Thursday, June 16, 2022

F(o)UN(d) in Translation – a Guest Post by Lawrence Schimel

While it's a cliché to talk about what is "lost in translation" I prefer to think of all the things that are found thanks to translation. And for me one of the best things about being a translator is to help people find stories they couldn't otherwise access because they didn't speak the language.

I define myself first and foremost as a reader, and while some of the books I translate are projects that publishers come to me with, quite a lot are books I read and fall in love with and want to share with more readers in one of my other languages.

The Fun of Translation

There are plenty of articles that talk about the CHALLENGES of translation, and while there are certainly obstacles and hardships, having to do with both the nature of the work itself and also the business-side of the profession (badly paid, lack of credit, etc.), I think there isn't enough emphasis placed on how FUN translation can be. Even (or especially) the literary challenges.

So I asked some fellow translators to share some of what is fun about what it is we do.

photo of Gili Bar-Hillel Semo
Gili Bar-Hillel Semo

Gili Bar-Hillel Semo is a translator from English into Hebrew, and also the editor of YA publisher Utz Books. She loves Diana Wynne Jones and all things Oz, and is perhaps best-known for having translated the Harry Potter series into Hebrew; she just finished a new Hebrew translation of The Catcher in the Rye.

She said:

I guess what I love about translating is that it can sometimes be like solving a crossword puzzle or a riddle. You just know there has to be a clever way of solving something, and when the idea finally springs on you it's immensely gratifying. This is particularly true for wordplay and rhyme, of which there are plenty in children's books.

And then I go around for awhile very pleased with myself because I found a way to translate this impossible thing that seemed untranslatable. Which can probably only be appreciated by other people capable of translating those languages...

photo of Laura Watkinson
Laura Watkinson

When I first approached Laura Watkinson, award-winning translator from Dutch, German, and Italian into English, with this question, she quipped: "It's all fun. Except for the admin!"

But like Gili, she also enjoys the challenges of wordplay. Laura said:

It's also fun – and often a challenge – coming up with translations that involve puns and jokes that require a little more freedom in translation. And funny poems for children too. You have to work with the rhymes and keep it fun but the meaning may change a little so that you can keep the same kind of pace and rhythm. That's always interesting. I sometimes go and sit in cafes to do that kind of work, as it helps me to escape the page a little.

Oh, and picture books with funny pictures can be a real laugh too. Sometimes the pictures will suggest a translation that wouldn't have occurred to me if I'd only seen the words.

Laura also had a unique experience in that one of the books she translated was made into a series and she got to visit the set:

It was great fun going to the Czech Republic to see some of the filming for the Netflix series of The Letter for the King. Fascinating to see some of the words that you've written coming out of actors' mouths. I also came up with a few "translations" of the characters' names, just small shifts generally, to capture the same sounds and sense in English as in the original, and it was good to see those names attached to actual people.

Sometimes translation can be not just fun, but also glamorous, even if it is often borrowed glamour (our work is in some ways a reflection of the author's original).

Like Gili and Laura, some of the "tricky" challenges of translating are the parts I enjoy most--like working on rhyming picture books. The words that rhyme in one language won't necessarily rhyme in the other, and the translator doesn't even have complete freedom to invent new rhymes because they can't contradict anything in the existing artwork.

But for a word nerd like myself, these are not simply obstacles in my path to be surmounted, but are the kind of puzzles I'd do in my free time: basically, I'm getting paid to play wordgames! And the best fun can be making up new puns!

Very often you can't translate puns literally but in order to recreate the reading experience you need to come up with a new pun in the target language that serves the same function.

For instance, when I was translating into English the middle grade bibliofantasy novel The Wild Book by Mexican author Juan Villoro, I got a chance to make up lots of new puns and twists off classic titles. 

cover of "The Wild Book"

At one point, the protagonist's uncle goes through a culinary obsession, and there are lots of jokes with food twists. When the original used Sobras completas as a book title, it was so perfect because that pun plays off Obras completas (or the Collected/Complete Works of an author) and "sobras" which are leftovers. I love brainstorming this kind of thing, and in the end I wound up using A Room with a Stew to evoke both a literary classic and to fit the scene (where everything is being tidied in the kitchen and more or less thrown into the pot). 

It's definitely more fun for me to translate works like these, with a playfulness and a sense of humor, than a dry academic text, say. (Actually, all that latinate jargon translates fairly straightforwardly, so even if you don't know what it means, you can often accurately translate it without even needing to look things up.)

The research can be its own kind of fun. Not so much tracking down quotations that are quoted in your text in translation but were originally written in English (or another language but where an English translation is already published and widely-known). But for instance, when I translated the middle grade novel The Treasure of Barracuda by Llanos Campos, about a pirate crew that learns to read after discovering that the famous treasure is his memoirs, I got to basically spend months of Talk Like a Pirate Day!

the cover of "The Treasure of Barracuda"

And one of the things I value about even some of the purportedly "boring" kind of translations is that I get to learn about all sorts of things. I no longer have a physical encyclopedia set like I used to consult at the library–or at home (although we never bought the whole alphabet's worth of the encyclopedia subscription, so I could only read the early volumes)–when I was a kid, but translation gives me a chance to (temporarily) get lost down a rabbit hole investigating things like locomotives or crystal formations or bonsai–and it's all legitimate and necessary research for work, so it's not even like I'm slacking off in letting my inner geek get to play for a while. 

But I agree with Laura, all the admin is a chore!


Lawrence Schimel is a bilingual (Spanish/English) author & anthologist who has published over 120 books in many different genres. He won a Crystal Kite Award for his picture book Will You Read a Book With Me?, illustrated by Thiago Lopes, and his books have also been chosen for the White Ravens and by IBBY for Outstanding Books for Children with Disabilities (three times). His children's books featuring rainbow families, Early One Morning and Bedtime, Not Playtime!, both illustrated by Elina Braslina, have been published in 46 editions in 37 languages, including Romansch, Welsh, Icelandic, Changana, isiZulu, and Luxembourgish. He is also a prolific literary translator, both into Spanish and into English, of more than 130 books. He lives in Madrid, Spain, where he founded the SCBWI Spain chapter and served as RA for the first 5 years. 

1 comment:

Avery Fischer Udagawa said...

I love THE WILD BOOK and THE TREASURE OF BARRACUDA and have read both with my kids! Pleasure to reminisce about those experiences while reading this post. <3 <3