506 words on Books
After seeing the film Populärmusik från Vittula and seeing that people are split on whether its better or worse than the book by Mikael Niemi it’s based on, I decided to read the book. Not the original Swedish version though, just a German translation.
And while certain parts of the story are more fleshed out in the book, I ended up siding with those who think the film is better. (Go figure whether that’s just because I saw the film first! I suggest reading the book first, then seeing the film and then letting me know your opinion.) The first reason for that is that the film focuses on – and exaggerates – an aspect that I liked in the book while neglecting some which I found a bit boring. A good choice for me, at least.
And then there’s the language. And that could totally be a problem of the translation. German is a strange language and I find that many things end up sounding much more explicit, technical and cumbersome when they’re translated to German. Or rather, that it takes a really good translator to have a German translation that flows smoothly.
Even in the much more humble area of localising software I’ve seen that problem. I often find German localisations to look and sound overly technical and only very few localisations end up looking non-technical enough to be fit for human consumption. [Cue in Apple’s (that’s Apple in the 1980s) strike of genius here to localise the ‘File’ menu as ‘Ablage’ (i.e. ‘place to put things’) rather than as ‘Datei’ (which just means ‘file’ in the computery sense) as companies like Adobe or Microsoft do even in their Mac applications. The same holds for localising ‘Save’ as ‘Sichern’ (more like ‘secure’) rather than ‘Speichern’ (store).] But to get good localisations you sometimes need to step back a little and potentially change things from a literal translation. And do get that done in a good way – even in the small localisation projects I’ve done – you really need a developer (the guy who came up with the original terminology) who’s willing to explain to you what all the terms he uses are supposed to do and then he needs to trust you enough to let you do a non-literal localisation. And all this while the ‘you’ in the story needs to be rather knowledgeable in the environment the localisation is done for, know standard terminology and so on. – … which is why I suspect that the English and Japanese localisations of GeburtstagsChecker aren’t particularly good. I did them with my flatmates back then who were native speakers and got all the explanations they needed but who had never used a Mac before.
And thus possibly because of the translation – I found that the book frequently sounds like a school book, rather than literature. Having many very formal sentences which don’t feel like a smooth novel at all.
I read it in Swedish and am here to tell you, in Swedish the book is hilarious in the grand tradition of northern laconic humor. I can well imagine that it would not translate at all well into German. As you say, German tends to make things sound technical, also German is bulky and wordy and explanatory. Swedish is extremely good at terse, laconic irony. So the two languages actually rush off in different directions. It’s simple to translate German to Swedish since Swedish can be made to sound wordy if you want, but well-nigh impossible to translate in the other direction, since the strucure of German forces it to be wordier. Plus, of course, the very name “Vittula” is automatically funny in Swedish, since in both Sw and Finnish it sounds (and is) obscene. In German and English it’s just another name.
My $ 0.02 worth.
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