Lost in Translation

[May 2005] This month I’d like to introduce you to unsung heroes whose work we rarely get to appreciate: translators. To date, I’ve had books, stories and interviews translated into Dutch, Italian, French, Russian and Turkish. With one exception, they all have something in common: I can’t read the end result. I can muddle through an essay that was translated into French for Le Livre des Livres de Stephen King. The others are, well, Greek to me.

I first encountered Tullio Dobner in 2003, when he was translating Stephen King’s Wolves of the Calla for Sperling & Kupfer. He was having trouble with the commala rice song, which is written in the vernacular of a Southern spiritual. He asked if I could “translate” it into normal English so he could then translate it into Italian.

We kept in touch off and on over the years. Earlier this year, I learned that Tullio would be translating my book, The Stephen King Illustrated Companion, into Italian for Sperling & Kupfer. I volunteered my assistance. He was having a hard time deciphering the hand-written ledger that is one of the included documents, so I recorded myself reading it aloud and sent him the audio file, which he could then use as a reference for his translation. However, he returned the favor by picking up a handful of errors in my text that we’d all missed.

One of his dilemmas intrigued me. The translation is being laid into the same space that the English text occupies. However, Italian is inherently a “longer” language than English, so he had to find ways to concisely express my words.

Tullio’s first published translation was Ring Around a Rogue by J.M. Flynn in 1969. He has translated nearly 500 books, most of them novels by authors like J.G.Ballard, Doris Lessing, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon, Elmore Leonard, Clive Barker, Jim Carroll, John Grisham, Jonathan Kellerman, Chuck Palahniuk, Robin Cook and Dean Koontz. On average, he translates about four hundred pages per month.

When I asked him to describe his job, he seemed lost for words at first. “I’ve been asked this several times and I still think I never hit the nail properly. I always seem to get a sore thumb. In one word I say it is a paradox, if not the biggest in the human world, certainly the biggest in human communication. Our job is to do something that simply cannot be done.

“Umberto Eco wrote a fantastic book on translating: Saying almost the same thing. In that ‘almost’ he put the essence of the paradox of our work. A translator is the most frustrated worker in the world, being almost there all his life, and never getting there.

“A language mirrors the culture that expresses it. I can easily imagine it like a big, heavy wagon packed with all the family things of a pioneer crossing land. The job of a translator is to transfer all these things onto a different wagon driven by a different pioneer. As hard as you try, all those things will never become his family memorabilia.

“Language is a film, a sequence of images. When I was asked which English word I considered the most difficult to render in Italian, I could not answer. Nothing can be really translated. Or else I could easily answer: ‘bread’. If my phrase was: ‘She went out to buy some bread,’ what does the reader see? What bread is that? Is it a loaf or sandwich bread? I don’t know what is the most common bread an American would buy, but I know that when I write ‘pane’ in Italian, that fragrant little word will have twenty different meanings to the Italian reader according to his/her region: from a bread roll, to big round loaves, some of them unsalted, from wholemeal ones to milk ones, long or short, thick and thin ones and so on. Nothing can be translated. What we do is imitate.

“I see a written page like a music sheet. I know I cannot reproduce the object itself, but I know I can try to reproduce tone, rhythm, texture, I can tune in to my Author and sing and play along with him—that is the most a translator can aspire to. I imagine the Author as Chopin and his translators as the pianists who play his music, each one according to his own feeling towards the music sheet. Translating is in fact interpreting, and there’s something personal going into each translation of a text. The translator must recreate an atmosphere, and it is s/he who ventures into that territory, with his/her own wagon and all his/her personal luggage.

“A new book on my desk is the beginning of a new love story. The first date prompts a lot of excitement, thrill, and a little fear, and I’m happy to say that my feeling hasn’t changed after 40 years. I never read a book before I translate it. I have to discover it slowly. I approach it with some wariness and a little trepidation. As I said, it is like a first date: you sit at the corner table in candlelight, you sip something, say something, you listen mostly. You place baits and examine responses, you assess hints. My effort is to recreate the author’s mood at the beginning of his/her story. I know what it is about, but I still ignore how it will develop. In this way I shall travel together with the author, experiencing his/her surprises ‘live.’ If I get the general flavor right, then finding the best translation for single pop culture terms and idioms becomes much easier.

“Syntax is not a real problem…usually. It defines the style, in a way. Stephen King and Elmore Leonard play one type of music, whereas John Grisham and Jonathan Kellerman play another. I do my best to play along: obviously, a translator must learn to play all types: classical, pop, jazz, rock’n’roll, country, hard rock (that’s Palahniuk).

“Haste is our biggest enemy and we always have so little time. A translation should be allowed to settle, before working on it a second time. I hate reading my translations after they have been published.

“When I taught a course on translating thrillers, some years ago, I used a few pages taken from Bandits by Elmore Leonard as a translation exercise for my students (I translated it myself in 1988). They all made the same mistake on a single expression that could easily be interpreted in two different ways. So I warned them not to fall into the ‘word pool,’ but to use logic as the glass to drink from it. Then I read aloud my translation. I had made the same mistake 15 years earlier. That was a big laugh.”

See my column, “News from the Dead Zone,” in issue 65 of Cemetery Dance for the complete interview. Tullio tells me the romantic story of how he learned English and became a translator, and about his work on Stephen King’s novels over the years.

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