(This is a cross-post of my recent Sunday Spotlight at Prismbookalliance.com. Here's the link.)
As many of you know, I translate the occasional book from English to my native German.
Which means I change the author’s English words into German words. Right?
No. Not at all. As a matter of fact, for translators, there’s no
surer way to make a complete fool out of themselves than doing exactly
that. (I’ve harvested (and lovingly collected) enough blunders during my
proofreader days to know.) Because, honestly, who’d enjoy a romance
novel that reads like, let’s say, your new “Made in
Taka-Tuka-Land”-vacuum cleaner’s user manual?
Let’s take a look at what Merriam-Webster says to that.
verb trans·late \tran(t)s-ˈlāt, tranz-; ˈtran(t)s-ˌlāt, ˈtranz-\
1. : to change words from one language into another language
2. : to explain (something) in a way that is easier to understand
3. : to have the same meaning
Okay, we’ve taken care of point 1.
The second might or might not matter that
much for the subject matter at hand.
It’s the third point that makes
It’s not only a different vocabulary that sets one language apart from
another, not only a different set of grammar rules. Different languages
use different syntax. You’d think I’m pointing out the obvious here, but
unfortunately I’m not; I’ve read enough evidence to the contrary.
Furthermore, each language has some distinctive idioms, sayings,
mannerisms and particularities which just don’t make sense in another
And on top of all that, when it comes to translating literary works of
any kind, there’s also the author’s voice to consider. In fact, when it
comes to fiction, author voice is a very, very important point as far as
I’m concerned, because it’s so subjective – a distinctive pattern of
phrasing, use of idioms and linguistic mannerisms which one reader may
totally go for while the next finds it disgusting.
Someone recently called translators “the most underappreciated people in
the industry”. A sentiment that is, in several ways, truer than most
authors might like. Because we’re supposed to be invisible. If we’re
not, things can get ugly.
Because I, the reader, just can’t enjoy a book if I keep stumbling over
awkward phrasings or English-sounding idioms, terms and speech patterns
in a German text. I don’t want to read a translation, I want to read a
story. I don’t want to hear a translator’s stammering, I want to listen
to the character’s voices. However, since it’s the author’s name on the
book cover, guess who I’ll blame if I think the translation a botch-up
A good translation doesn’t make a book better. It doesn’t make it
worse either. It just doesn’t get between the reader and the story.
A poorly done translation can turn readers off a particular author’s work.
Interestingly enough, what makes a translation “good” or “bad” seems to
be almost as subjective as what makes a book “good” or “bad”. Let’s take
“Zero at the Bone” by Jane Seville for example which I had the honor to
translate into German. One of the main characters, D, has a very
particular speech pattern, some kind of clipped, terse vernacular. It
was up to me to choose a German voice for him, and I did.
My choice has been praised to high heavens, sneered at and ripped to pieces in reviews.
But you know what? The same happened to the actual author’s choice to give D such a unique voice.
My point, and the advice I give authors who ask me about finding a translator for their work, is this:
Make sure you get the best, most technically perfect translation you can
possibly afford. Have it proofread by native speaker(s) for workmanlike
quality, including phrasing and syntax. Find a title that both matches
your story and doesn’t sound tacky in the foreign language. Choose a
cover that should appeal to your foreign audience’s tastes (ask a native
speaker’s advice if necessary). Put all that together, stir well and
And then lean back and enjoy your baby speaking German, French,
Italian, Japanese, Korean or whatever. Trust me, it’s a rather heady