A discussion came to my attention regarding the importance of translating literary works. Two questions that seemed to take precedent over the conversation were: What is the value of literature and the written word? What aspect of writing would you want to be preserved from language to language?
As an author and avid reader, I couldn’t possibly place a value upon literature and the written word. It means too much to me to try and come up with a viable measure of importance. Without the written word, I wouldn’t know how to personally function, because within the words written on a page is where I’ve discovered passion, grief, love, longing, loss, and joy. I’ve lived a thousand lives because of literature. Experienced relationships and scenarios I would’ve never encountered in this life. Literature has shaped my soul from a young age and the importance of it is something I will continuously strive to pass on to my children.
I do understand that before the written word stories were passed down from generation to generation orally, with each new group giving a piece of themselves to the story, enriching it. This too, was a form of using language to preserve what was important to the storytellers, and even then, it shows how vital it is to use the correct language in order to maintain the heart of the tale.
For the second question, for me personally, the most important aspect of writing to preserve when translating a story into different languages, is the emotion. Emotion is the lifeblood of the characters. It’s what catches a reader’s attention and forces them to hang on. How a character feels in certain situations can make the difference between hero or villain, coward or courageous, love or hate.
I read for the stakes, the sizzle between the characters, and the hope for them to overcome whatever odds they’re up against. From contemporary to fantasy, I read because a good writer has the power to make you feel for the characters. Has the power to make the emotions so authentic that you believe these are real people in real situations and for the span of a page length’s they invite the reader to become those characters.
With innovative translation software sites like Smartling making it easier for writer’s to translate their works into many different languages, it is crucial for the writer to understand what part of their work they hold most vital and make sure it remains when the process of translation is complete.
Like I said, for me, it’s emotion. Get the emotion wrong, lose it in translation, and you’ve lost your character. Lose your character and you’ve lost the reader.
One of my favorite Contemporary works as of late is FULL MEASURES by Rebecca Yarros. Yarros is one of those incredibly talented authors who has the capability of squeezing out every ounce of emotion you’ve got contained in your soul. Her written words have the power to move you, make you feel things you never knew you had in you.
FULL MEASURES is a story about a young woman whose father is killed during a deployment and she must hold her family together or lose what little semblance of stability she has left. She struggles through this while battling the overwhelming urge to fall in love, but when she discovers strength within herself and her family, she finds a new way to love, not only the man of her dreams, but life itself.
Yarros takes the reader through every emotion possible; love, loss, grief, pain, and happiness. When translating FULL MEASURES into another language, I would personally say if any of the depth of emotion Yarros has created is lost, then the story would lack the impact it so seamlessly has.
Words mean everything. There is a difference between an ugly cry and tears from laughter. Difference between anger born of grief and anger born of rage. Difference between looking at someone with lust or love. And I’m aware that a fine line lies between the actual wording when describing these emotions, which makes getting them right when translating to other languages so incredibly important.
Character descriptions can be changed, hair and eye color are important but not as vital to the heart of the story as the emotion behind the character’s motivation. Changing tiny aspects like a character’s preference for strawberry flavored ice cream over chocolate, won’t alter the character’s journey so much that the reader would lose interest. I’m not negating the effect these little details have to the overall story, because I understand little details like that are a huge part of what makes up the character as a whole, but they aren’t what drive a character. That’s emotion. Lose it in translation and lose the heart behind the words.
Let’s take a look at one of my favorite lines from FULL MEASURES.
“The fire you have within you is impossible to kill. The first breath you take when you’re free of all this, it will come roaring back. That’s what is so impossibly beautiful about you.”
This is one incredibly powerful piece of dialogue between the two main characters. It is delivered with heart and passion and comes from a place of intimate perception. If when translated into another language, say the words fire, kill, and beautiful, were changed to warmth, cool, and pretty. The line would lose it’s strength and the character he is speaking to would lose the strength as well. And she is one strong female lead. Warmth, cool, and pretty are in no way bad interpretations, but they describe a much gentler and passive character than the one the reader has come to know throughout the novel.
That being said, I would much rather a novel get translated and lose a few points than never be translated at all. The importance of sharing a variety of literary works in multiple countries and languages is vital to learning and experiencing different aspects of the plethora of cultures within this world. And isn’t that what lies deep within the pages of literature? Experience. Emotion. Discovery. The written word acts as a tool capable of reaching somewhere no manmade machine can, the soul, and what occurs within it (love, happiness, heartache, and pain) can be felt in any language when used properly.