If you look at the number of Dictionaries you can download for, say LibreOffice (a wonderful suite with which you can create and edit all the documents you can create and edit in Word except it’s FREE – you can donate, which I did as I want to encourage the lack of monopoly – and doesn’t screw you over with new docx formats and weird updates and all that) or even the Firefox browser, you will see that there is ONE for Italian, and about 5 or 6 for English.
In some suites there used to be a “Swiss Italian” but I honestly believe that was just a way in which the Swiss Italians could pretend to have some identity of their own (no offence Swiss Italians, I used to live twenty minutes from you and you honestly didn’t speak any differently from us).
English, however, is an entirely different matter.
When you are translating a technical text, it is fairly simple: once you have established where that manual is going you translate everything in exactly that country’s language. Measurements will become a paramount and obvious choice whereas for other types of texts, unless they are metric, they can be perceived as fairly arbitrary and a little crazy for us who descend from the sensible Romans.
If you are translating classical literature, again the problem is relatively simple: are you translating for an American edition or a British edition? With classical literature you tend to be fairly… well, you strive for what is closest to the author’s background, but you need to also consider what your readers are going to be like.
Because ultimately, the aim of a translation is to have that book read.
So, I had a little chat with my author yesterday via email.
At the beginning of the job, I had told him we needed to think about his preferred initial audience: are we going American, British, or Standardised European English, which is a “sensible”, well constructed but not too playful use of English?
I think because he was thinking of publishing with an English publisher first, he chose British. I then asked him: “Do you want this to be a translation that reflects the author’s voice (yours), or would you like it to be as though it were told by someone British or of any other nationality?”
This is a very important distinction, which is not always possible, but it was in this case: the novel consists in a fictional narrator who is telling the events in the life of a person who has really lived, who happens to be Italian, so the fictional narrator is telling a non-fictional account. It also happens that the person whose real life story is being told is the author himself.
Yes, it is a little confusing, though on the surface it is very similar to the picaresque novels where the author invents a fictional narrator who then tells a fictional story but that he tells as true.
So, the protagonist himself remains who he is, but the narrator could then be a generalised Italian man that the author has made up with specific characteristics, a specific Italian man with specific experiences and personality (so, basically, the author himself) or it could be someone with a different personality altogether, even an English guy.
That English guy could be an ex-high school teacher, or he could be an ex-diplomat, or he could be a postman who’d been friends with the guy. The narrator needed to have an individuality too, so that I, the translator, could transfer him into a new language.
As it stood, however, the narrator didn’t have a defined personality, so I had to asked the author: who is telling this story?
My author said “I want it told as though it were a story in its own right, told by an English person”.
So, that gave me lots of elements to play with, and I had a very clear idea in my head of how I would approach the tone of voice of this English-speaking narrator. I made the narrator up in my head, as the author seemed to not want to make up a personality for him.
As the first drafts were finished and the author started reading them, he picked up on some elements and started to change his initial indications.
The author is not a professional author, and certainly not a translator, so he has no idea how delicate this process is.
He started by pointing out that the tone of the narrator wasn’t right, because that was not how his protagonist (he himself) would describe things.
After some discussion, we agreed that the narrator and the protagonist were basically the same person, with the same value judgements, the same reactions to the events, everything.
That, of course, changed a lot. I really should have overhauled the entire translated book! This would have meant many many hours of work for me, which I didn’t feel like charging him on top of everything else (which a translator is obliged to do if he or she wants to survive) just because we hadn’t understood each other at the beginning.
Instead, I did a wide and detailed revision, and changed what I could.
My author speaks English so he is doing a lot of that himself. That will be easy for him because he can apply his own personality to this narrator, who started off a separate fictional character but it then ended up being him, the author. It was, however, a little frustrating, to say the least. We’re talking a 60000+ words book.
As he carried on reading, he pointed out that he would prefer the metres in the novel to be turned to feet, because that’s what American readers understand better.
So. Metres and feet. In England, the metric system came into force many years ago.
People, however, still feel more comfortable with yards and miles and that has remained on the road, and pints have remained more popular than litres (though they do write the litres pitifully in small letters on the bottles) and so on. In hospitals, it is funny to see the nurse struggling to explain to me what that kilogram unit means, when to me it is much more immediately understandable than the pounds and stones.
Now, when translating books from a European language that uses the metric system, especially books that are not meant solely or even primarily for a British audience, it is now starting to be common practice to leave the metrical system in. When translating for the American market, however, there is a tendency to keep things as simple as possible and therefore indeed, change those metres into feet (remember these are not technical translations so exactness is not paramount).
When my author pointed out this “little” factor (according to him), I trembled:
a) go back 60000+ words and check every instance where metric was used instead of Imperial, to maintain consistency (you shouldn’t really speak of feet and yards and then speak of litres, for example.)?
b) was he starting to think about changing the whole book into a more Americanised translation? Because THAT would mean a complete overhaul. Sentences would have to be shortened, vocabulary and construction changed, hell, spellings would need to be modified, punctuation and even tone would vary! He didn’t come back to me about that, so I’m hoping he will just leave it rather than attempt to fix it.
In this case I was dealing with someone with a relatively poor knowledge of all the language he speaks, although not very ready to admit it and trust in me.
He is not, however, an isolated case.
The greatest challenge I have come across when translating, the challenge most translators will probably recognise, is translating for someone who knows the language enough to read what you wrote.
They will always have an input. Depending on the person, this input will sometimes come in the form of “that is not what I meant” or “you have taken all my words and shifted them all about” (yes, that is often the case, especially translating very laborious sounding Italian into the simpler English form).
On the other hand, if you know the author wants the text to be as Italian looking as possible, to make him or her happy you may purposely keep a very correct English, which, however, doesn’t sound that natural. Then of course you get the British reviewer who is horrified at the elaborateness of the language, or the American one who tells you that American readers won’t read a sentence of that as it is way too abstruse!
This is one of the skills of a good Project Manager in Translating companies: they will know who the client is, what they want to see, and which translator can achieve exactly what they want.
As an independent translator, care needs to be taken in understanding your author and what he or she wants, and discuss things well in advance, before starting the work, and writing them down. I did this with the author before this one and it was a very good idea. Sometimes, as in this case, the confusion is just due to the author himself not knowing what he wants till after he’s got it in his hands.