referring to the proof-reading of the script of a translation. In this case, the translation is of one of my books, Not The Same Family.

First, there is the ego-booster which comes with the knowledge that some foreign publisher out there has deemed your book good enough to be read in another language. Then the sense of anxiety creeps up on you as you wonder whether you are really up to the task of ensuring the translation interprets your masterpiece in its full glory and majesty.

Fortunately for me, I have not, as the popular local saying goes, returned to my teachers all the Chinese I had learned in school. I seem to have had enough foresight to retain smidgeons of it, in the oft chance that I might need to call on them some day to help me wade through some basic interpretation exercise. That some day was last week.

Perhaps more germane to the situation at hand, the translation had been rather professionally done, and there seemed to be little left for me to do. Or it might have only seemed that way to me, because of the limited depth of my reading comprehension of Chinese. Perhaps for the same reason, I only spotted few, if any, translation errors. But you could at least credit me with the perspicuity to detect, accurately, a few items which were lost in translation.

Take for example, the word “homework” which was translated as “household chores”. And the phrase, “This Little Piggy”, from a popular nursery rhyme, which became “The Piglet Which Wouldn’t Grow Up”. I won’t try to identify them all, but there were a few others. Which, in the overall scheme of things – a manuscript of some 80000 words (or characters) – is probably not considered too many.

Translation doesn’t necessarily always result in losses. There are often gains as well. Which arise from the relative richness and sophistication of the other language(s). For instance, Chinese has the facility to distinguish relatives by gender, hierarchy, and parental affiliation (paternal or maternal.) In English, a cousin is a cousin is a cousin. In Chinese, within two characters, you can tell whether the cousin is male or female, younger or older, and hails from which branch of the family tree. Besides there is a treasure trove of time-honoured sayings, some four-word, some six, others seven and others eight, which can readily and aptly replace some long sentences or paragraphs articulated in English. I won’t even try to cite examples here, as my attempts will be too feeble and too far off the marks. There is no doubt that aptly called into service of the translation, these can infuse the narrative with a whole new cadence and level of richness.

Neither is translation a zero-sum game. Often the gains from the other language far outweigh the losses. If nothing else, the translated author gains himself greater exposure, a wider readership, and some added royalties. Depending on the particular writer, all may be equally important, or one may be valued more highly than the others.

Serendipitiously, my maiden foray into translation is paired with another language that I have a fair level of fluency with. What if future match-ups are with languages which I don’t have any clue about other than the countries from which they originate? Which by the way, is almost always certain to be the case, since the only other language which I can claim any basic degree of reading comprehension is Bahasa (Malaysia or Indonesia).

Am I doomed?

Fortunately not. The path of translation is a well-trodden one, and there is a lot that can be gained from the experiences of the many many others who have gone ahead before.

It is actually not that easy to get lost in translation.