Montag, 19. Mai 2014

Translation Trouble

This rant may probably be uninteresting for all of you who don't understand at least a bit of German. Truly, I'm sorry. But I have to write this, because if I don't, I'm gonna puke when I'll next time see one of my favorite books screwed up by its German translation.

Actually I think that German translations are pretty bad since about the late '90s. They felt somehow better before that. More refined, respecting the author's intentions and the original story. Now they seem rushed.
I don't blame the translators, 'cause they need time to do a good job. A good translation isn't cheap, as I learned while proofreading game translations, or even doing them and have an English native speaker proof-read what I mucked up. Doing a bad game translation will come back like a boomarang, one with an edge, so ouch. It seems that it's easier to forget about the readers of books as they don't cry out as loud as gamers in public.
I have no evidence if money is the key issue about sloppy book translations, yet I'm pretty sure it is. Save time, save money, because the readers will buy the story anyways unless they prefer to read foreign languages.
More, I'm not talking about stuff like roleplay world novels with a relatively small audience here, but about bestsellers.

Anyways, the sloppyness of most modern translations is not the reason why I'm gonna puke. Halfhearted translations happen frequently since about a decade ago. I didn't even notice the changes from start as I prefer to read English books in the author's original language, and many others in their English translation.

The first and worst translation that made me want to hit my head on the wall in order to stop the pain was the translation of A Song of Ice and Fire, especially A Game of Thrones - starting with it's title: Die Herren von Winterfell. Really now, this makes me think that whoever made this up didn't even read the book, and on any case threw the great many-layered meaning of the original title away for a hollow shell of boredom.
The names of characters and places in this story are mainly more or less English, slightly off nowadays' standard, like Eddard instead of Edward, which I liked in the overall feel of the story. Also, some fantasy names for other regions, like Salladhor Saan. There are family and place names like Riverrun and King's Landing as well as Astapor and Lannister. In Westeros, they fit perfectly together.

Now here's a problem which, as a writer, I can understand: the obvious, descriptive names partially need to be translated. You can't leave The Wall in English in the German translation if you want all readers to grab it's important meaning. Fortunately it's easy to translate in several expressions which all work, and Die Mauer reads just fine for me (even if I would have preferred Die Wand, to avoid unfitting historical connotations; personally I have no problem with this). But then there's King's Landing. It could have been Königshafen or something alike. Why is it Königsmund? Verbatim, King's Mouth. Something died inside my brain when I first read this, thankyouverymuch dear publisher.

In games, comics and my own writing, I am confronted with translations like these frequently. When I happen to be the person making up the names, I always make sure that they work at least in both languages in which I'm fluent enough, or are easy and obviously to translate, or I provide a translation I like. Of course it would be presumptuous to expect that from every author, as not everyone wants to do such stuff or let themselves be restricted by language details, and it's simply not possible to regard all languages. I would be happy if I could just leave one expression or name there and be sure that someone translates it even better than I could. But modern German translations showed me that it's highly unlikely that I would not puke if I am confronted with the outcome later.

Whatever died in my brains as noted above, it awoke again as a pretty nasty zombie when I continued through a German translation of A Game of Thrones and there found Lennister instead of Lannister.
What the hell? I felt treated like a dumbass, as I know pretty well how to pronounce Lannister, and if I didn't, I would [enter indecent expression of annoyance here] simply learn it. The book would leave me a bit less dumb than before. Yay! Or I would need to allow myself a spark of creativity and come up with my version on how to read it, which I usually do - my pronounciation is absolutely not proper English.
Instead of being allowed to be interested and / or creative, I seem to be a pretty fine dumbass if I even pay for being treated like one.
I did not read on to find out if the Mallisters were turned into Mällisters, as to the publisher I seem to be an inept idiot who can't make up a proper pronounciation. The same happened when I faced an excerpt of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings / Der Weg der Könige. The title translation is perfect, so I expected something matching inside ... and read Roschar. Parschendi. Schasch. All on the first two pages. And I immediately though about our well-known, stereotypically mostly used Sch...-Word. That's how this violation of language feels for me. I mean, everyone can pronounce Roshar, Parshendi or Shash, no matter if the result sounds actually English or not. Someone who is totally unable to take a name as a name will likely never read a book of 700+ pages which are densely populated with letters and fantasy expressions. Someone who can will likely feel insulted by the strange and unfitting mix of original fantasy words and germanized stuff that tries and fails to reproduce even an approximate pronounciation. Being a native German speaker who is used to the use of words containing the letters s, c and h, when I read these -sch- in words that cry for -sh- I get a feel as if I had stuffed my mouth with overly sweet cotton candy on which I'll choke.

There is no correct pronounciation if a reader doesn't know the English language, and if they don't, let them make something up. It will fit with the other in-world expression a thousand times better than any pseudo-German derivate. There can't be a right or wrong version, 'cause this last part of completing a story - reading it - belongs to the reader alone.
Jason Janicki, author of Wayfarer's Moon, who's writing shows clearly a damned good feel for language, says that unless it's pertinent that the reader know what something means, he would just leave it in the original.

Messing around with pronounciation can even easily screw up the intended use of in-world language. There might be slight as well as obvious differences which one notices, maybe subconsciously, between the expressions used for specific countries or cultures, no matter if these names are completely fictional or more or less descriptive. Translate them and destroy what the author carefully made up.

To nail the problem down, one last monstrosity from A Game of Thrones. Read on at your own risk: Casterly Rock, the century-old castle on the rocky western cliffs of Westeros, has been tortured into Casterlystein. This does not only sound like something uttered by a person with the sense of language of a brickstone (which has likely more), it also kills every meaning the original name carried. Better to miss the whole meaning than to try and force a questionably translated half of it onto innocent readers together with the feel that someone, who failed to translate the complete word, deems them brainless.

There are some exceptions of course, as there always are.
For example, I like the Polish-to-German translations of the Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, done by Erik Simon. They feel just right, genuine, believeable, and German feels better to me than English with these books, as it works nicely with my interpretation of the in-world names and expressions even if some aren't the same as in the original language, which I can't read. The name of the light-headed hedonistic bard-guy Jaskier / Rittersporn / Dandelion hasn't even the same meaning and still fits the character in each language (though I would also have been fine with Jaskier).
Most of all, the use of language in the translation reads like a book, not like a hastily done reproduction of sentences. This is writing. Art. A worthy tribute to the witty, living language of the original. Thanks so much to everyone responsible for this good translation of some of my favorite novels.

So, in the end, I have some serious words for publishers (whoever may feel addressed by this):
Pay a good translator their work's worth, even if the sum doubles together with the time. No mediocrity, but quality. It's only one of many factors, and usually pays out.
And don't treat your readers like inept dumbasses. They aren't. Need proof? They are readers.

Now that I typed all the translated nonsense in this rant, I'm going to wash my hands in acid, just to make sure I don't spread the disease.