Death By Translation

Ryan Licata is a current MFA student.  You can see more of his writing at Little King Scrolls.

I grew up in Benoni, South Africa, where one day, sitting in detention, a quiet shiny eyed kid named Karl at the desk next to mine snuck a book out from his satchel and slipped it over to me. Irving’s The World According to Garp, written in the year of my birth, came as a revelation. I wanted to tell stories just like it. And I knew then that I wanted to write.


The expression lost in translation holds true for many people living in a multilingual society where what one means to say and what one actually says are often worlds apart. Speaking a foreign language can sometimes be a process of cut and paste whereby one lifts familiar phrases from one’s own language, translates them directly, and then offers them around like a host sending out the hors d’oeuvres at a G8 dinner, hoping that they will be to everybody’s taste. Yes, in many cases, such linguistic faux pas do lead to interesting discoveries that enrich a language. Indeed, writers who choose to adopt a foreign language, such as Nabokov, bring new life to literature: rummaging through the lexical attics, they dust off the old words, shine them up and set them newly upon the shelf.

Much then can be said for the creativity of crossovers in literature, where things are found rather than lost in translation.

However, I would argue that this pertains only to freshly baked literature, those first time recipes of a serendipitous nature, and not to a literature that, in the altering, requires a surgeon’s unwavering hand, and a mirror, too.

I would once read the stories of Marquez or the poems of Paz without a thought as to how the English versions might differ from the Spanish originals. It was only in the role of translator that I really began to question the nature of equivalency in books. An unsuspecting reader might assume when picking up Murakami’s 1Q84, that the book they were about to read was the equivalent of the original. However, Jay Rubin, the longtime translator of Murakami’s work, suggests that the opposite is true. In a recent interview with The New Yorker Magazine, Rubin said: ‘I strongly advise people not to read literature in translation because I know what happens in the process […] Everything they’re reading has been filtered through the brain of the translator. And it’s his words they’re reading.’


Most readers would find Rubin’s comment unsettling: a poststructuralist nightmare whereby all the great works of literature from Cervantes to Dostoevsky to Bolaño are only as good as their translators. A bona fide translator may endeavour to transcribe exactly the text of the original author, but inevitably he brings his own interpretation and own language system to that work. In terms of the 1976 Barthes essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, the translated text then is no longer the same text simply because the author is no longer the same author.

The translator is also a reader, albeit one who attempts to step into an author’s shoes – wishing to replace him in Borgesian fashion or at least to imitate him. But the nature of language does not allow for such singular activities and so all that the translator can do is interpret, as best he can, the designs of language, aware of the changes made upon it by time and space. It may seem like a truism to say that translation is determined by language, yet the translator does face the difficult task of interpreting a language governed by the influences of social, historical and cultural constraints, based upon the underlying currents of language itself.

How then should we as readers approach this idea that what we want is not exactly what we are going to get? The work of a translator is one of making ‘choices’ within given perimeters, and as lovers of world literature it is a return to Babel; we must simply trust that the choices are the right ones.

London, 13 October 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Translating a book to movie presents its own unique challenges to story. There are problems concerning how to be faithful to the characters and plot. But the medium itself has its own unique challenges. Just as a single word can change the meaning within a sentence—and through that the meaning of a paragraph, a chapter, a character, the story—the way that a movie scene is edited can affect the same things.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is about a mole hunt within the highest levels of the British intelligence. The original novel is by John le Carré, and the recent movie adaptation is directed by Thomas Alfredson. The climax of both novel and movie is when Smiley, the awkward middle-aged retired intelligence officer, discovers just exactly who the mole is. The climax of the movie is relatively faithful to the same scene in the novel, except in one very important way.


In the novel, we have both Smiley’s point of view, and the point of view of Smiley’s assistant Guillam. Smiley discovers who the mole is when he hears the mole’s voice through a planted microphone, and Guillam makes the discovery a few seconds later when they both enter the room the mole is in. We are given Smiley’s disbelief, his “angry doubt,” his resentment, how he is “deceived in love and impotent in hate” at this mole’s betrayal of him both as a man and as a spy. Guillam’s feelings are simpler, but still given to us: Guillam had looked up to the mole as a role model, only to discover that he had been responsible for the deaths of people under Guillam’s command.


The movie stays with this general sequence of events—Smiley hears the voice, Guillam makes the discovery when he enters the room. But in the movie, it is not clear whose voice we are hearing, nor are we shown Smiley’s reaction to it. Instead, we are given the discovery solely from Guillam’s point of view in a slow-motion camera pan showing a stunned Guillam, a very calm Smiley already present in the room and, finally, the mole himself. The emotions are no longer there, the physical action of entering the room is absent, and we lose the point of view of Smiley entirely.


The feeling we are left with is one of being unsatisfied. Such a crucial moment in the story has been reduced to merely being glossed over. The buildup is left unfulfilled. While the time devoted to the reveal is proportionately more in the movie compared to a few quick pages in the novel, it is the novel that has the emotional punch.


I have few complaints about the movie otherwise: the acting is superb, especially Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong, and Gary Oldman certainly gets a nod as Smiley. It also stays relatively faithful to the overall storyline, though some arbitrary changes are made that only take up more screen time than necessary. But if there is a cinematic rival to le Carré’s novel, it is not this movie but the BBC’s 1979 adaptation with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley.


One word of warning: if you plan to see the movie, don’t watch the miniseries first. While Gary Oldman is wonderful, there’s no comparison to Alec Guinness’s awkward, aging, yet brilliant Smiley.


–Alexandra Little



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