Lost in Translation

I was once told, “If you want to be a decent writer, you’d better be a good translator too”. I am not sure of how veritable this advice is, but personally I am convinced that possessing strong ability in translation can elevate my own writing because of the process’ requirements for linguistic sensitivity and the cultural susceptibility.

Last month I finished the book, Maya’s Notebook (El Cuaderno de Maya), written by Isabel Allende and translated by Anne McLean. The smooth rhythm that is the book’s narrative made my reading experience seamlessly pleasant. I was showered with splendid sentences such as this one:

“The tongue is a daring and indiscreet snake, and I’m not talking about the things it says. The heart and the penis are my favorites: indomitable, transparent in their intentions, candid, and vulnerable; one shouldn’t take advantage of them”. (pp.228)

I can’t help but wonder whether the original is as biblically poetic as the one christening my mind.

Growing up bilingual, if not bicultural, I have my fair share of running across bad translated materials. In Taiwan blemished translation novels and poetries from foreign countries are endemic, except Japan. Haruki Murakami, the most influential Japanese writer in Taiwan (and New York), has an ordained Taiwanese translator, who not only captures his writing quirks but essences. However no one here dares to touch Edith Wharton. My first introduction to this magnificent writer was back in 1993 when Martin Scorsese’s movie, “The Age of Innocence,” came out. Greatly impressed by the elegant movie, I dug out the novel’s sole translation available in the market place. Sadly I vomited in the midst of reading it, decided to go kaput and burned the book in my garage. There was zero complete sentence; the translation of “absence” as in “Absent—that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him…..” was unfortunately explained literally as ”AWOL”.

Last year I spent some time translating the book (The Age of Innocence) and had to stop after a few weeks. I was stuck in building the connecting bridge between two languages (English and Chinese). Some terms, such as “shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy,” was difficult to find comparable equivalence. The word, shabby, can be easily misinterpreted as contemptible in Mandarin.

What’s the best translation novel you’ve ever read? Why do you think it’s successful?


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