Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Problem With Literature in Translation

... is that it's often difficult to tell whether a book is awful or whether the translator is just incompetent.

Example: I've been sludging through The Last Temptation of Christ, which I want to love so badly but is honestly the worst thing I've read in a long time.  (I would recommend reading Twilight over The Last Temptation of Christ, because while both novels are overwrought and dramatic, at least Twilight makes sense.  That's how bad the book pictured left is.)

The problem, though, is do I write off the book as being a steaming pile of you-know-what, or do I assume the problems stem from the translation and try to find another version? (If there is another version.  I haven't looked to see if there is because I was so little impressed by this one.)

Need another example?  When discussing the work of Nietzsche with a German friend of mine, I made a snide remark about the "superman" motif.  My friend seemed confused and asked me to clarify, so I told him that "Übermensch" is often translated into "Superman."  He groaned and said, "If that's how they're explaining it, they're totally missing the point. That's not what it means to a German reader in German."  But how is an American reader reading a German-to-English translation supposed to know that?  How do I know if the writer is simply being misrepresented? 

That's the problem with literature in translation.


DL Stone said...

How is the superman intended in German?

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

From what I remember, he explained that it's not a "superman" (because we have such strong cultural connotations to that phrase) but more like an "overman" or a "veryman." It's much more of a philosophical ideal rather than a physical ideal.

Of course, I still rolled my eyes because according to Nietsche, a woman can't be an ubermensch, she can only give birth to one.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

*Oops, Nietszche. Spelling is good.

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