Are translators poets? In the séance of life, are they the disembodied spirits who speak not beyond the grave, but beyond the language barrier?
I’ve always had a problem reading translated works. The problem being I wouldn’t read them. I figured I just wouldn’t get anything worth while. To coin a phrase, I thought everything would be lost in translation.
I was wrong.
To begin with, think how much knowledge, beauty, and experience I was missing. If Europeans followed my example, I assume no German or Frenchman would have ever heard of Shakespeare. They would say “Who’s Hamlet?”
See, I was so wrong.
Without talented, inspired translator Robert Fitzgerald, how could we thrill to phrases such as “rosy-fingered dawn” or the “wine-dark sea” in Homer’s Odyssey?
Someone else might have said “the ocean which has a purple shade somewhat like Chianti,” or the “sun rose with little pink things reaching out like tentacles to the sky,” or some such.
And there’s another point. Just any old translator won’t do. Surely the translator, to capture the essence, the heart and soul, the very being of the language and feeling and evoke the right responses in readers in a totally different language and cultural context, must be an artist himself.
And then there’s the slang, for heaven’s sake. Supposedly, Americans speak the same language as do the folk in the United Kingdom. But I had to stop watching Red Riding with one of my favorite actors, Sean Bean, because they might as well have been speaking Urdu, and I lost about 75 percent of the story. The same holds true for novels. They are full of local slang and colloquialisms. For example, Tana French writes in English and is a great writer, but her characters in the Dublin Murder Squad are always “taking the piss.” It’s not what it sounds like. From what I could gather, it means being teased or set up for a joke. So, suppose Tana French were not writing in English. Say, she was writing in Norwegian. And wrote down whatever the Norwegian police jargon for “taking the piss” is. Now you need a translator who is expert in English and Norwegian who can find a way to take local slang and make it accessible to English-speaking readers.
Take being separated by an uncommon language, trying to show English-speaking readers the heart and troubled soul of Harry Hole, Norwegian off-and-on-again reformed alcoholic, opium head, investigative genius, and jazz enthusiast and getting it right. Hitting my heart with the right arrow, where the words on the page take me on a flowing ride and where I care about these people named Oleg and Rakel. I get the humor that people who play tennis in Norway are regarded as dangerous because they’re not skiing.
Harry Hole has a friend, a genius forensic officer, a homegrown “hillbilly” who wears handmade suits ordered from Nashville, collects rockabilly records, and wears Rastafarian hats. I love this character.
Who makes it possible for me to love Harry Hole? Don Bartlett.
Yes, Don Bartlett, a denizen of the UK who has obviously been everywhere, examined everyone in every language, taught everyone, and translated everything. He translated all ten of Norwegian crime fiction writer Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole novels into English. How does a British non-native Norwegian speaker manage to show me the tortured people of Oslo, which seems to be rife with serial killers, damaged detectives, and messed up relationships? He puts me inside the head of a crooked detective known as “Beavis” from boyhood because he has an under bite and a horrible laugh like the cartoon character. Or Harry, who is lovable, horrible, crazy, brilliant, funny, and out of control. The novels are scary, sometimes grisly, funny, and full of wry observations about Norwegian culture.
So, how much is Don Bartlett and how much is Jo Nesbø?
I don’t read Norwegian, so how do I know that whatever I read on the page is what Jo Nesbø means to say?
Is the translated crime novel a baby being ushered into daylight by a midwife translator, or is the translator more of a surrogate parent than a mere midwife?
I don’t know the answer. I just know I love these books. Maybe it’s magic.