How weird is it to see one of your books translated into a foreign language? It’s weird.
In some cases, it’s only kinda weird, but in other cases, it’s mind-blowingly weird.
As an itinerant control freak, one of the things that freaks me out about foreign translations of my writing is that since like most Americans I am fluent only in the language of my birth I have no idea, no way of knowing at all really, if the translator got it the slightest bit right. Does everyone in Poland who read a copy of Wrota Baldura (Baldur’s Gate) think I’m a total idiot? Based on reviews of the English version, if they do it means they probably got the translation right. But still, they could have changed it all around. I wouldn’t know.
It sold well, I heard, making me the David Hasselhoff of computer game novelizations, destined to be underappreciated in the country of my birth.
I have a Chinese translation of an anthology that includes one of my short stories. I’m not sure exactly which of the stories is mine. It was completely translated into Chinese, apparently even my name, so, well, it’s all Chinese to me, but I have to assume I’m in there somewhere. How will I ever know if they spelled my name right? Do a billion Chinese people think I’m Phillip Athens? Maybe.
How about this for a fun exercise:
The first line of my Forgotten Realms® novel Annihilation, in four different languages:
The way I wrote it, in English: “Gromph found himself growing accustomed to seeing the world through his familiar’s eyes.”
From the German edition: “Gromph bemerkte, daß er sich allmählich daran gewöhnte, die Welt durch die Augen seiner Vertrauten zu sehen.”
In French: “Gromph s’était accoutumé à voir le monde à travers les yeux de son familier.”
And Italian: “Nel rendersi conto che si stava abiyuando a vedere il mondo attraverso gli occhi del suo famiglio, Gromph fu motivato da quella scoperta a trovare un rimedio alla situazione.”
Apparently I had more to say in Italian.
I guess the lesson here is this: Let it go. Enjoy the idea that someone in a faraway land is reading your story. Value the hard work and creativity that a translator has brought to your work, and your efforts to get it out to the widest possible audience. I ran across an interesting article online (“How to Read a Translation” by Lawrence Venuti) that kinda says people shouldn’t waste time translating books by the likes of me, but sings the praises of the translator. Translators do more than just transpose words from one language to another, but more and more engage in what we call “localization,” which means they turn your American English story into something a Chinese person would understand, and not just on the basic level of alphabet and syntax. A good translator presents your work to a new culture in a way that, at the very least, won’t piss them off.
Here’s an interesting example of that from my friend, video game designer and novelist Jess Lebow:
“Not long after we launched the first Guild Wars, we released a content patch for an area known as Sorrow’s Furnace. It was an underground dungeon-like area that was also home to a group of bipedal gopher/molemen. I had written a bunch of text that would be displayed over the heads of these creatures as they ran their patrol paths. It was just incidental text meant to set the tone for the area and add a little ambiance to the story. One of the lines I wrote was an homage to Kermit the Frog. In The Muppet Movie, Kermit sings a song about how ‘it’s not easy being green.’ My molemen were dark brown, so I had one of them say, ‘it’s not easy being brown.’ Innocent enough, right? Apparently not. You see, Guild Wars was localized into a dozen languages. One of those was German. It seems that in Germany, if you call yourself ‘brown’ it means you are a member of the Nazi Party. The localizers were adamant that I needed to change or remove this line from the original script. My argument was that it was their job to ‘localize’ the text into the region—meaning, if the translation was going to be offensive, they should go ahead and change it in the German, but that I simply couldn’t change the English version for every objection I received from a localizer (and believe me, I had several each and every day). They came back to me saying that German players all speak English, and they prefer to play the game in the language it was initially developed in—which meant they were going to hear the line as it was originally written and be offended by it.
“I nearly lost my cool over this. Was I really being held hostage over the word ‘BROWN?’ If I had been trying to make some sort of inappropriate, thinly veiled reference, then fine. Take it out. But this was an homage to Kermit the Frog. Does it get any more wholesome and innocent than that?”
Personally, I remain nervous but thankful when it comes to translations. And on that note, to everyone who’s ever translated me, or will ever translate me: Thank you, and be careful.
Forgotten Realms, R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen, Book I, Annihilation, Philip Athans, Wizards of the Coast, 2004.
Vergessette Reiche, R. A. Salvatore’s Der Krieg der Spinnenkönigin, Band 5, Verheerung, Translated by Jutta Swietlinski, Feder & Schwert, Mannheim, 2005.
Rotaumes Oublies, La Guerre de la Reine-Araignee V, Annihilation, Translated by Michèle Zachayus, Fleuve Noir, 2006.
Forgotten Realms, R.A. Salvatore, La Guerra Della Regina Ragno, Volume Quinto, Annihilation, Translated by Annarita Guarnieri, Gruppo Editoriale Armenia, Milano, 2004.
Forgotten Realms is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC.
Guild Wars is a trademark of NcSoft.