For the last 10 days I have been touring through Italy giving workshops at universities where Dutch is being taught. I was surprised to hear that there are five Italian cities where you can study Dutch: Naples, Rome, Bologna, Padua and Trieste. I have been to all of these cities the last 10 days, with the exception of Bologna.
The workshops focused on literary translation and its difficulties.
In Naples the students pointed out a sentence in my second novel Silent Extras. In this sentence I use the word "rat" three times.
My Italian translator translated the first "rat" with "rat," the second "rat" with "mouse" and the third "rat" with "small mouse."
The students explained that word repetition in the Italian language is problematic; according to some students it is something that cannot be done in the written language.
On the one hand, I respect the choices my Italian translator made. On the other hand, it is puzzling how a rat can become a small mouse in the space of one sentence.
It leaves the author with an eerie feeling: what is happening to my books in translation when I myself cannot read the translation?
Milan Kundera famously remarked that translators always err on substantial things characteristic to the author.
During the translation workshops, I observed that most of the student translators felt the need to clarify things that might not be immediately clear to an Italian reader. I'm in favor of liberty for the translator, but when it comes to adding words or even sentences to clarify things, I hesitate.
A reader who doesn't know the Netherlands well might not know what "Etos" is. But given the context the average reader should be able to figure out that "Etos" is the name of a drugstore.
To explain this is not necessarily a mistake, but it takes away from the rhythm of the language, which certainly in the case of literature is a crucial aspect of language.
During these 10 days I also heard that some Italian translators from the Dutch—and who knows, maybe also from other languages—have the habit of embellishing the original.
As somebody who doesn't speak Italian, it's hard for me to judge this habit. It might be necessary in certain cases. Of course, it's a thin line between translating and rewriting.
Some would argue that translating is by definition a rewriting.
After these 10 days, I think that it's a relief for this author not to understand all of the languages into which his work is translated.
Otherwise, I would lose sleep over a rat that has become a small mouse.
And now I know what to say when a journalist asks a difficult question, íOh yes, I know what you mean, but this is something you really have to ask the translator.ë
Published May 15, 2008 Copyright 2008 Arnon Grunberg