On what gets lost in translation, and what definitely doesn’t.
Every time I teach American Literature I, I struggle with an early-semester question to which I haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer. In the second week of our first unit, we read three texts that have been translated from their original Spanish: two letters by Christopher Columbus; and excerpts from the narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. I think it’s vital to expand our collective vision of American literature to include such figures and texts, and if anything wish I had time and space to bring in French missionaries in Canada, Dutch explorers, and so on; but at the same time, it’s hard to ask students to read and analyze these translated texts closely, to consider the choices made by their authors, when those texts and choices were created in a language distinct from the one we’re reading. I know that many professors face this challenge of teaching lit in translation frequently, and my briefer experiences certainly confirm that it raises tough questions.
Recently, I’ve been confronted with a surprising but parallel set of questions in relationship to my boys: my colleague Irene Martyniuk very generously shared the four books (to date) in Jo Nesbo’s Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder series with us, and the boys have totally fallen in love; we’re done with the first three (each representing at the time the longest book we’d read together) and are well into the fourth as I write this. Nesbo is best known as Norway’s best-selling crime novelist (and perhaps novelist period), and the Doctor Proctor books are similarly written in Norwegian and translated into English by Tara Chace. The translations are (as best I can tell) superb, and it certainly doesn’t seem to affect how the books read; but nonetheless, there are numerous moments and details that feel very specific to Oslo, Norway, and other elements of the books’ original milieu, and for which (when the boys ask about them, as of course all young readers do about everything) I can’t provide any relevant contexts or frames. Such cross-cultural confusions aren’t limited to translation issues, of course—but they seem closely tied to those issues, and the related questions of how works from one language and culture do and don’t speak to audiences from others.
Those are interesting and meaningful questions, for anybody and doubly so for a 21st century transnational AmericanStudier. But at the same time, to reiterate, the boys have totally fallen in love with Nesbo’s series; I think it’s fair to say that the books are their favorites of any we’ve read to date. Some of the reasons have to do with the same kinds of universally boy-pleasing silliness and disgustingness I discussed in yesterday’s post; the series is named Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, after all. But to my mind, the books work so well for other and more important reasons that similarly transcend any specific language or culture: the arcs of their stories, the identities of their characters, bits of recurring humor and imagery that tie not only each book but the whole series together, the funny illustrations by Mike Lowery that perfectly complement the prose, and more. If reading to the boys has taught me anything (and it’s taught me a ton), it’s that the pleasures of books and stories are truly timeless and universal and enduring—and Doctor Proctor’s one more case in point.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So last chance to be part of that post—what YA lit favorites and memories would you share?
So interesting. I had similar experiences when reading Pippi Longstocking as a kid. (When you're a kid, it's hard to tell whether it's just normal to live with a horse if you're Scandinavian, or whether that's another of the things that make Pippi quirky and unique.ReplyDelete
More recently, as a inveterate devourer of middle-grades and YA books despite my childless status, I've been struck by how European and Australian books meant for young readers are darker? weightier? less dumbed-down? I don't know how to describe it. Silvana De Mari's The Last Dragon comes to mind. I was surprised -- repeatedly and pleasantly -- by the depth and thoughtfulness of the book and its themes. Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord and Inkheart hit me the same way. And if you ever have a whole day to listen to me rave about it, I'll be happy to wax endlessly about Alison Croggon's Chronicles of Pellinor (which is written in English, but brings an Australian sensibility to Tolkienesque fantasy).