I may know a thing or two about books but a subject I know more than a few things about is translating books. Could the cliché get any bigger – a bookworm working as a book translator? Let’s all laugh and stop me from becoming an Instagram life coach one day (damn, I spend way too much time on that thing!). However, before you start being jealous of me spending days on end endlessly typing on my computer, let me tell you how book translations are handled here in Macedonia.
To start with, I’m a firm believer that yes, you can learn how to translate but no, you simply can’t learn how to translate books. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s something like singing – either you can do it or not. If I’m supposed to teach someone how to translate books, I’d skip the grammar and the word order and the passive voice (which by the way, sounds horrible in Macedonian), and I would just tell the translator to translate feelings.
Sounds easy, right?
Just go with the flow and translate however the book made you feel. Translate the meaning instead of pinpointing every single word out there. If the author made you laugh in the original, make your readers laugh in the translation. If you cried, make them cry. If the author is angry, get angry, get hysterical, do whatever it takes to make your translation come alive and filled with passion! Is there anything worse than reading something that just feels… dry?!
My favourite memory of translating meaning is the translation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the Young Adults edition. Buried deep in a snow avalanche during what was very likely the worst winter in the last 20 years, Dan Brown’s anagrams kept my brain awake. Since I like to find joy in my work, I was quite appalled to find out no one bothered to play with those little anagrams and convey the meaning in Macedonian – they’d just translated words, ugh. With the whole town being deserted and with ice starting to dribble its way into our houses (in all fairness, it was quite amusing to see how random objects would just freeze out of nowhere), I took a pen and a notepad and well, got my own little party started.
You know, his anagrams and poems and all mysterious things that he wrote don’t even have a meaning – everything just sounds scary with all those religious messages crammed into them, but they’re there for fun! Once you dig deep into things (aka, Google the subject) you realise you’ve discovered a translator’s playground.
However, translating feelings and meaning and everything that gives soul to the book does come with a hefty price tag – you have to use words that are not part of the so-called standardised language, such a slang or colloquial terms.
Let me tell you – ‘standardised language’ term is pretty big around here. Sadly, sometimes, it’s bigger than the translation itself.
And sometimes, we just can’t translate sentences or feelings or every other little thing that gives colour to a book because it doesn’t fit with the language norms, that ‘standardised language’ that we’re told we have to use. While I may look at book translations more as a piece of art, many of my fellow translators (and sadly, editors) don’t agree with me – and that’s exactly how we get lost in translation.
Stuck in a silent battle with proofreaders and editors, which is pretty much passive-aggressive most of the time, we’re told to translate things in the standardised language. Because that’s the way to preserve the language.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about following the rules and respecting the languages you work in. But can you really control a language and stop it from evolving over time? While the Oxford Dictionary is literally rushing to accept as many new words as possible each year, in Macedonia we literally ruin books because of having to work in a frame set up decades ago.
Let me tell you – if you want to know what a bad translation is, translate small talk from English into Macedonian within the standardised language. Or how on Earth are you supposed to translate Bukowski within the language norms? And what am I supposed to do with the different accents in English or everyday jokes or all the slang and all of the other aspects that make modern books appealing to readers? Am I the one to protect the readers and use ‘breasts’ if the author clearly meant ‘tits’? Do I even care to do that – hell no, they clearly knew what they’d be reading!
Unfortunately, while most of those responsible for ‘preserving’ our language think they’re winning, I say we’re losing – and we’re losing big time.
We end up with shelves full of books that are dry, have no wit, and have no soul. I don’t think there’s a sadder thing than a book with no soul; books no one bothers to even look at, and let alone read. I don’t blame technology for this; I blame the people who are supposed to give life to the book they work on but choose not to.
So it seems standardised language does the opposite to what it was intended for. Instead of keeping the language alive, we are letting it die slowly with bad translations. You don’t keep things alive simply by stopping them evolve – period.
Since we’ve been seeing a wind of change coming our way this late spring, all of my hope goes that maybe, we’ll see a change in the way we handle our language and we handle our books. I, writing in English most of the time nowadays, may not be the best ambassador ever. However, I’m aware that at least, I’m good at not letting my readers get lost in my translations.
Dijana Boshkova is an eternal child working as a full-time writer & translator who uses humour and wit to attack everyday routine.
Hailing all the way from Macedonia, Dijana will be here guest blogging once a month and next month, she’ll be talking about judging books by their covers. If you want to know more about her, check out her LinkedIn profile.