Friday, December 30, 2005

Abseiling in Flanders Field

Wonderful. A VietNamNetBridge article about translation errors contains some fairly creative "translations" inside. Some make sense:

Many foreign books have been translated into Vietnamese in the past 15 years and many of them contained major errors in translation. Are translators assassinating foreign authors’ works?

Others do not:

For many years, Russian poetry was considered the epitome of literature in Vietnam. Now, one must wonder if the translations were good in the first place. According to many experts, Vietnamese translators have been assassinating Russian poets for quite some time.

This comes to us via the fine, fine Diacritic blog of R. Streitmatter-Trần, who has his own observations:

Several translated books that have been released in Vietnam have been recalled. Most recently the best-selling The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It was discovered that the translation errors were so gross that the publisher was forced to recall the books. 

This may be a natural growing pain. Given that until recently Vietnamese have not had access to contemporary foreign literature, the language is often is often outdated. Bookstores are often stocked with heavily abridged translated classics (similar to Cliff Notes).  In the excerpt below,  the key phrase is "international literature of any consequence." Although the wildly popular  Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter might not fit this criterium, translations of Pulitzer Prize-winning works such as Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee can be found. But often such recognized literature is social or political commentary. The art is the writing. What happens then, particularly in states where material is frequently censored, when the writing itself is controversial? Does the translator take the liberty to rewrite the work? Do translators simply opt for translation of less critical or important works? 

It probably is a natural growing pain. But I suspect there's two other reasons that the Vietnamese version of the Da Vinci Code was - ahem - "assassinated". The first one is that the book contains a lot of stuff about Freemasonic Sex Magick - stuff that I suspect wouldn't go down too well with the Ministry of Culture. Unfortunately, it's so integrated into the storyline that removing this material would leave an empty husk behind.

The other reason? I've said it before and I'll say it again: Dan Brown is an awful writer. He's awful with plot, he's awful with characterization, but most of all, he is awful with style. For example, he mixes metaphors with abandon, such as "learning the ropes in the trenches, and many other errors and accidents. (Thanks, LanguageLog, for your love-hate relationship with those novels.) What is the poor translator supposed to do when confronted with such abominations? Try a word-for-word translation, which is sure to make no sense? ("Học những dây thừng ở những chiến hào"?) Let's just say that I pity the fools who try to translate Dan Brown into Vietnamese for a living. May they turn their work towards more worthy contemporary authors such as Iain [M.] Banks or Susanna Clarke.