Traitors, translation and adaptation

The title of SYMPATHY FOR THE TRAITOR: A Translation Manifesto by author and translator Mark Polizzotti is appropriately enough derived from a pun in Italian — traitor and translator sound alike in that tongue — that doesn’t translate. It sums up what Polizzotti argues is the essential challenge for translators: do they stick faithfully to the language even when the results don’t make sense or change the language to capture the feeling of the original.

Polizzotti comes down on the second option but he also discusses the case for absolute faithfulness. He also covers issues such as how much change is too much; how to translate poetry and puns where exact wording is really important; who decides what should be translated; and cultural appropriation. If someone translates a Thai novel, say, into English and replaces distinctive Thai cultural elements with English ones, are they really making it more accessible or just turning it into an English knockoff?

And what about cultural roadblocks, where what’s normal in the land of the original language would be shocking to readers of a faithful translation. Case in point, the ESV Bible eliminating “slave” in favor of “bondservant” to the point “if you read that translation you would have no idea that the original translation — and I think the most appropriate translation — would be ‘slave.'” (Fred Clark discusses this in a series of posts).

It occurred to me while reading the book that much of this applies to updating older stories and characters (e.g., League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) or giving them a cultural/gender twist.  I think it’s cool to have a free hand here — The Bad Sleep Well is an excellent film even though I’d never have pegged it for a Hamlet reworking — though cultural appropriation could be an issue (e.g., taking a Japanese drama and reworking it into an American one).

It also applies to adaptations, where I think it gets trickier. When someone turns a novel or short story into a TV show or a movie, it’s usually not feasible to do it exactly as in the original without looking awkward; however too free an adaptation will have fans of the original feeling they got ripped off. How much can you change it before you’re just doing a name-only adaptation?

As Polizzotti notes, there’s no clear rule you can use — it’s a matter of judgment and art, even if we sometimes judge wrong.

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