Wednesday 2 February 2011

Lost in the linguistic shuffle

I think Ismail Kadare's novel The Siege might very well be a very good, perhaps even a stellar, novel; I can't say whether or not it is either of these things, however. Reading a novel in translation is always an incomplete undertaking - no matter how well-written, smooth, subtle, and thoughtful a translation is, there's always something missing. Likely, there's probably a lot that just doesn't survive the transition from one language to another but in most cases, I hope, the reader won't know what's not there. When the reader does notice that maybe a translation isn't excellent...then I suspect scads, loads - hell, worlds - of important things are getting lost in the linguistic shuffle.

All of this isn't a preface to my asserting that David Bellos's English translation of this Albanian novel is awful; no, in fact, the book reads fine. But I'm not sure that what I read has enough to do with The Siege written in Albanian by Ismail Kadare to also be called The Siege in this English form. You see, David Bellos's translation is not a translation of the original - it is a translation of Jusuf Vrioni's French translation of the original. Frankly, had I realized this was the clone of a clone before I was 70+ pages in, I wouldn't have read the book at all; I would have happily waited for the English translation of the Albanian, or more likely, forgotten about it.

But I was already committed. Now, Bellos's rendition reads fine; it's not a stylistic disaster by any means and the plot points appear to come through clearly. But it's just so bland or flat or something...and the subject matter really doesn't suggest that Kadare wrote blandly or flatly. It's like a once colourful shirt that's gone through the wash too many times - there's evidence of what it once was, but it isn't that now. So, the novel was fine, it really was - but that's all. And I don't feel as though I've really read Ismail Kadare's The Siege.

But what's the book about you ask? It's the account of a fictionalized siege by the armies of the Ottoman Empire of a resistant Albanian castle. It's set in the the 1400s, when the Ottomans were bigger than God, the Beatles, Lady Gaga, or Microsoft. The structure is interesting - which again made me notice the limits of a second cousin translation like this - in that the majority of the tale is told third person omniscient with the focus on the invading Turks but every once in awhile switches briefly to a first person (usually) plural perspective of the besieged Albanians. I really like the subject and the structure of this book, so in spite of my issues with the double translation, I still enjoyed this novel. I just think that if it's a truly great novel, I'll probably never know - because if there were a qualified Albanian to English translator currently working, there wouldn't have been any need for a French to English translation in the first place. But perhaps one will come out of the woodwork some day; in which case, perhaps I'll give The Siege another try.

Non sequitur: I'm not sure where in the world you are, but I know because of Bellezza that if you're in Chicago, you're currently buried in snow. I'm in Toronto and we were also supposed to become buried in snow last night and today. We got a storm, yes, but it didn't result in the destruction of Upper Canadian civilization as various local media outlets, especially CP24, were hysterically insisting. What does this all have to do with books? The fact is, I love snow days and I haven't experienced one in a very long time. I love the coziness of being stuck inside in the quietness of a snow-covered world, being forced to read really good books and eat cookies. If the power goes out that's even better, for then there's reading by candlelight - and I've discovered during storms of the past that reading Dickens by candlelight is pretty much the best reading experience to be had. So, I was hoping for that but we got relatively little snow and nothing, sadly, prevented me from going out to my physio appointment and running other quotidian and extremely un-readerly errands.

If you're snowed in, tell us - what have you been reading to celebrate/pass the time?

(Book 6 for the Awesome Author Challenge. This seems sort of ironic.)


Heidenkind said...

I'm in Oklahoma and we were buried under snow. School has been canceled for 3 days in a row. I've been watching movies and writing posts. I'm also considering getting ahead of my reading for class, but... we'll see.

Anonymous said...

No snow here in Melbourne, Colleen, we do different weather calamities here in Oz...
I thought The Siege was brilliant, and didn't mind the translation at all(see and just this week I was delighted to find another Kadare at my library - it seems to have been translated directly from the Albanian by John Hodgson so I guess your wish about the translation is being granted!

Stefanie said...

No snow in Minneapolis, just frigid cold and dangerous windchills. I've read a nonfiction Kadare book before and liked it very much. Haven't tried his novels. But I will beware of the version you read. A translation of a translation just doesn't seem right.

Trapunto said...

Colded and lazied in doesn't cut it?

Interpolations said...

Because it's 65 degress here in the Bay Area, I'm burrowing into your comments on snow and reading in a house buried in snow and reading by candlelight. Dickens, too, I can't help but burrow into that. Cheers, K

Unknown said...

Copy of my most recent tweet:

"I tipped out my bin this morning, left in the street with the lid open for approx. 18hours. It contained a good foot (300mm) of water..."

Meytal Radzinski said...

I've noticed that rather by default, double-translations feel a little watered down. Normally, the translation balance is such that you gain about as much as you lose. With another translation in the way, I always feel like even what you gain is so disconnected from the original tone and intent of the author that it just doesn't help...

No snow in my part of the world, but does hail count for anything...?

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: So, are you unburied from the snow yet?

anz: I too found another Kadare book today - but it was also a translation of a translation. Boo.

Stefanie: What was the non-fiction book about?

Trapunto: I think it cuts it. Yes.

Interpolations: 65 sounds good too, for very different reasons. :)

Tony: Wowzers. Glad you're not floating away in all that craziness.

Biblibio: You've read more than one translation of a translation? I admire your gumption. And hail most certainly does count.