Why translations aren’t the same

Translating a book is tough. Not only does the translator have to worry about getting the meaning across, but he also has to try and include the subtleties of the text and the style of the writer. It’s like being given a painting and told to replicate it. You have to use only the colours you have in your studio, even if they don’t perfectly match what was originally used. That’s difficult enough, but you also have to copy the brushstrokes, whether they are broad and angry or tiny and delicate.

The soon-to-be-changed sentence in Swedish.

Mohamed 2.0 is being translated into Finnish and Swedish, with an expected publication date of September. Swedish is particularly important: not only is Schildts & Söderströms primarily a Swedish publisher, but the Swedish language plays a vital role in the story of the book. Swedish is almost like one of those Greek gods in the Illiad, intricately influencing events from a distance or, sometimes, in person.

When Stephan Backholm was in the process of translating, we often talked about various aspects of transforming the book into Swedish. Sometimes it was difficult to find the right word to use. For instance, the verb “to disrupt,” along with its various permutations as a noun or adjective, has a variety of meanings in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary has seven possible definitions, and the situation is similar for Swedish, so we had to carefully determine what I meant in English, and what word to use to express that concept in Swedish.

This process was continued recently when my literary director Tapani Ritamäki and I had a long drive together. We used that time to talk about the translation. He had printed out the first draft and I flipped through it as he drove, finding each of his notes. He had about twenty or thirty questions about particular words or phrases in English, so he quizzed me on what, exactly, I had meant and which, exactly, Swedish words to use.

But we also used the opportunity to make a few changes. As everyone knows, translations are never perfect. Sometimes the precise meaning of a word in one language has no direct twin in another. “Lost in translation” has become a cliché. Yet what is not so well known is that sometimes a translation differs from the original on purpose.

The English version of Mohamed 2.0 was released in a rush, because Muxlim.com had been taken offline and the world wanted to know what in the world was going on. Stories were popping up in newspapers, online forums were musing, and the small Finnish start-up community was rife with rumours. There was a compelling commercial need to get the book out as fast as possible. (I actually received an email from Tapani, saying “Have it done by next Monday.” I was hyperventilating, as you can imagine, when the next email came: “Scratch that. Make it this Friday.”

Anyway, there was one thing that made it into print that might not have gotten in as is, if we had a bit more time to consider it. It was a single sentence, referring to the troubles between Mohamed El-Fatatry and his Muxlim co-founder Pietari Päivänen. In the English version, the line reads like this:

He [Mohamed] was alone and vulnerable, and felt betrayed by the person with whom he was closest, Pietari.

Tapani didn’t like this. As we were riding in the car, he challenged me about this sentence.

“What about Mohamed’s wife?” he asked. “This sentence is too absolute: Pietari was the closest person to him.”

“I know exactly what you are talking about. I thought about the same thing,” I answered. “But this is almost a direct quotation from Mohamed. It is possible that he meant ‘everyone except my wife and family,’ but it is also possible that he really did mean Pietari was the most important person in his life at that moment. We know that his devotion to Muxlim negatively impacted his personal relationships. Since this is exactly what Mohamed said, I think we should leave it exactly as it is: ambiguous. Let the reader decide.”

“No, this is a bad ambiguity,” Tapani argued. “If we leave it like this, it makes you look bad for writing it and makes me look bad for leaving it. You’re the writer, so you have to make the call. Did Mohamed really mean his business partner was the most important person in his life, or did he mean he was the most important person in his business?”

I sat and thought about it as we slowly drove north into the Finnish interior, with naked birch trees sliding by the window. I had talked to Mohamed’s father and mother, as well as his former partner Pietari. I had spent untold hours talking to him about them. If I had to make a decision, it was an easy one. No one can be 100 per cent sure what goes on inside someone else’s head, but I could make a decision with confidence. I know how important Muxlim is to Mohamed, but I also know how important his family is to him.

“Mohamed meant that Pietari was closest to him only in the business,” I answered. “He didn’t mean that Pietari was the closest person to him in his life.”

“Okay, then,” said the relieved Tapani. “Then we’ll add a phrase to reflect that in the Swedish translation.”

After we decided what phrase to use, I was left to think about it. Now someone who only reads the Swedish version will not get that taste of uncertainty present in the English. But this isn’t a bad thing. Tapani was right, of course: that uncertainty could perplex and annoy the reader, so it was better to be clear.

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