One of the things that can make a story memorable, even great, is the language that’s used in it. Language can be used to set a context and to give depth to characters. It can also place the reader both geographically and culturally.
And that’s the challenge when it comes to translation. Anyone who’s ever translated something from one language to another can tell you how challenging it can be to preserve not just the story itself, but the nuances of communication. And if you’ve ever read a translated book and found it uninvolving or ‘clunky,’ you know how important translation is.
So what, exactly, does need to be preserved when a story is translated? There are several answers to that question, because any story is composed of a lot of elements. I’ll just touch on a few, using John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to show these elements.
Why Of Mice and Men? For one thing, it’s a classic story that many people have at least heard of if not read. For another, Steinbeck used dialect and aspects of the narrative to place readers at a certain time and among certain people. So (at least to me) it’s a clear example of a novel that would have to be translated with special care to preserve those elements that make it unique. And (this is a crime fiction blog after all) it’s got elements of the crime novel.
The novel tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their previous employment and are heading to their next job. Lennie is of limited intelligence, but he is strong, hard-working, and absolutely devoted to George. Steinbeck uses dialogue to show both Lennie’s limitations and his loyalty to his friend. At one point, for instance, the two stop by a stream, and Lennie gets some water:
“That’s good,” he said. “You drink some, George. You take a good big drink.” He smiled happily.
Throughout the story, Lennie needs to have things explained him more than once, and repeats things to himself as well to help him remember. Any translation of this story would miss an important aspect of it if those subtleties weren’t there.
When George and Lennie get to their next employer, they check in with the boss and are assigned places to sleep. Then they meet the boss’ son Curley. A short time later, Curley’s new bride makes an appearance:
“Oh!” She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward. “You’re the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?”
Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at Lennie she bridled a little. She looked at her fingernails. “Sometimes Curley’s in here,” she explained.
George said brusquely. “Well he ain’t now.”
“If he ain’t, I guess I better look some place else,” she said playfully.
This bit hints strongly that Curley’s wife is flirtatious, perhaps dangerously so. But Steinbeck uses nuances that could easily be lost if the story were translated without preserving those gestures and the tone of voice.
That flirting turns out to be central to what happens in the story. So does Curley’s arrogant, rude nature. So the language that expresses these things is just as central, and would need to be translated deftly.
The characters in Of Mice and Men are largely uneducated migrant workers and their supervisors. Steinbeck uses their dialect to depict both their social status and their educational levels. Here, for instance, is the way George describes Lennie to a new workmate:
“Sure,” said George. “We kinda look after each other.” He indicated Lennie with his thumb. “He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.”
Those nuances – of the uneducated, but not stupid, worker – would be a challenge to capture effectively in another language.
This is arguably a crime novel, so tragedy does befall the farm where George and Lenny are working. That aspect of the story would likely not be particularly difficult to translate. Even so, the tragedy is impacted by the culture and socioeconomic status of the characters, and the context during which the story takes place. So a translator would have to be very much aware of those factors, since they play roles in what happens.
Steinbeck also uses precise language that describes the farm, the barn, and so on. For example, here is what he says about the harness room:
‘On the wall by the window there were pegs on which hung broken harness in process of being mended; strips of new leather; and under the window itself a little bench for leather-working tools, curved knives and needles and balls of linen thread, and a small hand riveter. On pegs were also pieces of harness, a split collar with the horsehair stuffing sticking out, a broken hame, and a trace chain with its leather covering split.’
It’s descriptive, but not ‘flowery.’ A translation would need to capture both the precision in the language and the fact that Steinbeck doesn’t get wordy in this story.
This is, of course, just one example of a novel in which the subtleties of language add to the story. There many, many others. In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say that just about any well-written novel includes nuanced language that would need to be carefully preserved in translation. Which of your top-rated novels comes to your mind?
I’ve been remiss in not thanking Smartling Translations for inspiring this post. We had an interesting email conversation about translations, and it really got me thinking….
ps The ‘photo is one of the few on this blog that I didn’t take myself. Thanks, Amazon.es.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.