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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Artists Of Language

While reading the stunning prose in "Out Stealing Horses" by Per Petterson, I began reflecting on what the translator (Anne Born) brought to bear on this Norwegian novel from 2003. How much attention have you ever given to this easy-to-overlook detail?

I'm certain being mono-lingual contributes to my fascination of the translator's art. "...until he could not hear anything but that shot when people talked to him no matter what they said, and it was the only thing he would hear for a long, long time." Reading that critical phrase midway through the book (describing a horrific accident from the childhood of one of the main characters), I wondered - How many words were there in the original Norwegian? Was it a phrase in the original text or a stand alone sentence? What was the punctuation? How much work did it take to ensure most of the words in that phrase were one syllable when translated into English? If the original Norwegian did not use that clipped cadence, how would the raw power of that phrase have been affected?

One of my adult guitar students is a multi-lingual Asian Indian. Whenever he asks me to teach him a Hindi song, I ask him to translate the lyrics for me. This process invariably deepens my fascination with language, especially when the singer utters one syllable and my student's English translation becomes  several words. Or vice versa. Petterson's elegiac and brilliant novel brought my guitar student to mind and also made me recall an earlier novel I'd finished with equally stunning prose - "Elegance of the Hedgehog" (2006) by Muriel Barbery. Went back to my book journal - that one was translated from French by Alison Anderson.

In my perfect world, artists of language like Born and Anderson deserve more recognition. Without them, I would have missed both "Out Stealing Horses" and "Elegance Of The Hedgehog".    

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