By Russel D McLean
More and more these past few weeks, I’ve been seeing mentions of my own name on Italian websites*. This is not a coincidence. After all, THE GOOD SON has become L’IMPICATTO and found itself an Italian home thanks to those wonderful people at Revolver Publications.
It’s got me thinking a lot about translation, though. I joke that the Italians have no word for “peh”**, but I do have to wonder how McNee sounds in Italian. After all, I’m sure that there must be differences.
The art of translation is a very strange one. You have to be as much an artist as the author in some ways, finding new and inventive ways to use the secondary language to convey the same sense as the original. After all, as a certain president once said, “The French have no word for entrepreneur”.
I have a great deal of respect for those who translate novels into other languages. I would love to be bi(or multi) lingual, to understand the tricks of the trade. I found it fascinating that people noticed a difference in the US and UK translations of the Steig Larson novels. After all, we share a common language with the US, and yet certain turns of phrase and ideals would clearly not translate. Even Ian Rankin found himself unceremoniously translated when FLESHMARKET CLOSE became FLESHMARKET ALLEY. The language gap doesn’t just happen between different languages, it even occurs between different cultures with a common language. There are even minor differences in the US version of THE GOOD SON compared to the UK edition.
I’m a big fan of a writer called Domonique Manotti. I almost wasn’t. But luckily I read two wonderful translations of her novels first. To my mind, she was a Parisian James Ellroy but I wonder how much of that impression has to do with the translation. The third book I read was very different. If I’d read that first, I might not have picked up another because that brilliant, intense, terrifying voice was rendered functional and dull by the efforts of a very different translator who seemed almost too literal and refused to let the voice sing in the English language.
Translation isn’t literal. It can’t be. It is an art form of its own. The translator must be a skilled writer in the language to which they are translating, figuring out how to transmit the sense of a novel rather than its literal translation. After all, just throw some text into Babel Fish if you want to see the kind of inanity that a literal translation can throw at you.
Sometimes translation can lead to whole new and different meanings to titles when translated back again. Which is why books often undergo complete title translations in new languages. L’IMPICATTO, after all, does not mean literally THE GOOD SON. It means THE HANGED MAN. Which is, in itself, a very good title. If, perhaps, a little on the nose when translated back into English.
The work of a translator often goes unthanked. Especially when its good work. Because it’s so good that we could almost forget how much effort must have gone into it.
So right here, on Do Some Damage, let me say thank you to those often unsung heroes of literature who try to bring us the sense and artistry of another language, who don’t simply replace words for their equivalents, but try to match and replicate the sense and effect of the original in a whole new language with a whole new set of signifiers and references.
Thank you to all of you because you have allowed readers like myself into the minds of authors we might otherwise have never been able to understand or discover. And you have done this by, in your own way, becoming artists yourselves, in your own right.
*Yes, I google myself. Deal with it.
**Nor does anyone outside of Dundee. If you’re wondering, a “peh” is a “pie” and is generally referred to in the phrase: “twa pehs an’ an ingin’ in ‘n aw” which roughly translates as “two pies, and an onion one as well, please”. I do not use the word “peh” in any of my books. Like Elmore Leonard suggests, I try to avoid phonetic dialogue