Thursday, May 19, 2005

Last in Translation, Or After Many a Summer Grows the List?


Last week was a bad week and a good week for this reader of the NY Times Book Review. The bad part is my list of books to read got enlarged by two more titles and I'm way behind, wey. The good part is my list of books to read got enlarged by two -- or more -- titles and I'll find way, wey. First, I noticed an article on Hector Tobar's Translation Nation and Gregory Rabassa’s, If this Be Treason. Translation and Its Dyscontents. A Memoir.

I know Tobar from his novel, The Tattooed Soldier , that deserves reading. Antonio discovers his family massacred in their hut. Fearing the assassins will find him if he remains in Guatemala, Antonio boards the first bus out of town. From the window he spots the assassin but escapes notice and flees to Los Angeles. Longoria, the tattooed assassin, as a teenager, was kidnapped from his village and trained to be a government killer, also ends up in Los Angeles. Antonio's life continues an aimless downward spiral until one day, the bitter refugee is observing the old men playing chess at MacArthur Park in LA. When he spies Longoria's tattoo from that day at the bus station, Antonio plans his revenge, which comes with the madness of the Rodney King riots. Tobar wrote such a masterly novel that I told myself, "Self, you gotta check out Hector's nonfiction work." So I added Translation Nation to the list, despite the Times reviewer’s reservations.

Gregory Rabassa's story grows out of being the translator of Latin American luminaries like Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel Garcia Marquez Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, Antonio Lobo Antunes. Garcia Marquez is reported to prefer the English translation to his Spanish original of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Hence Rabassa's title.

Should you trust translation? My wife and I laugh at memories of a week we spent in Tokyo learning to mistrust translators. It was the week I was on R&R from Korea. She flew across the Pacific to join me. We attended a production of Hair, in Japanese. The program had the English lyrics with Japanese translations. Lengthy passages were translated with a few chracters; in other songs, a brief line required several lines of Japanese script. They left in all the "la la la’s". Then we attended a subtitled On Her Majesty's Secret Service. There's James Bond cussing out a bad guy for several hundred words. The subtitles: a couple of Japanese characters. The the bad guy spits out something threatening in a brief speech. The subtitles: lengthy collections of characters. We laughed and enjoyed the spectacle. It was the best part of a bad movie at a bad time.

I'm sure that's the point. If you like it, does it matter what you might be missing? Should I challenge myself to read One Hundred Years in Spanish, if the author thinks the translation is a better book? Then, there’s the problem that, having read Rabassa’s story, I’m gonna have to read all those other guys, too. Gonna be a busy summer.

OK, pues, hay les wachamos.


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