Tuesday, 18 January 2005

The Language of Books

Does language actually matter when it comes to a good book? Does it matter if a story is translated into hundreds of different languages? After all, a good story is a good story, no matter what language it is written in, right?

Well... maybe. But then again, maybe not.

The Wordup community has a little thread going about the Don Quixote (Used to mispronouce this all the time. Is it Kuik-Sot? Ki-Xo-Te? Kui-So-Te? Ku-Ix-O-Teh?) book being 'unreadable.

You see, Spain is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the book, which apparently is the most published and translated second only to the Bible. Anyway, someone mentioned that it's Spanish version is unreadable, but the English version is fine.

Eh? ¿Que?

How can a translation be easier to read than the original? Does that mean that a lot has been 'lost in translation'?

I think that when a book is translated, the main thing that would be lost in translation would be the particular nuances and quirks a certain language may have.
A Terry Pratchett book, with all its puns, slang and language-related jokes, would not seem as funny as it REALLY is if it's translated to Chinese or Malay. Can you imagine a title like Going Postal translated into Pergi Pejabat Pos, or Death being referred to as 'Kematian'? GAAAA!
I'd like to see a Malay translation of Nanny Ogg's Hedgehog song though. Would be hilarious.

The Lord of the Rings has been translated to lots of languages worldwide, but I can't help thinking that some of the poems and lines may not sound as magical or unique if translated into Chinese or say, Arabic.

I for one, object to the Chinese translation of the title - 'Mo Jie', which means Demon Ring. Eh?

And you wanna know what some LOTR-speak would sound like in Malay, check out my early posts here:
I've read Hong Kong comics in their original Chinese form, AND I've tried reading the Malay translations too. Compared to the elegence and the flowing style of the Chinese names and phrases, the Malay translations just seemed dreadful to me.

Imagine, a name like "Bu Jing Yun" (loose translation: Cloud Walker) which sounds so elegant and so symbolic in Chinese, is translated into 'Penjejak Awan', which may be a direct translation, but just sounds awful as a person's name. And don't get me started on the various 'names' of the kungfu moves in the comics, which are terrible direct translations on otherwise very creative and very elegant 'names' (some of which are even REAL Chinese proverbs).

There ARE some translations that fare quite well though. Although Chinese readers still moaned the quality of its translation, Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain (originally written in Chinese) still won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for translating books into different languages. That way, books from every corner of the world can be read by everyone. Non-Chinese readers can enjoy Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Polish readers can read Harry Potter in thier own language, and Americans can marvel at the brilliance of Malaysian literature. Or maybe not.

However, there ARE times when I wish I could read the books in their original languages. Spanish is one language I've always wanted to learn.

I've taken Spanish lessons before in university, all the way until the fourth level. But even then, that was not enough. One needs to PRACTISE to master a language. And I doubt many roti canai sellers around the UPM area knew how to speak Spanish. So my Spanish lessons all went down the drain, and I'll have to start from scratch again. Sigh...

But watching Mexican movie Y' Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother Too) the other day kinda rekindled my interest in the language again (let's not mention all the sex in the movie, shall we?).

Now I'm seriously thinking of taking up Spanish lessons again. Then maybe I can read Don Quixote in its original form.

AFTER I've read the English translation, of course.

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