Sunday, 19 April 2009

Lost in translation?

My son has lent me Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf." We don't have the same tastes in literature at all and he often lends me books he thinks I "ought to read" (Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" being the latest). So when he presented me with "Steppenwolf" I didn't exactly jump for joy. Then he told me that he found it "pretty hard going" so he thought I might enjoy it! (That's rich coming from someone who lists his favourite book as "Ulysees").
After our supper party was over last night and the guests had gone, we stacked the dishwasher, plumped up the cushions, walked the dog and then the farmer went off to bed. I like to wind down after a chatty evening, so I made myself a cup of tea and picked up Steppenwolf. I read the Preface - and so I am completely hooked.
How cleverly Hesse gives his readers just enough information in his preface to make the character of Harry Haller so fascinating that you are desperate to know more. I read the first thirty pages and then reluctantly put it down and went to bed.
Then I lay there thinking about the book. How much of it is lost in the translation? The question applies, of course, to all translated works. Surely to be a really good translator of poetry or the novel, the translator has literally to get into the psyche of the author. In this case the translator is Basil Creighton. I would go further and suggest that he has to get into the psyche of the German nation per se. And I suppose how well he does this is what makes his standing as a good translator.
Do we always lose something in translation? Say - the Germanness of Hesse, the Russianness of Tolstoy, the Frenchness of Voltaire? Would we ever be able to capture that anyway?
Has anyone out there read "Steppenwolf"? If so I would like to know what you think about it - bearing in mind my thoughts above.
It would be interesting to know what a translator thinks about it and how he/she sets about the task of translating. I have always envied people who were good at languages. I think bringing up a child as bi-lingual is a great gift to pass on. If you are born of mixed parentage then maybe you can get into the psyche of both nations much more easily.
Must go now and get the lunch - one of the perks of having a supper party is that there is usually enough food left for lunch the next day - more time to get on with the reading of "Steppenwolf" then!

15 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Gosh, you now make me want to read it. Though I have heard that Hesse is 'difficult'.
Yes, it is quite impossible to know what we miss...since we don't know we are missing it.
Robert recently read "My Name is Red" about Turkey and a palimpsest of politics Ottoman allusion etc etc. according to a Turkish friend.
..he gave up.
I love GG Marques but am quite certain about half of it cruises right past me.
Of course this is from someone who read Animal Farm --and thought it was about animals.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

I hope the leftovers were good! Not being an expert on languages or literature I can't help you I'm afraid! I suppose something must be lost. As the translator isn't simply translating but rewriting the work it takes a gifted person to preserve every cadence and nuance of the original. But if you can enjoy and appreciate something that would otherwise be lost to you, it must be good!

Heather said...

I haven't read Steppenwolf but you make it sound eminently readable. On the strength of one of your earlier posts, I am about to read Captain Corelli's Mandolin, so who knows - I might get round to Steppenwolf too one day. Happy reading.

Reader Wil said...

I never read a book by Hermann Hesse though somebody told me that he was quite good. Steppenwolf sounds good!
You like a kaleidoscope for your birthday! Okay! When exactly is it?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

I've never read Steppenwolf, either—though now, given your comments, I will give it a whirl.

Translations are alway going to be no better than the translators…and even so, perhaps we'll alway miss things. What I suspect is worse, however, is that we miss the writer's "voice," his style and syntax. Other languages form their sentences differently; to translate that into English, or Americanized English, things must get switched around. We have to then miss something of the language's flavor—and thus the people and country, history and land, behind the words.

I would think this is especially troublesome with poets who use language pared down, yet so carefully crafted. I know I've read certain poets whose first books in English were translations; their later works, though, were produced after they learned to speak English sufficiently to write in that language. They often read like poetry written by two different individuals—which, in measure, they were.

Heather said...

It's me again - thankyou for your very kind comment on my blog. I don't think I could do an online workshop but will certainly tell you how I made my Green Man. When you get back from holiday, if you would like to give me your email address I will explain my working. Hope you have a lovely time and looking forward to hearing all about it. We'll all miss you.

kimber the wolfgrrrl said...

Whenever I visit your blog, I leave with a new book on my "Must Read" list.

I once met a man who learned new languages by (for example) taking a Norwegian novel and an English- Norwegian dictionary, then slogging through it sentence by sentence. He was remarkably successful (I guess -- I don't speak Norwegian) but it seemed like such a difficult way to learn!

gleaner said...

Steppenwolf is my favourite book and Hesse is my favourite author -so I will be interested to see how you like it. I think Steppenwolf was the most mis-understood of all of Hesse's books, which essentially have the same theme.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I haven't read Steppenwolf yet but i am definitely going to. I generally read Hesse in German and find him relatively easy compared to most other writers in German.

As to translation, i have read some magnificent translations and some terrible ones. I think the biggest challenge for a translator must be to balance the meaning with the flow of the words.

Poet in Residence said...

I've read Hesse's Siddhartha and Narcissus & Goldmund. Enjoyed both.

I have Steppenwolf but haven't read it. Now I must.

Abe Lincoln said...

Your descriptions in this post are fabulous.

BarbaraS said...

Not only have I read it, but I helped with a stage production of it, a few years ago..! It's a very interesting book, with a great deal inside the covers. I do know what you mean about translation, sometimes it's hard to know if you're getting exactly what the author meant from the text.

Coastcard said...

I was drawn immediately to your red tulip: I clicked to enlarge it and what a wonderfully cheering O'Keeffe style picture it is. I can't wait for that curtain to rise ...

Red Clover said...

Ha ha. That comment about Ulysses made me laugh! How could anything be hard going after that? Smiles.

The Weaver of Grass said...

To you all: It does not matter what I put on my blog there is always a mine of information coming back on the comments page from you all. You are fabulous!! I hope those of you who have not read it might give it a whirl, and as it is gleaner's favourite book I shall now be able to discuss it with gleaner when I have finished it. You always give me such food for thought - and I get so much pleasure reading all you comments - so as usual - thanks to you all.