I used to try my hand at translating my own writing from one language to another, then I noticed that the stories changed quite considerably through translation. Not that I was getting carried away writing a completely different story, but it almost seemed like it. That got me to thinking about the books I’ve read. Up until the moment I started translating, I hadn’t paid particular attention to the book translations I’d read.
When I switched from reading children’s books to reading novels in my teens, I did so indiscriminately – I’d read Spanish writers in English or English writers in Spanish or just writers writing in their original language. I think I’ve read The House of the Spirits and Like Water for Chocolate in both English and Spanish repeatedly throughout my life. (They have a special place in my heart because they were the first ‘novels’ I read by myself and I was glued to the page until I finished them). And another thing, I didn’t notice any difference in how the stories touched me as a reader. They were the same, just as enjoyable. The author’s voice transfered successfully through the language barrier.
But, and this is an important but, there are some books that I can’t even get through in one language; but I can in another. I’ve noticed that the difference sometimes lies not only in the translator but also in the medium it is portrayed. After all, isn’t making a movie out of a book, very much a translation?
To make it a bit easier I’ll give a little example.
One of my favorite epics is The Epic of Gilgamesh. One boring day I ran out of audiobooks to listen to, this one was available, so I listened to it. I loved it ( I actually l-o-v-e-d it, with spaces in between, for more love). I never imagined that a story so old could be so new. It was like a whole world opened up before my eyes. I was aware of the concept, mostly text and reference books saying how Shakespeare or Homer were great because they were universal. But like any version of love, you must have once fallen in love to understand the concept.
Then I bought several translations of the book (they were gifts for my husband, but I ended up reading them too) and I loved them, just like I loved reading Like Water for Chocolate and The House of Spirits. If you have ever re-read a book, or re-watched a movie, then you know what I’m talking about: that feeling of excitement at knowing what will happen while still discovering new details.
I didn’t understand why, to me, The Gilgamesh was so special, but not The Odyssey, for instance. Perhaps it has to do with the translation. I’ve never read either of these epics in the original language. My mastery of ancient Greek and Sumerian are rudimentary at best (ok non-existant, but wouldn’t it be fun to be fluent in any language so as to read the original form of any book?), so I have the translations. And there are so many translations of these books for me to choose from.
But not to make this post any longer than it needs to be: Would it be possible to like a story only in a translation but not the original? Or, is it like what happens to me, once you understand the story (thanks to the original or the translation), you can just read and re-read it in any language (or translation) and still love it?