Translation across borders

EasyMoneyUS   EasyMoneyTW

I recently bumped into an Chinese-language article written by a professional translator in Taiwan. He is the guy who has translated books such as Easy Money [Snabba Cash] by Swedish author Jens Lapidus, Feet of Clay by British author Terry Pratchett, Restoring Harmony by US author Joelle Anthony, and Red Riding Hood by US authors Sarah Blakley-Cartwright and David Leslie Johnson. As I do not know his English name, let me just call him Zhang.

In his article, Zhang discusses how he translated Easy Money to Traditional Chinese from US English. This is the tenth book he has translated, but it is also the most time-consuming, because he took the trouble to compare the novel’s US English translation with not only the Spanish translation but also the original Swedish text. In this way, he slowly peeled off the American-styled façade of the book constructed by its US publisher and editors.

According to Zhang, the book’s US editors have made it much more acceptable to American readers — that is to say, more suitable for the “popular” taste and therefore commercially successful in that country. As a result, the non-US cultural elements of the book were sacrificed. For example, one of the book’s 61 chapters was left out, so that only 60 chapters were presented in the US English version. A Swedish fashion magazine called Café was also replaced by its American popular counterpart GQ.

In his Traditional Chinese translation, Zhang managed to bring back the missing chapter and to restore many of the Swedish cultural and linguistic characteristics that were missing or Americanized in the US English translation. Although Sweden as a society has long been under the influence of American popular culture, Zhang did his best to preserve the Swedish author’s unique narrative style and wording, so that Traditional Chinese readers would not be confused that they are reading an American novel.

In Zhang’s view, all readers need and care about are good stories, no matter in what linguistic and cultural backgrounds these are set. With that said, he goes on to praise Taiwanese readers for their easy acceptance of other cultures and languages. Then he turns around to lament the fact that after Easy Money was published in Traditional Chinese in Taiwan, at least one reader has expressed his/her intention to purchase the US English version of the book. “They don’t know what they’re missing,” Zhang writes in his article.

As a fellow translator, I agree with Zhang that translators should strive to present the authors’ true colors. Translation is not just an attempt to interpret what an author says in his/her writing. More importantly, it is an effort to represent that author, to faithfully convey his/her voice, without any modification or mutilation. To translate an author is not to transform him/her. Cosmetics are of no use to translators at work.

But I do think translators occasionally need to act as tour guides and show their readers the way through the labyrinth constructed by an author. They do so without disrupting the labyrinth’s original system of passages and paths; neither do they make the complex system any easier for those who attempt to go through it. All they do is to point out, as faithfully to the original design as possible, that here is a dead-end, there is a possible passageway, and when you bump into a monster you should turn around and run for your life. The monster may be roaring in gibberish. So it is the translator’s job to tell you, “It says, ‘I’m coming to get you! Then I’ll turn you into mince and gobble you up!'”

Finally, have a look at the cover designs of the US English and Traditional Chinese versions of Easy Money. The Chinese translation of the book’s title literally means “the end of the way of money”. Would you not agree that the pleasant-looking gentleman on the Chinese cover gives a sense of ease and leisure, but far less hint that the book is a thriller, when compared to the guy on the English cover? Is this one way to promote this book to a wide range of readers, i.e. not just those who enjoy thrillers?

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