Fake Translation

Way back in 2004, I contributed The Son of Clemenceau by Alexandre Dumas fils to Project Gutenberg. However, PG just forwarded me a letter they received from someone who consulted the Academie Française’s bibliography of Dumas’s work, and couldn’t find any text that could possibly be the source of this translation. The PG cataloger who contacted me thinks that the publisher may simply have appropriated Dumas’s name for a novel someone else wrote, and I have to admit I find the theory convincing. I’ve tried using Google Books to search for any work by Dumas containing some of the proper names or French or Latin phrases in the text, and come up blank.

The publisher printed the author’s name as “Alexander Dumas”. I wonder if that was deliberate weaseling. (“Oh, no, it’s not by the French author Alexandre Dumas. We just chose that name as an homage. There was absolutely no fraud intended, I assure you.”)

Translation panel

The Studio Theatre is currently doing a German play in one of their theaters, and they hosted a panel with four translators discussing the particular challenges of translating plays. No particular insights that hadn’t already occurred to me, but I was interested to hear how collaborative the process tended to be. One thing they talked about was listening to performances in both the original language and the translated version, to make sure the laughs and other emotional reactions hit in the right spots.

Sounds like the bit they all find most challenging is getting the tone and level of diction right. It’s very easy to say the same thing in dozens of different ways, some much more elevated than others, and matching the tone of the translation to the original is—well—probably not the most difficult task of the translator, necessarily, but the most fraught, because unless you know the source language very well you’re like a blind sculptor examining his model with gloves on. A couple of them work with literal translations and a source-language partner, which is so not how anti-social me wants to do things. (I’m a gentleman, not an extrovert.)

I acquired a couple volumes of Ferenc Molnár’s plays in Hungarian, three one-act plays and one three-act play, all of which have long since been translated into English. I think I’ll translate at least one of the plays, then compare it to the canonical translation, and see how my work measures up. Could be a very useful exercise.

They’re Taking Our Stuff

I’ve been playing around with the Index Translationum, a United Nations database of translated works, comparing the number of works translated to English with the number translated from English. I wasn’t surprised that the ratio is pretty lopsided; the exact ratio depends on which period you search over, of course, but a quick and dirty estimate is that 75 times as many books are translated into Hungarian as from it. If you restrict yourself to books classified as “Literature”, which is the category of books I’m most interested, the ratio goes up to about a hundred to one.

A scattershot sampling of other languages turned up ratios from 7 to 1 (for Romanian and Turkish) to 200 to 1 (Latvian). (Russian was an outlier, with supposedly twice as many books translated into English as the other way around, but I strongly suspect bad data.)

I also looked at how many works of literature were translated from various languages per year per million native speakers. Hungary managed about 0.6, the same as Japanese. French had 4.7, German 1.9, Swedish 3.4, Romanian 0.9, Turkish 0.1. Estonian was the champion among the languages I looked at; 69 translations over ten years, only 1.1 million native speakers, for a ratio of about 6.3.

Naturally, I’ll do my best to fight this injustice. These freeloading countries won’t get away with it any longer than I can help, taking our books without giving us a fair return.