Transformational Stories of Loss and Rebirth: A Translator’s Perspective

It’s the oldest story in the book: a protagonist’s journey through metamorphosis, prompted by tragedy and loss. Tales of loss-induced self-reflection are a venerable tradition in world religions, traditional fables, and heroic myths, as well as in the modern genres of personal development and memoir. These stories occur in every culture, and have since the beginning of recorded time.  

Despite the universal import and timelessness of this category of story, these narratives are so deeply embedded and necessarily activated by culturally specific contexts and linguistic frameworks that they present a rich array of challenges for the translator. And, paradoxically, if the goal in translating such a story is to remain faithful to the original’s intent while engaging and transforming readers a world away, the story must be born anew. The translator has a mandate to transcreate in order to reach the reader—word-for-word, direct translation will not do. Transcreation allows the reader to grasp the deepest meaning of the story and be affected by it as originally intended.

In the journey from its native Danish into an English version titled King of Change, Christian Bjerring’s book Kongen underwent just such a transformation. Reflecting Bjerring’s background in Nordic philology, Kongen pays respect to great storytelling traditions as it delivers a story within a story. 

Over a period of days, an old man offers guidance to a young boy who is at the threshold of finding his path in life. The advice comes in the form of an allegorical tale about a king and his quest to regain his footing after losing his throne. Both the king’s story, as conveyed by the sage raconteur, and Bjerring’s account of the relationship between elderly man and youngster examine the issues of transience, transformation, and return.

The book is replete with descriptive, structural, and linguistic devices that play on these very themes. The seashore setting where the king’s tale unfolds for the boy, with its steady pulse of waves lapping against the beach, is itself a metaphor for the primary themes. Moreover, it echoes the pace and rhythm of Bjerring’s language.

As an antidote to the frenzied pace of our times—which the otherwise happy nation of Denmark increasingly suffers from along with the rest of the world—Bjerring’s original text calms the native reader with its rhythm, ushering him or her into a relaxed, contemplative state of mind. The story’s diction adheres to classic conventions of Danish in its easy conversational dialogue, simple vocabulary and formulations, and pragmatic points of view—all of which eschew and limit materialism, pretense, and hierarchy, with the aim of keeping the individual balanced, attuned, and resolutely down-to-earth.

Against this contemplative, soothing backdrop, Bjerring delivers aphorisms super-charged with meaning and guidance for living life. They burst into relief—not merely sticking in the reader’s mind but also inviting the reader to infuse them with his or her own meaning and render them applicable to his or her own life.

The translated version exhibits palpable differences in multiple registers. To begin with, the baseline tempo speeds up ever so slightly to capture the attention and maintain the focus of the reader of American English, and sentences that were short in Danish in order to create thoughtful and contemplative pauses are now lengthier, to generate appropriate rhythm and flow.

Original:

Drengen var nået til det sted i livet, hvor han var halvt barn, halvt voksen. På den ene side elskede han sine forældre højt for alt, hvad de var og gjorde. På den anden side så han nu også deres fejl og utilstrækkelighed mere og mere tydeligt. Han så alt det, han selv gerne ville gøre anderledes. Han så forskellene på det, de sagde, og det, de gjorde, og han så, hvordan de var fanget i et indviklet spind af forpligtelser og forventninger, der hver dag fjernede deres opmærksomhed fra det, som betyder noget. At spise sammen. At have tid til at tale sammen. At være sammen.

Drengen syntes, at de glemte at lægge mærke til de mange små, gode ting i livet, som var lige omkring dem, fordi de koncentrerede sig om alt det, der kom udefra. Sene aftaler, pressede tidsfrister og nyheder gjorde, at både hans far og mor levede i en verden med alt for mange bekymringer. Drengen håbede, at han selv ville undgå at blive afledt fra det væsentlige, når han en dag blev voksen.


Direct translation:

The boy had reached a place in life where he was half-child, half-adult. On one side he loved his parents tremendously for all that they were and did. On the other side he now also saw their mistakes and weaknesses more and more clearly. He saw everything that he wanted to do differently himself. He saw the difference between what they said and what they did, and he saw how they were caught in a complicated web of obligations and expectations, which every day removed their attention from that which means something. To eat together. To be together.

The boy thought that they forgot to pay attention to the many small, good things in life that were right around them, because they focused themselves on everything that came from outside. Late appointments, pressing deadlines and news resulted in both his father and mother living in a world with way too many worries. The boy hoped that he himself would avoid being lead away from what was important when he one day became adult.


Final version:

Still part child but already half adult, the boy genuinely loved his mother and father for everything they were and did, yet their foibles and inadequacies were becoming increasingly apparent to him. In them, he saw all the things that he wished to do differently himself: the discrepancies between what they said and what they did, and how being entangled in a web of obligations and expectations on any given day pried their attention away from what truly mattered—like eating together, speaking to each other, and making time simply to be with each other. The boy saw how they forgot to pay attention to the many amazing things that surrounded them because their focus was on all that rushed in from outside. Late appointments, pressing deadlines, troubling news, and the like trapped his mom and dad in a world with way too many worries. The boy hoped he would know how to avoid being pulled away from what he knew was important.

To ensure the reader would not be distracted or nudged off course by cultural differences, culturally specific details unique to Denmark and the Danish language needed, case by case, to be simplified, explained, universalized, or erased. Likewise, gaps in meaning that surfaced only in English, not necessarily present in the original, had to be filled. For instance, the Danish word sommerhus (summer house), referring to where the boy and his parents reside during the summer season and freighted with the many connotations it holds for Danes, is distilled into “cottage”—a word that is significantly more generic.

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By contrast, the home of the old man, his sortbejdsede bjælkehytte (black-stained log cabin), metamorphoses into a “humble, weather-worn log cabin.” Only a reader very familiar with Danish culture would grasp the social and historical significance of the cabin’s black color, so it is those aspects rather than a strictly visual image that the English needs to convey. Accordingly, various connotations of the original sortbejdsede bjælkehytte get spelled out with descriptors conveying the underlying meaning of the original. Had the word choice been merely direct, readers of other backgrounds would be without access to the deeper meaning, potentially leaving them with questions that could not be answered. That would have compromised the flow, as well as the state of mind from which the story’s wisdom is meant to emerge and take root.

While the reader’s experience of a work of inspirational fiction such as King of Change is certainly also shaped by the architecture and content of the story, translators and lovers of literature have rightly argued that a failure to faithfully render the nuances of tone, meaning, and presentation in stories of loss and transformation drastically alters the reader’s perspective. A fine, and famous, example is the oft-debated translation of Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. First ushered from its native French into English by British scholar Stuart Gilbert, the initial translation of the title and opening line have long been criticized for failing to portray key subtleties of tone and perspective.

The meaning of the first sentence,“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte,” is simple enough for any novice speaker to understand, but Gilbert’s direct translation, “Mother died today,” simply fails to portray the intended meaning. The story follows the experiences of a young man most concerned with living in the moment, but also deeply connected to the well-being of his somewhat dependent mother, with whom he shares a complex  relationship defined by difficulties in both communication and expression of emotion.

But whereas all of this is quite elegantly communicated in the French within one sentence, Gilbert’s literal translation alters the character’s order of thought (first for today, then for maman), as well as creating false distance between subjects through the use of the literally accurate but more formal English word Mother. Critics recognized this as immediately influencing the reader toward perspectives not intended by Camus in his original text, and later pushed for more representative phrasing. But not until Matthew Ward’s most recent transcreation, published by Vintage in 1988, did the formal reference revert to the warmer and more appropriate Maman. (Read here for a deeper dive into this particular translation.)

Arthur Goldhammer, notable translator of much of Camus’s work, may have been correct when he scoffed at the idea that “good translation requires some sort of mystical sympathy between author and translator,” but it is apparent that stories driven by deep emotion are often drastically altered by their literary translation. Working co-creatively, in collaboration, with an author, as King of Change’s translator did, allows those myriad deviations to be thoroughly vetted and their deeper meanings securely anchored. Original intentions are not only respected but may even be more fully realized, as the collaboration enables the author to consider the story’s meaning and significance from a new linguistic vantage point, that is, through the translator’s eyes.

When translators fail to pay careful attention to tone, setting, and nuance, their disregard can result in the alteration of the intended message. And that is an unforgivable failure in the genre of transformative literature, whose stories are precisely crafted to immerse readers in the environment, emotions, and perspectives of their protagonist, so that they might also benefit from the hero’s experience of metamorphosis and rebirth.

The point of transformative literature such as Camus’s L’Étranger and Bjerring’s King of Change is to transfer the author’s wisdom through the lens of lived experience and to provide the reader an opportunity to reflect on and reshape his or her own life. Regardless of whether the portrayal is factual or fictional, the objective is to engage the reader and and grant him or her a valuable new perspective. If the nuance of experience is lost in translation, the true message is lost on the reader—and metamorphosis fails at every level.