January 2007

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Problems with Translation

Head Bookslut Jessa has been known to rant against the tendency of English-speakers to resist reading works in translation. She has many fine arguments about why you shouldn’t fear the translator and should, instead, embrace it. Personally, on this particular topic, I think Jessa is full of merde.

When it comes to books originally written in not-English, I am not of Jessa’s persuasion. My shunning of works that have been moved out of their original tongue is based on my deep-seated belief that language is a vast and subtle mistress whose will cannot be tamed just because you have a box of shiny baubles to give her. Language and culture are inextricably intertwined. You can’t separate one from the other and you need to have a solid footing in one to fully grok the other.

Which isn’t to say that I haven’t dabbled in languages and cultures that aren’t my own. Like any Internet wag, I’ve read my Murakami and my Camus and my Tolstoy. I can see the artistry that each writer wields. I understand why each is well received. And I always feel that I’m missing something that will make these works bloom.

The same holds true to a lesser degree for book that are written by other English speakers with whom I do not share a country. Even with writers like Neil Gaiman and Jo Walton, who are incredibly accessible on infinite levels, I still feel that there are tiny bits of information that I’m not picking up on because I didn’t grow up under a Queen’s rule. As much as I loved Walton’s Farthing, I missed a minor plot point simply because I don’t have an immediate sense of what all British coins look like. But these omissions are small, unlike those with whom I don’t share a language or a culture.

(Note: Yes, we are all human and therefore have certain things in common. We all want to be warm and dry, for example. We want to be loved. And on. We can communicate on this basic level. But most works of art try to transcend this.)

Take Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers. When first released in English in 2005 -- it was originally published in Germany in 1995 -- Eschbach’s book was ballyhooed by leading SF/F lights like Orson Scott Card, who wrote the foreward. Card says: “Eschbach is a novelist with vision, with compassion, and with a sense of tragedy, of character, of spectacle, and of human possibility, and also human inevitability.” Which is exactly what one wants in a writer.

Card himself was brought Eschbach’s work to these shores after Card met Eschbach’s work at a convention in France, where is was being praised by European readers. Card asked Doryl Jensen, a translator friend, to take a look at one of Eschbach’s short stories to see if it was worth reading. Apparently it was and the Eschbach/Jensen/Card three-way culminated with this Tor version of The Carpet Makers.

Leaving issues of translation aside for the moment, the story is an interesting one. On a planet far, far away in the far, far future, the entire economy is dependent on an esoteric skill. Master craftsmen spend their whole lives tying carpets out of human hair, which has been plucked from the heads of the carpet maker’s wives and daughters. Sons, save for the firstborn, are killed, since they would wreak economic havoc if allowed to roam unchecked.

Rumors begin to circulate about the death of the galaxy’s Emperor, whose palace is allegedly where all of these hair carpets are displayed. Outsiders begin to descend upon our far, far away planet. With them comes news that will destroy the carpet makers’ entire world view, provided they chose to believe it.

It’s an interesting premise and one that Eschbach explores in an interesting manner. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character. There is no omniscient narrator who strings all of these stories into a coherent whole; rather each character is another thread in Eschbach’s own carpet. You can only appreciate the pattern once the whole thing woven. It’s a lovely concept and one that he handles ably.

For that narrative skill alone, Carpet Makers is a fine read -- save for a bit towards the end when a relationship develops out of nowhere that conveniently solves the book’s central mystery. And some of Eschbach’s observations about the nature of rebellions and empires are especially prescient, given the current global quagmire the US is responsible for:

The people must believe that they have taken back their independence themselves; they must be proud of their victory -- this pride will help them over the difficult times ahead. They must not find out that it was not their victory at all. Never… For the sake of the self-esteem of future generations, for the sake of the future of all mankind, you must be silent.

It’s excellent advice and if our current whistle-ass-in-chief could read, it’s advice it would have behooved him to have taken.
Still, my perennial problem with translated literature keeps raising its ugly head. My knowledge of the culture against which Eschbach writes is rudimentary. I am completely reliant upon Jensen’s ability to pick the perfect words to sum up a vast history of language and culture. Is “self-esteem” truly what Eschbach meant in the above passage? Or was the original word one of those nifty German cognates that so aptly describe mental states the English lacks words for, like “schadenfreude” or “angst?” The difference in shades of meaning assigned to each and every word in the book is a small one, if viewed per word. If viewed in toto, however, the changes in tone and texture could be vast.

According to Card’s foreward, the conventioneers who thrust Eschbach’s work into his hands claimed that Eschabach was “the most exciting new writer in the world.” He could be if you are fluent in German and Germany’s culture. In translation, it is hard to stand behind that bold assessment. He is undoubtedly a very, very good writer but The Carpet Makers feels oddly flat, as if there is a dimension of meaning that is missing and that would make the whole book weigh more than the mere sum of its words.