Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Annals of bad literary translation

I’m excited to have another amazing story to add to Life in Translation’s collection of bad literary translations.  At the same time, though, it’s disappointing to see that French readers who thought they were reading classic 1950’s hardboiled detective and noire novels were actually reading distorted and condensed versions of them.

Here is the L’Expresse article: Polars américains: la traduction était trop courte.  [American detective novels: The translation was too short.]

Too short—the article relates how entire paragraphs and even chapters were cut out for the translated versions (sound familiar? but the result will have been even worse in mystery novels, where it may result in clues being lost). In some cases, where the amputations (as the article calls them) left the story incomprehensible, bridging text was invented out of whole cloth. The L’Expresse article includes shocking photos of the vandalized text that the translators were supposed to work from.

Moreover, the translators apparently simply didn’t understand English well enough to produce accurate translations. One example: in a scene in James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, the detective goes to a topless bar. In French, the bar is topless too, but “without a roof”; i.e., homeless.

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