“Your syntax is yourself!” – My thoughts on translating literature


I recently heard about Smartling and their new translation software, which got me thinking about the subject of putting books into other languages. It’s one of those topics that keeps getting bigger the longer I think about it, particularly when it comes to books I love. 

As I scanned my bookshelf trying to decide which piece I’d like to focus on, I rediscovered this delightful book called “Things That Are,” written by Amy Leach.

 Things that Are

For those of you who haven’t read this book, it’s very difficult for me categorize. On the cover, it describes the contents as “Essays,” but I prefer to think of them more as prose poems. In these little snapshots of the world, Amy explores through metaphors and reflections different emotions and scenarios.

I had the delightful experience of attending a reading with Ms. Leach at Hollins University. During the Q&A, she got into a wonderful discussion about the power of a writer’s unique voice, which is when she shared the line that became my title for this post.

“Your syntax is yourself!” Because really, what is an author’s voice other than the way he or she decides to piece together a sentence? The order of words is what separates a dull sentence from the kind of sentence that you need to add to your literary charm bracelet so you won’t forget it.

And there lies one of the biggest challenges in translating literature, in my mind. By the very nature of languages, the syntax cannot possibly be the same. The words can be matched up to similar words, but there is so much more to translation than that. Each sentence has a kind of spirit that reflects the author’s own spirit, and it would be so easy to lose that individual and unique sound when translating.

So, if your syntax is yourself, can your syntax in another language continue to be ‘yourself’? I like to believe it can in the hands of the right translator. You would need someone to be willing to find the spirit of the sentence—crisp, or lilting, or witty, or sensual, or comforting—and find the structure in the new language that will achieve that same emotion in the reader.

It’s a difficult job, and even if I had any talent in languages, I doubt I could do it. So I have enormous respect for those who can, not to mention gratitude. If I was limited to books originally written in the English language, I would have missed out of some of my favorite stories.

Candles 022815

I’m appreciate being invited to blog about this topic, because it’s not something I’ve actively thought about until now, and it’s extremely interesting. I’d love to continue exploring this idea, so feel free to leave me a comment with your own thoughts on books and translations, and we’ll see where it takes us.    



4 responses »

  1. A translation service that made me sound like Yoda, would I spring for. Otherwise, dubious I am.

    I do like the name “smartling,” though – it sounds like a portmanteau of “smart” and “startle.” Like when a five-year-old makes a sophisticated joke, you could say you found it smartling.

  2. This is definitely an interesting topic. I’ve read classics of French literature that don’t connect with me, and I’ve often wondered if it’s because of the English translation. Of course, I’ve read English classics that I found dull as ditchwater, so it may be the content and not the wording. It’s so hard to know!

    • It really is hard to know! Impossible, actually, unless you can actually speak both languages fluently. I feel like if the content is lacking, no amount of good translating can make it readable. But at the same time, I’ve read stories where I’ve thought that I might actually like the plot, but the style was too heavy or complicated.

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