Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Honing the Art of the Written Word

I spent much of the weekend (the third one now), with Ziggy going over our translations of General Stefan Bałuk's wartime memoires, Byłem Cichociemnym. The fact that the very title has undergone revision since its first translation shows what a gruelling task this has been. Originally, we'd settled on The Silent, Dark Ones. Now, the book's English title will be Silent and Unseen.

This work has been a great learning experience for me. The actual translation itself did not take that long - I translated around a fifth of the book, the last 57 pages or three chapters in 12 days, around my normal working routine (evenings and weekends). The real work was to take our raw translation of the General's text and beat it into something that reads perfectly in English. Right: General Stefan Bałuk, 95, earlier this month at the commemoration of the 65th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

And it has to be perfect. The difference between a first-rate narrative told in second-rate translation and one translated so that it doesn't actually read like a translation is the difference between a something that shifts a few hundred copies and a best-selling history. My bookshelves are littered with poorly translated titles. A classic example is the Polish edition of Norman Davies's Europa. It shows what happens when publisher is in too much of a rush to check it thoroughly first. General Franco's mausoleum, we learn here, is in the valley of the river Fallen. (Valle de los Caídos in Spanish, translated into English as Valley of the Fallen, then translated into Polish by someone who really should know better as 'dolina rzeki Fallen').

So we spent a lot of time checking facts. Wikipedia makes this easier (today I needed to know how the Hungarian dance, spelt czardasz in Polish, is spelt in English*. Heavens knows how else one would have found this out without access to a reference library or Mastermind-grade general knowledge.) Wikipedia alone is not the absolute arbiter; facts needed checking and re-checking in text books and history books. Ziggy is a professional military historian with dozens of books under his belt as author and many more as translator (into English). And I have a pretty good all-round general knowledge, and am strong in 20th C. military history.

There are three main interferences that face translators - linguistic, lexical and cultural. The first is to do with the differing structures of language - word order, grammar (Polish has four tenses, English has sixteen, for example). The second to do with the precise meaning of words and how those meanings vary across languages (Komisja can mean commission, but commission can also mean prowizja, which does not always mean provision. That's reserwa, which can also mean reserve). The third is to do with what the intended reader is reasonably (what's reasonably in Polish?) expected to know. Words like peerelowski or Wlasowiec need to be explained, not just translated. A translator needs awareness of these three interferences.

Ziggy and I spent two weekends going through the book on screen, checking facts and improving on our original translations; making the words flow more easily, tightening the sentences, before sending the text for setting. And this last weekend, we finally printed off the typeset page proofs, and read them aloud. Which is excellent exercise - it is good for you to read aloud! Good for the lungs and vocal chords, good for self-confidence and presentation skills. Reading page after page, a chapter (typically 20-30 pages long) at a time, for 16 hours (eight hours each) over two days, was gruelling.

It's only when you do this that you spot the natural patterns of linguistic flow. You find yourself reading aloud how the passage should sound, not how you've translated it. So you correct it - and then you find - hey! That's much better! Taking out or inserting commas; breaking up over-complex sentences, tweaking the word order, smoothing out the rhythm of the language. Any words which could possibly be construed as ambiguous are replaced by ones that the reader's brain can absorb without interruptive thoughts getting in the way.

So all in all, this exercise soaked up a lot of my time. Much, much more than the publishers have paid me for. I could have just handed in a first draft translation, collected the payment (I was paid for this in April!) and walked away. But no. This is no longer a question of cash. It's about Polish history, it's about disseminating a gripping first-person wartime narrative to a potentially huge global English speaking readership - and it has to be perfect. Here the missionary kicks in and takes over from the mercenary. And so I've given up three weekends pro bono to help ensure that Silent and Unseen will be as good a read in English as it possibly can be. So that Stefan Bałuk's amazing testament - his escape from the Nazis and the Soviets in September 1939, his training by the SOE to be a parachute commando, master forger and insurgent leader, his part in the Warsaw Uprising and his subsequent imprisonment by Nazis and communists - can be as widely known as possible. Ensuring there are no mistakes denies ammunition for ideologically motivated falsifiers of history - "that's wrong - so therefore this is likely to be a mistake too".

Review of Byłem Cichociemnym Polish by Daniel Passent in Polityka.

* Csárdás, since you ask; the original Hungarian spelling is used in English. A csárdás will be played at the 14th Last Night of the Proms in Kraków, supported as ever by the BPCC and its members. I was checking the programme's translation.

This time last year:
Michael Palin was right
Back for some more steam

This time two years ago:
Heron spotted over local pond
Agricultural scenes in Jeziorki "cause flashbacks"
Our garden spiders getting big and fat
Ul. Kórnicka loses dirt track status
Electrical storms continue


Ewa said...

Thank you for doing that! My heart always sinks when I read crappy translations into English from Polish, and never more so when I read about Polish history in English. It's a wasted opportunity to convey the extraordinary things that happened. I'll look out for The Dark and Unseen (although I'd call it The Dark, Silent Ones... :)

I'm curious as to how what you thought of Prof. Davies' "Rising 44"? I found the translation of all Polish names into English excruciating and very distracting, but I might be a special case as not everyone speaks/reads both Polish and English.

Bartek Usniacki said...

for me your new title sounds better and more naturally.
Reassuring that the ones who dealt with translation of the book commissioned it to the natives who did their best to get it right. Thanks for the useful remarks on translation theory - looking forward to seeing more of them.

The Valley of the Fallen reminded me about the anecdote of the Poles (if my memory serves me right from PLL LOT) who attended the conference organised in the UK and according to the savoir vivre after the came back to Poland they sent a letter in which they thanked for hostility (they intended to thank the host for gościnność

Island1 said...

Who is the publisher? I want to read it.

Michael Dembinski said...

Island - publisher is ASKON (Wydawnictwo Naukowe ASKON). I hope it will be available online (Merlin.pl etc) as well as in all good EMPiKs.

Ewa- agree on Rising '44. My father says he sees the point of bringing the events closer to English readers (he read it in English); our own copy here in the house is the Polish translation.