Friday, 17 May 2013

Reading In Translation: Re-receiving Language

This small, cloth-bound, vivid orange book is a book of essays on 17th century Dutch Art, called Still Life With A Bridle, by Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet I heard of only recently. No, wait - don't stop reading! My favourite novel for a long time was The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino. Recent books I have enjoyed and considered noteworthy include: Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin, Herman Koch The Dinner, and W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants. Other infatuations include Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Flaubert, Barthes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel de Cervantes, and Chekhov. My tbr pile is topped wiht the first volume of Proust's In Search Of Lost Time. 

I read books in translation for all the reasons I read books written in English - pleasure, escapism, insight into the whys and wherefores of life. I also read them to learn about other cultures, and the diversity of possible experiences and ways of thinking: the same reasons I like to travel. Colombian mysticism and magical realism, Italian fantasy, Russion angst, seventeenth century Spanish humour – these are some of the things I'm after. It's the next best thing to actually travelling. I also read them to enrich actual experiences of travelling. Like travel, I like to think that reading books in translation expands my mind.

When I was an undergraduate student, one of my favourite academic occupations was 'translating' Beowulf. I use parentheses because, as poor Mr. Pfeiffer would attest, I was not the world's most gifted student of Anglo-Saxon. Yet, because I loved the poem I read and re-read many different versions, and because the similarities to modern English are plentiful enough, the writer in me enjoyed puzzling together pieces of different jigsaw puzzles to make a new whole. [All this before Seamus Heaney's beautiful translation. Just as well; after Heaney, I may not have bothered.]

Like most writers, I read as much and as widely as I can, and I only lately noticed that among the five or six books I usually have on the go, there is at least one in translation. Though I write mostly fiction, and read lots of it, I also read essays and poetry because language is used differently there, I believe. And if these happen to be in translation too I have to work even harder and pay better attention to the words, the sentences, the maybe unfamiliar imagery/metaphors/ references. This is why the books in translation are often the ones I read most slowly, to better savour small chunks or phrases, even just a word. 

'light like honey', 
'A modest, laborious, worry-filled grey life.'

These are in my current read, but used in slightly unusual contexts. Sometimes words selected by translators are closer to the word in the original language than the one we might more commonly choose in English. Or sometimes the construction of the sentence, the phrasing, owes more to the original language. The effect in a good translation is to make language fresh and alive, to give words back their meaning which may have grown faded through overuse or just through common use. Reading in translation feels like a re-receiving of language, making it new again.


  1. Is it wrong to be attracted to this read on the colour itself?!! Looks great. Another one to add to my to read list!

  2. Not wrong at all. You'll probably try to make it last as long as possible so you get to keep taking it out of your bag and touching it!