& the World of Murray Whelan

On being translated

Thu 30 Dec 2004

This article first appeared in Australian Author, December 2004.
Republished in The Age, 24 December 2004.

The republic of letters has always been an international community. And for the majority of us, those not fortunate enough to be fluently multilingual, access to that community comes by way of translation. It is through an interpreter that we encounter the words of the great figures of world literature – Tolstoy, Boccaccio, Dumas, Kafka and that blind Argentinian joker with the unpronounceable surname.

When we read a book in translation, we know we’re not getting the full deal. We implicitly accept that something inherent in the original is lost, even if we don’t know what. We place our trust in the translator and plough ahead with our reading. As long as the text captures our imagination, its foreign origins need not intrude.

Likewise, when it comes to feeling validated as a writer, there’s nothing quite so affirming as being published in a foreign language. After all, what can compare with seeing your work rendered entirely unintelligible by a person you’ve never met from a place you’ve never been.

So far, I’ve been transmuted into German, French, Finnish, Japanese and American. And I have it on very good authority that Croatian is just around the corner.

But while I have the satisfaction of knowing that readers in Ingolstadt, Jyvaskyla and Matsuyama are finally able to access my oeuvre in their respective native tongues, I must confess to a nagging curiosity as to exactly what they are getting for their euros, their markkaas and their yen. Are they copping a fair suck of the sausage, nuance-wise? Is their local lingo adequate to the demands of my style? Do my metaphors soar? What about the puns, the slang, the warp, the weft? Do the snappy lines snap? In short, is the translation any good?

Translation is a notoriously vexed process, after all, and its inherent shortcomings have long been bemoaned. According to Cervantes, translation is the other side of the tapestry. Presumably he said this in Spanish, so some of the subtlety may have been lost. His gist, however, seems pretty clear. A translation is a lot fuzzier than the original, many loose threads are left dangling and the unicorn now looks like a goat.

In my case, the issue is compounded by the fact that I write (as stated on the title page of my German editions) in Australian English. And our native dialect being a notoriously arcane mode of expression, I can’t help but wonder if an intelligible rendering into another language is even possible.

My initiation into the world of translation began with a stream of recommendations and queries from my American publisher. Initially, these were concerned with minor modifications, a little light tinkering at the margins. Spelling needed to be brought into line with American usage ( -ise endings became -ize, colour became color). False cognates and unfamiliar diction had to be ironed out (“shopping-trolley” v “grocery cart” and “diary” v “calendar”). And certain unfamiliar items of vocabulary required clarification.

Could I please provide meanings and possible replacements for the following terms? Franger. Duco. Shoot through. Op shop. Furphy. Laminex. Ruckman. Fibro. A piece of piss. An unreconstructed Whitlamite.

Only after attending to this basic housekeeping did we finally get down to nuts and bolts, the cross-cultural crux of the matter. American usage required that “footpath” become “sidewalk”.

Get stuffed, I declared, or words to that effect. We don’t have sidewalks in Australia. We have footpaths. And while I could find no compelling reason to die in a ditch for the sake of the franger and the dunny, there was no way that I was going to allow Murray Whelan to take a hike down some goddamn American sidewalk. Next thing, he’d be eating Oreo cookies, drinking Miller Lite and voting Republican.

In due course, a mutually acceptable version was hammered out, one that retained as much Australian idiom as might reasonably be grasped by the average American reader. Of which, my US publisher persuasively argued, there are many millions.

At least the Americans consulted me. With the Finns, there was no correspondence whatsoever. Presumably, this is because Helsinki has a good supply of unreconstructed Whitlamites who know the difference between a franger and a furphy. Or perhaps because the translator guessed that my grip on the Finno-Ugric branch of the tree of languages is tenuous at best, limiting my capacity to make constructive suggestions. Whatever the case (and for those interested, Finnish has 15 cases including the partive, the accusative, the allative, the instructive and the comitative), a book in Finnish simply arrived one day. The only part I could decipher was my name. And that was because it was printed on the cover. The title read Hyva Yritys. I’ve still got no idea what that means, but it sounds pretty snappy so they obviously got the tone right.

As to the German, it is a language of which my understanding is entirely not. But the workmanship is unsurpassed. Just by heft you can judge it so. Also the predilection for compound words, for which I am having a very much soft spot. As soon as the “Kunstlerpech” arrived, I scoured its pages for suchlike renderings. To my great delight, my eye immediately alighted upon the word Satellitenavigationssystem. Apparently, I was “Schreiben auf Deutsch” all along but just didn’t realise it.

That’s something that Diogenes Verlag AG should have taken into account when they rendered Stiff as Weck mich, bevor du gehst. Whatever it means, it is an expression that strikes me as singularly lacking in the snap department. It is, shall we say, eine kleine schnapbereft. But perhaps there has been a conscious effort in recent years to de-snappify the German language. Maybe the neighbours insisted.

In the case of the French, there was greater scope for collaboration (for want of a better word). For a start, I can scrape together just enough parlez-vous to follow the general drift of the translation. So whenever one of my characters goes into a bistro and orders a dozen snails and a glass of vin ordinaire, I’ve got a pretty good idea what’s going on.

Niceties such as tone and voice remain well beyond my grasp, however, and translation into French involves more than merely massaging the syntax. A degree of intellectual exertion is also involved, as I soon discovered. Not content with definitions for hoon, Paddle Pop, blue heeler and doona, my traducteur also requested clarification on the issues of bonking her ears off, living the life of Riley and being off with the pixies.

By the time we’d finished with Clive James, Melbourne-Sydney rivalry and the witchetty-grub cappuccino, I could have taught a course on antipodean social anthropology at the Sorbonne. Oz as Other. But the contents are only a part of the package. In French hands, the physical books themselves are transformed into cultural artefacts.

Since my novels fall within the broad taxonomy of crime fiction, Cartesian logic identifies them as romans policier. So, in keeping with the conventions of the genre, they come printed on cheap, grainy paper and bound between plain yellow covers. Whenever I thumb through one of them, I can almost feel the ink fading and the glue coming unstuck.

Say what you like about the frogs, they know how to treat pulp fiction with the respect it deserves. The Japanese, on the other hand, remain inscrutable.

My first and only contact with my Japanese translator took place at the book launch. We exchanged business cards and signed each other’s copies. Conversation was minimal. To tell the truth, I am not sure that Mr Yakusha speaks English, although I would like to believe that he reads and writes it to a high degree of proficiency. As to his translation, all I can say for sure is that the script runs back to front and right to left. While this does not strictly conform to the original, it is perhaps an improvement.

Likewise, the book itself has been shaped to the culture. For a start, it has been miniaturised, shrunk to pocket size for ease of reading on a crowded subway. Advertising flyers are inserted between the pages, promoting obscure products at discount prices. And like a kimono, it comes wrapped with an obi.

Given the opportunity, I’d like to have exchanged expletives with Yakusha-san. Purely on a professional basis, of course, in order to satisfy my linguistic curiosity. Some of the characters in my books, members of the Australian political class, do quite a lot of swearing, and I cannot help but wonder how this was managed in Japanese, a language with a premium on politeness.

Even my tactful circumlocutions must have presented a huge challenge to Mr Yakusha. For example, the exclamation “far canal!” could have easily have proven problematic for somebody who did not immediately recognise it as a phonetic rendering of the vernacular pronunciation of a popular oath. Was it mistakenly rendered as “distant waterway” instead of “%&@#*&!”?

Not that you need to journey far to encounter misunderstanding. It can be found in even the most unexpected places. When British editions of my books appear, the text is exactly the same as the original Australian version. Only the jacket is changed. And there’s the rub. The plot summary on the back cover describes my protagonist as a “spin doctor”. This is the contemporary British political system’s closest equivalent to what we call a ministerial adviser. Unfortunately, it is not merely a job description. It is a term synonymous with dishonesty, corruption and a complete lack of principles and ethics. Frankly, the publishers might as well have described my hero as an absolute turd.

But however tenuous our lines of communication and whatever uncertainties I may harbour as to their competence, I hold all my translators in high esteem. Not only have they undertaken a task well beyond my own capacities, they have done so under conditions of virtual anonymity. They do the work, I get my name on the cover. And so I salute themas my silent partners, my co-authors.

Especially that bloke in Finland. To him I say “Hyva Yritys, pal. Love what you’ve done with the umlauts.”