June 5, 2007 - 2:08am
Imagine rewriting every sentence in a novel 50 times before you finally get it right. While that may seem a bit daunting, Malaspina University-College professor Katharina Rout enjoys the challenge and often finds herself lost in translation work.
Rout recently translated The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag, the third book she has translated from German to English in the last ten years.
“Translating is very gratifying for me,” said Rout. “I love words and I love books. Translating these works allows me to build bridges between cultures.”
Rout, a professor in the English department at Malaspina, immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1987. Her first translation work took place in 1998 when she translated the novel Seductions by Marlene Streeruwitz. That novel, a feminist portrait of a young woman who tries to live a self-determined, satisfying life despite many obstacles, was an enjoyable challenge for Rout.
“In Seductions, sentence fragments were used to express a sense of breathlessness. The challenge when translating is making sure it doesn’t sound choppy. Every sentence you write is an interpretation because there are no equivalencies of language. In the end, it may be a different sentence, but the overall meaning will be there.”
Rout’s second translation work was Love in a Time of Terror (2005) by Ulla Berkewicz, a love story that is also a spy novel and a thriller that deals with political, religious and class issues. Unlike Seductions, this novel used long rambling sentences and had many other challenges for Rout as a translator.
“I had to make sense of that expanse of writing and found myself rewriting some sentences 40 or 50 times. It’s an incredibly layered novel with a theme of inclusiveness, so the language I used also had to be inclusive. It was a bigger challenge to translate from a syntactical point of view.”
There are many other challenges Rout faces when translating. Not only does she need a clear literary analysis of the books, she must consider each and every single word to make sure she has made the right choice.
“I write down a sentence, think of all the verbs that could be used, then write them all down, even if there are 12 or more (for example – run/sprint/dash/jog). There are usually a dozen or more sentence options for each sentence in the first draft and every one gets revised around fifty times. When I go back, I delete several options, refine them and go on to the next page. There’s no way to even guess how many drafts are involved. Even if I’m 200 pages into a book, I’ll realize that a certain word doesn’t work properly, so I’ll go back and change it.”
Rout’s recent translation of Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky beautifully describes the author’s early childhood in the High Altai Mountains of Northern Mongolia.
In 2004, Rout spent the summer in Mongolia and travelled to the High Altai mountains where Tschinag lives part of the year. That experience changed the translation considerably as she came to understand and appreciate the finer details of his life in that part of the world. The Blue Sky, which came out in September 2006, is different from the other books Rout has translated because German is Tschinag’s fourth language and because his use of language is shaped by the oral traditions of his people.
“No one else speaks German the way he does,” said Rout. “When translating, I had to ask myself how to make it resonate in the English language, but still keep the differences in culture intact without losing the reader. The language he uses is a hybrid language shaped from those oral traditions.”
While Rout enjoyed the challenge of translating each of these books, she has come to realize her greatest strength in life is that of a bridge builder, someone who helps open doors and build bridges between cultures. That role is one that comes with a great deal of hard work and dedication.
“I just look for a book that I love,” said Rout. “As a translator, I have to love it or I don’t want to touch it. Translating is very intimate - you live with that book for months or years. Sometimes, I think I’ll never get it right and then one day, it happens. Finding the right word, the perfect word is the most fun of all.”
Katharina Rout is currently working on The Grey Earth, which is the second volume of Galsan Tschinag’s trilogy.
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