Translation: A Constant Act of Balancing Words

by Lea-Marie Schneider

Translation can be done in several ways with different emphases and different theories in mind. The focus we had was based on one of Walkowitz’s theories about the Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (Walkowitz 2015) which critically engages with the global dominance of English written novels. Born translated novels are written to be translated or even as if they are already translated. Those texts are treated either “as medium and origin rather than as afterthought” (Walkowitz 3-4) translations and mostly “pretend[…] to take place in a language other than the one in which they have been composed” (Walkowitz 4). The focus of the seminar was to engage with the Anglophone Arab Novel and how the authors managed to write their stories in English with contexts and plots that are tied to another culture. Those various forms of translation that happened in the process of writing of the authors are impacting the understanding of a potential readership who possibly do not have knowledge about the Arabic cultures, values, or habits.

The excerpt that was translated by us as a group was taken from the novel The Moor’s Account (2015) written by the author Laila Lalami. Our translation was mainly informed by Rebecca Walkowitz’s Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (2015). The novel is a historical fictional narrative and tells the story of Mustafa ibn Muhammad, a Moroccan slave who explores La Florida with a Castilian exploration crew and his owner. First, we agreed to stay as close to the original text as possible and tried to keep the meaning and the mood the source text conveys. This required us to consider the overall context of the novel and the context of the particular part that was to be translated. The fact that the novel’s genre is that of historical fiction was also a big part of the translation in terms of word choices. For example, the word “treasurer” (Lalami 47) can be translated into the word “Kämmerer” or “Schatzmeister”. The second possibility seemed more natural as a word choice because the novel is a historical fictional narrative and therefore ancient terminology fits more into the overall context. We also decided to keep the Spanish words and names as they are without translating them into German. For example, the Spanish word “Señor” (Lalami 47) was kept and was not translated into the German version Senior. This reminds the potential reader of other languages and places and possibly expands the view of the superiority of a language. As translators we always had to be aware of the grammar of both languages, the target and the source language. Changing the word order sometimes caused problems and changed the whole meaning. The sense was sometimes lost in translation but could be restored by the position of several words. Sometimes even the usage of metaphorical sentences is problematic and could cause misunderstandings. Therefore, we agreed upon a less metaphorical style and translated “he never said it to the treasurers face” (Lalami 47) into “in Abwesenheit des Schatzmeisters”.

The process of translation was a permanent balance of what makes the most sense and what keeps the implied mood of the novel. Even if in the position of the translator one tries to preserve as much meaning as possible with the willingness to keep the sentence structure, there are always compromises and decisions to be made. It is surprising how much one person can think about the choice of a word out of five options and how much time one paragraph can consume. Even though you are not the writer of the novel the decisions that you make can affect the novel and the meaning of the whole translation.

Works Cited

Lalami, Laila. The Moor’s Account. Vintage; Reprint Edition, 2015.
Walkowitz, Rebecca. Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.