Translating Books

After waking up at 6am on a rainy day in Qingdao, instead of running, I decided to watch some TED talks whilst waiting for my friend to wake up. I stumbled across a playlist of talks for thoughtful travellers and was amazed at some of the great things people are doing across the world. One of those people was Ann Morgan, in 2012 she set out to read one book from each country in the world, but as an English speaker, the language barrier became a big problem. Her talk can be found here.

But on her journey she found people who sourced and even translated books into English for her. This got me thinking… Not about reading 196 books in one year, but about translating books.

It’s very true that lots of the books in British book stores are in English, as they were written. There aren’t a lot of translations available, and even at university where language students have to take literature courses, the books are usually written in the original language, much to our disappointment, as reading books like Don Quixote* in ancient Spanish is not an easy feat.

This limits the British public, readers and book enthusiasts. And I’m not criticising British, American, Canadian writers, but it’s good to look at things from a different point of view and if you don’t know a second or third language, it’s impossible to surpass the language barrier.

Ann’s story has inspired me to start work on translating a Chinese book. Not the likes of 《红楼梦》or any of the other big four literary works of China, but the work of a young contemporary author, 方慧.

I’m reading her debut book at the moment called 《手机里的男朋友》, it’s a collection of short stories about how girls date in the 21st century, with instant messaging and social media. I think it’s a hilarious book, telling stories that even young Western women can relate to, things like being too shy to speak to the guy you like, getting an outbreak of acne, talking to a guy online and then realising he’s different when you talk in person etc. But there is still a lot of Chinese culture embedded in it, and some things that make me say ‘woah, that’s strange’, or ‘why did she say that?!’.

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The front cover

As it’s a small collection of stories, I can work on the individually and I hope to have three completed by the end of this year (there are 15 in total, but I’ll be working soon, so don’t want to set my goal too high).

But I’ve already hit some hurdles before I’ve even began this task. Do I translate literally, or do I change some aspects to things that English speakers would relate to and understand? For example, the title of the book is also a title of one of the chapters, literally it’s ‘The boyfriend inside my phone’, but I don’t think that has a good ring to it. I’ve also thought about ‘Online boyfriend’, but a lot of the interactions in the book are done through mobile technology, not through a computer, as online may suggest. Then there’s other options, like ‘My mobile boyfriend’, ‘Guy: online’ and other creative one’s I’ve thought up.

Secondly, the first chapter of the book is called 《微博自杀记》Weibo suicide diary , but the majority of Westerners don’t know what Weibo is…do I replace it with Facebook, something that English speakers can relate more clearly to? But there are some specific Weibo features that Facebook doesn’t have, which would be lost if I changed it to Facebook.

I guess it is very difficult to translate a book, as you want to make the text accessible to your readers, but if you change it too much, it strays away from the original. If you keep some original elements (like Weibo), it becomes hard to read, messy, or the readers don’t know what these things are.

So that is my aim for this year. I will also try to get in contact with the author through Weibo, to let her know what I’m doing, and see if there could be any opportunity to publish my translation in the future (I’m not sure on copyright laws in China). Until then, I will continue reading the book and working on my 成语’s.

*Although there are English translations of Don Quixote, there are a lot of them, and no definite ‘best version’

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