Author: Nick

On Translation and The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote the brilliant novella, The Little Prince in 1943. Originally written in French, it’s become the most translated book from its original language, into over 250 different distinct languages and dialects. But part of the charm of The Little Prince are its original watercolour illustrations by Saint-Exupéry. Those illustrations require no translation, as the old saying of “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true in this case. Despite illustrations needing no translation, there is often a choice made regarding what material is to be illustrated, and which is not to be. In 1993, during the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the publication of The Little Prince, pages from the handwritten manuscript (on onionskin) were displayed at the Pierpoint Morgan Library. Those pages included passages stricken out and some illustrations that Saint-Exupéry chose to exclude from the final version of the book.

One of the illustrations so excluded was that of the narrator asleep next to his crippled airplane.

“To picture the pilot”, Mr. Parks [the curator of the exhibit] said, “would give the story a literalness that would not help.” [1] Reif, Rita. A Charming Prince Turns 50, His Luster Intact. New York Times, 19 September 1993.

As with all design choices of including text or illustrations, deciding to explicitly throw out material in order to tell the story the author wished to in their original version of the story is a valid choice made by Saint-Exupéry. He chose the best illustrations in his opinion to maintain the ethereal tone he wanted his story to exude. Choosing between ambiguity and producing literal text & illustrations that depicted the actual scenes based in reality, Saint-Exupéry chose in every case to obfuscate.

Understanding the author’s intent is part of the translator’s challenge. Depending on the purpose of the translation, the translator can be afforded a great deal of liberty. A great translation can enhance a book, while a substandard translation can doom a book. Due to this dual nature of attempting to convey the story as faithfully as possible, while maintaining the “feel” of the story itself, the translator can have a huge impact on the story itself. The translator should always be acknowledged and disclosed in order to fully appreciate the contribution that they have made in presenting the author’s story. The translator is essentially performing an artistic retelling of a story for people unable to understand the original version, much like a wandering minstrel in the Middle Ages would do, but the translator must remain faithful to the author’s intent and the story itself.

The greatest impediment for translators is the cultural differences that exist not just in the target market, but also within the use of idioms and other literary devices by the author. Authors writing in their own native language are able to encode subtle linguistic devices that advance the story in a method not otherwise possible. The use of such devices by the author is also very difficult to translate properly.

As an example, consider the Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The novel is set in 1960s New Orleans, and part of its appeal is how realistically the city at that period of time was depicted by Toole. The rich descriptions of the city itself, its inhabitants, and even the dialects used in the city are all details that have been interwoven together in order to provide a lush and realistic portrait of a living city. However, if the translator is unfamiliar with all these details, or about New Orleans’ culture and the corresponding translation was produced without this background information, it would end up being nearly unreadable. Continue reading

When She Woke – Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is probably one of the ‘hottest’ books being hand-sold these days. Published by Algonquin after a large number of other traditional publishers passed on the book [To my great surprise and pleasure, the author, Hillary Jordan has corrected me on this part – other publishers passed over Mudbound, but rather, Algonquin bought When She Woke upon first showing. Whoever was responsible for this acquisition should be promoted at Algonquin.], it addresses one of the toughest issues in America today. Books should make you think, and even with this adage in place, too many books have been published about nothing at all. This is not an issue with When She Woke. One of the most volatile issues in the current state of our world is that of abortion. Throw in a second issue that is no less incendiary in that of the separation of religion and government, and even a third issue with the topic of capital punishment and the criminal justice system. Blend with a plot alluding to racism and the Underground Railroad and you’ve got a strange amalgam of concepts that have somehow been interwoven into a stunning story by Hillary Jordan. Continue reading

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Ready Player One was a novel that I wanted to read from the second I heard about its premise. A futuristic apocalyptic society where the common escape from reality is a massively multiplayer online game that uses haptic equipment and virtual reality? And to boot, it focuses on retro video games and movies from the 1980s? Where do I sign up!?!

Needless to say from my brief capsule overview above, I was excited about this novel and would have been sorely disappointed if it hadn’t delivered just a tiny portion of its massive potential. Luckily, I wasn’t let down by Ernest Cline, who has crafted a wholly believable and organic world that is at once both technologically advanced and downtrodden. Nuclear catastrophe has wiped out parts of the world and dust bowls have returned worldwide as a great recession has gripped the entire world. Trailers have been stacked to create slum apartments around the few remaining habitable parts of the world. Currencies have pretty much been inflated to the point where the online credit has become the de facto monetary unit worldwide to supplement a bartering system already in place. The multiplayer game (OASIS) has become the refuge of most humans who want to escape the horrors of reality.

Welcome to 2044. Continue reading

Some Things That Meant The World To Me – Joshua Mohr

Joshua Mohr’s stunning debut novel explores the life of its central figure, a man called Rhonda. I read the entire novel knowing that Rhonda was suffering from ‘depersonalization’, but didn’t know what that meant medically. By the end I thought I had figured out what that malady was – a psychological affliction that was the result of Rhonda’s extremely warped upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic mother and her abusive boyfriend, Letch.

The psychological aspects of this novel ring true to the point where one suspects Mohr may actually have suffered from depersonalization himself at one point in his life. The reflection of the psychological sessions on Rhonda’s life is done authentically and allows the reader to learn more about Rhonda via a combination of his childhood as told to his psychologist, commingled with Rhonda’s disjointed present-day experiences. Mohr’s prose deftly transports the reader into Rhonda’s twisted persona, and we’re left to divine the meaning behind little-Rhonda and old-woman-Rhonda. No answers are given by the end of the novel, and that’s the way that it should be for Rhonda’s story.

The publisher, Two Dollar Radio prides itself on finding unconventional (but good) books that are then published as paperback originals. Just a few months ago, this family operation moved its home base to Columbus, Ohio. I look forward to reading some of their other books, especially those by Mohr, if they all live up to the standard set by Mohr’s debut. I stalked Two Dollar Radio’s website for a couple of years, especially after finding it via the links section of Maud Newton’s blog, but didn’t really know which book to take the plunge in on. Reviews were scarce on the actual books themselves, but across the blogverse, I could only find laudatory comments for Two Dollar Radio itself. So when the ‘personalized recommendation’ option became available on their website, I couldn’t resist and sent in an email. Continue reading

Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

A literary whirlwind, Swamplandia! was on my ‘to-read’ list ever since Stephen King gave it high praise in one of his last few columns for Entertainment Weekly. It landed on his ‘10 Best Books of 2010‘ article, even though the novel wasn’t available for mass consumption until February 2011. Even though the story itself doesn’t really make any sense, but then again most great stories don’t really make any sense – they lend you an unique taste that remains with you well after you’ve read the novel. Those kind of books are diamonds in the rough as you may read thousands of books, but after you discard them, they remain with the slurried ore. The truly unique stories show some glimmers and perhaps some flashes as you read them, such as the sparkling writing that Russell produces. But I never truly felt ‘seized’ by this book, and yet kept drifting back to it over and over again during a couple of weeks until I finally finished the novel off. Continue reading

Open – Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi was the first male tennis player to complete the Golden Slam (win all four majors: Australian, French, Wimbledon, and the US Open, along with an Olympic gold medal). During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Agassi was best known for his flamboyant dress and the hair, which he translated into an advertising campaign with Canon using the tagline, “Image is Everything”. In later years, he was considered the best returner in tennis history and his battles with Pete Sampras were usually titanic struggles between two extremes: serving and returning.

Andre has served up a hugely pleasing read with his autobiography. Brutally honest, almost to the point of being caustic – you’re introduced to Andre’s tennis life starting with his father training him to become the best tennis player ever. Growing up in Las Vegas, winning tournaments, and then moving to Florida to train at a tennis camp before dropping out of school in the ninth grade and finally turning professional at a tender age. All along the way, Andre hated tennis. A recap of some of his early professional years are included, where he met with success and failure in equal measures. Continue reading

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