Thursday 25 October 2012

Lost in Translation

Prince of Thorns is now out in twenty-three languages and half a dozen alphabets. In fact it came out in Dutch first, then German, and I had to wait another six months for a copy I could read.

Some of the many translators involved have contacted me for clarification on one or other point and so I’ve had the chance to get a small insight into the business of moving a work of fiction from one language to another.

So far I’ve spoken to (well, had email from) my Dutch, French, Hungarian, and Greek translators. I’ve also seen comments on the translation of Prince of Thorns from my Indonesian and German translators in interviews and blogs.

[addition: my Greek translator blogged on the business of translating Prince of Thorns here]

The translation of a work of fiction is so much more than the ‘simple’ mapping of one language to another. Google translate does that (albeit far less well than a skilled human) but that task is the tip of a wordberg.

Just for starters, Prince of Thorns now has at least six titles. The title of course may be driven by marketing directives as well as issues of translation, but it’s possible the title sounded silly, or awkward, or rude in other languages.

We have:
Prince of Darkness (Germany)
Prince of Lightning (Italy)
Prince of Evil (Spain)
The Skinned Prince (France)
Prince of Revenge (The Netherlands)

I discovered recently that Indonesian has no tenses! That puts paid to all my tense games with box-memories in King of Thorns! It also means that sentences may need considerable help in order for the required information to come through them. I saw this on my Indonesian translator’s blog (Linda Boentaram). [Translated here for you by Google Translate!]
This novel is the hardest novel I ever translated. In addition to the language of the 'guy really' short-short alias that often have to be read twice to understand his point, there are sentences that seem to have no context or not important, but it is an indication for the things that happened next. I would not be surprised if the readers of this novel difficult to read or comment on the book's frustrating, because I have the time to translate it flips. Sometimes I had to add the words became clear that the meaning of the sentence, but did not venture too detailed so that the original author's style is not lost.

My German translator Andreas Brandhorst reported in an interview [Translated here for you by Google Translate.]
A good translation presents the novel as originally written in the target language. The style is important if the author really has its own individual language, and this is not often the case. But if you as a translator is an author who comes with its own language or used deliberately special stylistic devices, one is called twice and have to follow the language of the author. I had a few months ago such a case, as I have translated as "Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence (German: "Prince of Darkness", in May 2011 Heyne), which surprised me with the sound of his voice and enthusiasm. In the translation of all challenging works is: you have to get into the skin of the author, as he write and think.

So in addition to the meaning it’s a challenge to preserve the voice of the author through the necessary changes. But wait, there’s more!

I’ve heard from my French translator Claire Kreutzberger on both books and discovered how far the translator’s work extends. Consider that each cultural allusion I make needs to be examined and a decision made as to whether it will work for the new audience. When Jorg quotes from the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty, “All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men . . .” what would a French reader make of the literal translation? Instead Claire called upon her own experience and used a French nursery rhyme,  "Pirouette cacahu├Ęte" - the story of a little man who falls down the stairs and breaks his nose, and then someone repairs it with some golden yarn. Something suitably comic and yet tragic that would capture the same sentiment.

I also quote from Andrew Marvell, from the Iliad, Shakespeare, and other sources all of which require not a literal translation of my quote but the exact words used in the official translations such that they can resonate with the reader more effectively.

I’m also pleased to report that even read with minute care and translated line by line the story still has an effect and the translators are able to appreciate / enjoy / be moved / be bored / be appalled by it, each depending on their tastes. In several cases translators have reported laughing at the funny parts, shedding a tear in the sad or poignant places.  Which is all good.

So as Prince of Thorns and the rest of the trilogy roll out into more and more languages I’d just like to tip my metaphorical hat to the translators wrestling with my prose all across the world. It’s a far harder job than I ever imagined. And being terrible at languages myself I had always imagined it to be a pretty difficult job in the first place!


  1. Wow Mark, I had no idea the problems of translation. Shows what the average gal knows. This is very valuable in my reading and to why it takes so long to "get" novels like the one's I read translated into English.


  2. Great post, Mark! Imagine what the poor translators of *poetry* are up against -- all the content issues and a more formal structure as well. I suppose that's why there are six new translations of Dante every year...

  3. This is really interesting, particularly what you say about conveying the authors voice. One of my favourite authors is Haruki Murakami, but I've only ever read the English translations (as I don't speak Japanese), so can I really say he's my favourite author, do I really know his true voice? Or just that of his translator?

  4. About the Italian version... but WHY "Lightnings" instead of "Thorns"? Did you have any say in it?