Traduttore, traditore

TRANSI wrote a blog a while back about the delight of receiving a copy of one of my books in a Korean translation and, in January, I’m off to Paris for a few days to meet with an agent and some publishers in the hope of stirring some interest in getting some of the Jack Carston stories translated into French. And it’s against that background that I want to set an email I received this morning. It was from a person who wrote a while back saying very complimentary things about my story Love Hurts  (which you can read and download here) and asked for permission to translate it into Persian. This is the same story that’s been optioned by a small film company in Los Angeles (although it’s so long since I’ve heard anything from them that I suspect I can wave goodbye to the dream).

Anyway, it seems she’s finished the translation and is relatively pleased with the result, except for a couple of sentences. She says she doesn’t really understand what I mean by them and asked if I could help ‘solve them’. The sentences were:
Outside, the sky hangs between pale blue and the peach wash of the sunset’s beginning.  Ben is in his usual place on the window seat.  Six feet two of him, folded into a corner of the sky.
And, later:
the peach wash has thickened to a buttermilk gold.
(OK, I know it’s the sort of writing that Elmore Leonard would cut because it ‘sounds like writing’, but I wrote the story a long time ago and I was deliberately aiming at being lyrical. So sue me.)

I really wanted to help with her translation but my first thought was: ‘Well, they’re just images, self-explanatory really’. But I remembered that I wrote the original version of the story for a competition on the theme ‘The Colours of Love’. (It came second and I won £100.) So I wasn’t just trying to paint pretty pictures.

In the end, my answer to her email went as follows:
‘Both sentences are really there to contribute to the theme of colours that runs through the story. The changing colours indicate its development – so there’s lots of brightness and sunshine during the happy days but, as her relationship with her son goes sour, it’s the darker colours which predominate. So here, specifically, the sky is pale blue but the sun is setting, so the blue is giving way to a peach wash (‘wash’ is a term from painting which suggests the colour isn’t intense but diluted). Both colours are fading – the blue is pale, the peach is a wash. And all of this is a visual background seen through the window for the silhouette of Ben. He’s folded into a corner of the sky, which means that he’s a dark, colourless shape. And, as the peach wash thickens to a buttermilk gold, it means the sky gets darker, gold is darker than peach and buttermilk is thicker than a wash. So, in the end, the colour images – which are an important part of the story – help to stress how what starts out as a beautiful, clear love becomes corrupted and evil. Darkness takes over from light, except in the mother’s troubled mind.’

Well, that was the theory, but I certainly didn’t have such conscious thoughts as I was writing it all. However, if readers are puzzled by it, it means Elmore’s right and the writing is getting in the way of the meaning. My real reaction, though, was that translating is incredibly difficult, even if you’re truly bilingual. Is a ‘horse’ exactly the same as a ‘pferd’, a ‘cheval’, an ‘equus’, a ‘hippos’ or a ‘cavallo’? And even if you’re convinced they’re all equal, what happens to the meaning when you put the word into a context that maybe carries a subtext? And how does the actual sound of each relate to the other sounds around it? And what if its main contribution is rhythmic rather than connotative or literal? And all of that before you take into account the cultural baggage every language carries.

I’ve no idea what effect my story will have in Persian, but, in case you’ve never come across the expression I used as a title here – Traduttore, traditore – it’s approximately ‘A translator is a traitor’. It sort of sums up the problem but the English has none of the panache and flourish of the echoes in the Italian.

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