starshipcat (starshipcat) wrote,

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The Translator Is a Traitor

Or the problems of trying to write about another culture in a manner that both respects your source material and is accessible to the target audience. Even if you're writing original material rather than literally translating a document from a foreign language, you keep hitting places where you have to compromise things in ways that leave you feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

You don't want people who know the culture to assume you made a mistake out of ignorance, or worse, contempt. But at the same time you have to consider that the bulk of your audience really doesn't care about the fine details of the culture enough to want to deal with too many differences from the familiar and comfortable. Just the ones that are cool and interesting, especially if it's fiction rather than biography or history. The average reader would often rather that you simplify and gloss over the differences, even if it means being called out by those who are knowledgeable, for the simple reason that accuracy becomes tedious and off-putting.

So when I saw Sarah Hoyt's reprinted post on the problems of translating language and culture in fiction, I started nodding. Recently I've been working on a project that's been near and dear to my heart for many years, that has gone through innumerable rewrites without ever reaching a satisfactory point. With the rise of indie publishing, I'd thought that maybe this time I'd be able to do it right, since I wouldn't have to worry about being put through editorial hoops.

But as I'm struggling through it, I'm bogging down in it again. Part of it is the problem of small changes in one area rippling out all over the novel from one end to the other, and sometimes turning up in the most surprising place (character couldn't know that because the critical conversation happened in a different place and time than I'd originally thought it would). But some of it is wondering just how much cultural difference the average monolingual American reader is going to hold still for, especially when dealing with differences in naming patterns and forms of address that are similar but not identical to those familiar in the English-speaking world. And the culture is just well-known enough that I find other writers' mistakes intensely grating when I hit them, because it's trivially easy to find an explanation of the correct forms on the Internet.

I'm starting to wonder if it's time to set it aside again, at least for a while. There are a couple of other projects I really want to get up on KDP, because I've noticed again and again that if I go too long without releasing anything, my sales flatline on me. And if a big project like this is eating up all my time, nothing else is going to be coming out.
Tags: language, linguistics, reading, writing

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