The Beijing Bookworm occasionally hosts ‘translation slams’ where translators and/or interpreters are pitted against one another in events that showcase how individuals — whose business it is to convey the meaning of words — deal with language in different ways.
It’s fascinating. You have to be as much an artist as the original author, and your ear, your sensibilities, must be in tune with the work (imagine if you’re translating poetry — the agony of your word choices!).
To make matters more difficult, in any text there will be references that just don’t translate well into another language, simply because the root of understanding them is distinctly cultural.
For example, in this article about the Bookworm’s latest Translation Slam (which took place a couple days ago), a unique — and fairly recent — Chinese cultural reference became an issue:
This became clear when a reference to Li Gang surfaced towards the end of the text. Those who are familiar with Chinese pop culture will be aware that this alludes to a sensational online video that showed a drunk driver daring observers to question his actions because of the status of his father Li Gang, a local police official. The phrase “my father is Li Gang” has since become a bitter joke about those who hide behind power to avoid responsibility. Although both translators left the reference in, Cindy commented that she did so because the play was most likely to be viewed in China by a bilingual audience who would understand the humour. For a purely English speaking audience there would probably have been a need to substitute a similar pop culture reference or perhaps omit it entirely.
My books have been translated into French, German, Japanese…but I’ve always wondered, what survives? What has to change so the audience will understand the story? Is the tone and meaning preserved? Or is the story made better by the translator?
I read a lot of translated work, but what am I missing by not taking in the original? Or, through the skill of the translator, have I lost nothing at all?
Also, when translating books from cultures that are vastly different — say, between China and North America — is there a tendency to impose the cultural perspective of the intended audience, thus diminishing or betraying the culture of the original work?