We read translated books all the time, but what goes into translating fiction stories?
After writing in English for years, German author Edith Parzefall translated her thriller, “Strays of Rio,” into German. Recently, she took time off from promoting her latest book, “Crumple Zone,” to describe the translation process.
It is my pleasure to host one of my favorite suspense/thriller writers. Please welcome Edith Parzefall.
Ever since I attended college in the United States, I felt limited when writing in German, my mother tongue. No matter what I was writing, English phrases popped up in my mind. Working as a technical writer for a German software company, I started writing professionally in English when we were bought by an American company.
Two American friends kept encouraging, nudging and prodding me to write my novels in English so they could read them. And finally I dared to take on the challenge and much enjoyed it. One friend edited the first draft and didn’t find an awful lot of errors, but plenty of room for stylistic improvements. Finally I mustered the courage to look for a wider audience and found The Internet Writing Workshop. Boy, was I nervous when I started submitting my writing, but as I did, my English kept improving and my story-crafting skills as well. Since then I have written four novels in English and co-written four more.
Toward the end of last year, after toying with the idea for quite a while, I finally started translating my thriller Strays of Rio, published by MuseItUp Publishing.
I expected to suffer and give up soon. But I’m stubborn, and about twenty percent into the translation, I started enjoying the work.
As the author of the original, I probably took more liberties than a professional translator might dare. If the German version just didn’t flow in a literal translation or was too echo-laden for a lack of synonyms, I made content changes, but only minor ones that wouldn’t affect the story or character development. For example, if a description of the clothes of a character sounded bland in German, I wrote about facial expression, hair or posture, weaving in the outfit later.
At first I labored over every sentence and word, but then decided to get the first draft down quickly so I could put away the English version and do an editing round on the German text, taking even more liberties. During the translation and editing phase I only read German books and listened to German audio books and even avoided watching movies in English.
I’d say nothing needs to get lost in translation, except possibly a very specific wordplay or joke that can’t be easily replaced. And a translation can be better than the original. Of course, that depends on the quality of the original, the experience and skill of the translator and the time allowed to finish the work. And a good translation needs polishing by a line editor who
doesn’t know the original work and language, so they’ll stumble over errors like literal translations that make no sense in the target language.
Even professionally translated novels by big publishers have those sometimes, which can get very irritating. For example a literal translation of “cover your ass with paper”. An image hard to get out of your head when you’re not familiar with the metaphorical meaning of the phrase. Someone is chopped up by a serial killer but readers don’t take in the bloodshed because they see the victim with paper stuck to his or her bare ass. Yes, I stumbled across this one in a published novel, although there was no serial killer around. Another real-life example: “rib cage” literally translated as “Rippenkäfig”. Well, we call it “Brustkorb”, which literally translates to “chest basket”. Imagine reading a book where the heroine’s chest basket heaves and you’ll know how annoying such errors can be.
Have I started translating the next book yet? Well, I was tempted to get the translation of Crumple Zone done in time for the release of the English edition on February 22, but I shied from another two-month translation spree this soon after finishing Die Streuner von Rio. First I need a new writing fix. But in which language?