A multilingual perspective

Yesterday, someone asked me how my Spanish, Portuguese and French skills are, because those are the languages used most in the mining industry, apart from English (of course). Suffice to say, I could only respond with “pretty poor”, because the other languages in which I am fluent are English (of course), Afrikaans, German and Dutch. For me, literature and technical information in any other language is, pardon the pun, a closed book.

I wish this were not so, because being able to read a book in the language in which it was originally written connects you directly – mind to mind – with the writer, and places you in the culture, history and sensory experiences of that writer’s world without any reinterpretations or limitations.

Every language has something unique – it could be in the syntax, the semantics, the phonetics, or the vocabulary, and that element is impossible to translate perfectly into another language.

For instance, Dutch has many uses for the diminutive, and many subtle meanings attached to each variant. (I wrote about this in my review of the English translation of Gerard Reve’s novel, De Avonden, translated as The Evenings.) But those diminutives just sound weird in English.

I wish I knew more languages

I would have loved to be able to read and understand the works of Gabriel García Márquez in the original Colombian Spanish. Being able to read the song names and lyrics of the talented Belorussian composer and guitar virtuoso, Valery Mikhailovich Didula, would have made me appreciate his music even more. (Luckily my husband understands Russian and could translate for me.) I will never know whether the tankas of Lady Murasaki are as beautiful or as meaningful in English, as they are in the original Japanese. And let me not get into my problems with the English translations of novels written in Mandarin Chinese.

Unfortunately, things rather often get lost in translation, but if you only know the translated version, how would you know that something is wrong or missing? In fact, unless you checked, or knew it beforehand, or noticed it on the cover, you might not even know that what you are reading is a translation.

I realized this recently, after I had learned a bit of music notation. I watched a program about the symbolism in a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, made in 1533, called “The Ambassadors”. In that painting almost everything has symbolic value, including a book which is open to what looks like a music score. I pored over that item until my eyes were squint. I was determined to make sense of that score. And wouldn’t you know it, what most art historians and analysts say it is, and how they interpret it, is in fact not correct or is just half the story! (But this three-language-mystery is for another post.)

The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein. (Even paintings can be incorrectly interpreted. In this case the problem lies in the translation of that music score in the book that lies on the table, to the right, in front of the lute.)

Guess which books have been translated the most

Recently, researcher Nicolette Filson published detailed infographics about the most-translated books in the world, sorted by country, on the language learning platform Preply. It’s quite amusing to check out the maps and try to find books that you have read.

A few of these maps have also been reposted on Bookriot.com. The research comes from WorldCat Library, the world’s largest database of books held in libraries.

The findings published by Preply included that, overall “…children’s literature dominat[ed] the first positions. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint- Exupéry is the number one. It currently holds the Guinness record for the most translated author for the same book.” It’s been translated into more than 382 languages. And in South Africa, oddly, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is the most translated book (59 languages). That is simply because the author was born there.

(Before you simply accept these findings at face value, I suggest you have a look at the raw data of the project to see which criteria were used – link in the caption to the image, below.)

Most translated books in Asian countries, according to Preply (image retrieved Apr. 21, 2022) Here’s the link to the press release on the results and the research methodology, and you can download the raw data from this link.

The problem with translations

I know that translation is a sticky problem for all writers, once their book’s distribution is set to expand to the international market: which language, by whom, in which style, with which parameters, and using which methods? Some authors work with the translators to make sure that the recreated work is to their satisfaction, while others remain at arms’ length and only give input when there is a problem.

TAN Twan Eng, author of The Garden of Evening Mists, often posts on Facebook about the many translations of his novel as well as the film version. If you look at the bottom row of text boxes in the infographic, above, you’ll see The Garden of Evening Mists is the most translated book in Malaysia, where TAN was born and where he now lives. It has been translated into than 11 languages.

The author posted this amusing comment about the book’s translation on Facebook:

“I appreciate it when translators working on translating my books take the trouble to ask me questions about the text in order to produce the most accurate translation. Recently the Japanese translator working on the Japanese edition of “The Garden of Evening Mists” sent me a list of questions, and I had a good chuckle at one of the questions [below] he posed. And when I asked a friend what the Chinese characters mean, I laughed out loud.” – TTE 

Tan Twan Eng, Facebook, August 5, 2021

What do you think a “ka-chooi” is – his butt? (I Googled it – typing the search term in Roman alphabet doesn’t work.)

It’s the subtleties, innuendos, slang, informal use, emotion, and the unique personal expression (or idiolect) of the author’s language, that make translation of fiction, and particularly poetry, much more difficult than reference works or non-fiction. In non-fiction works, the language is often neutral and industry standard and thus easier to translate. But with fiction, the translator has to become the author, so to speak, and at the very least, get into their head.

So, the more languages you can understand, the more you will be able to expand your knowledge of literature, and the more there will be for you to appreciate, understand and enjoy. And it’s never too late, by the way. Yes, after your teenage years it’s not so easy any more, but it can be done.

World languages dominate publishing

I am sometimes asked why I do not review novels written in Afrikaans (any more), since Afrikaans is my other mother tongue. My point of view on this is that Afrikaans, like Dutch, is a language constricted to a region, not an international language, and not a lingua franca. It is spoken as a mother tongue by about 7.2 million people in South Africa and Namibia, and by more than 10 million speakers as a second language. It is a language independent from Dutch, one of the languages from which it developed centuries ago. But Dutch, by comparison, is spoken by a far greater number of people, more than 25 million.

However, those numbers are but a mere drop in the ocean compared to, for instance, Mandarin Chinese, which has more than 920 million native speakers and more than 200 million second language speakers, and English, which is has more than 400 million native speakers, and more than 750 million English second language speakers, and more than 700 million english as a foreign language speakers.

Bubble chart of languages by proportion of native speakers worldwide. Sources and research varies, but this bubble shows that the dominant world languages are Mandarin, Spanish and English, directly related by the size of the population that speaks it. (c. 2015, source: Wikipedia, retrieved Aug. 21, 2022)

Any language stays a living language if it is in common daily use, if the number of people using it increases, if the vocabulary keeps up generating new words for new things and ideas, if the language is used in science and teaching, and if it is used in the arts, in writing, music and films. If a language is a lingua franca, the common language used between people with different mother tongues, then it will also stay in use, from necessity. Fanakalo was such a hybrid language, invented and used on the mines in South Africa until the workers could all communicate in English and then people stopped using it. It was a pretty effective lingua franca in an industry where a misunderstood instruction could put your life at risk. I still have a rare, original Fanakalo phrase book.

Authors should therefore consider in which countries they want to make their books available, and in which languages. (For instance, it would be more straightforward to translate a haute cuisine recipe book into French, than, let’s say, German – because many cooking terms are French in any case.) Nevertheless, an author might think that, considering the subject of their book, readers in other countries and cultures would not be interested and therefore the cost of translation is not warranted. I thought so too, until a music publication executive reminded me that with today’s internet connections and blended platforms, you never can tell where, or why, or how someone might find your work appealing.

The problems with Afrikaans

These things are problems with Afrikaans: it is limited to the population that speaks it, which is shrinking, and compared with the rest of the world, it is used to a far lesser degree. It is also negatively associated with the Apartheid regime. There is no point really, in promoting a book written in Afrikaans with a review, here in North America. The review itself has to be in English as well to have any relevance. There is no market here for books in Afrikaans – not even the small number of expats or academics. Though it saddens me, I know that Afrikaans will probably die, as has happened to many languages.

By the way, do not think that me knowing four languages – including one dying one – is unusual. For someone from South Africa I am not as multilingual as most South Africans are. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and it is perfectly normal for people to be at least bilingual in two of the eleven major languages. But most people are actually trilingual:
1. Their own indigenous mother tongue, for instance isiZulu, the dominant Nguni language (∼12 million speakers) +
2. Another language in the same language group, for instance isiXhosa, the second most dominant Nguni language (∼8 million speakers) +
3. English and/or Afrikaans and/or a language from the other large language group, Sotho-Tswana, such as Southern Sotho (Sesotho sa Borwa). In which case, they could end up speaking four different languages.

When I was a language trainer, I noticed that if someone was a migrant worker from one of the neighbouring countries, for instance, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia or Mozambique, they would likely have their own mother tongue plus, very quickly, a couple more South African ones. I think that their learning speed was driven by necessity – but they were also eager to learn. I can tell you it was quite a pleasant surprise the first time I met a student from Namibia who spoke mother tongue Ovambo, but also English, and fluent and beautifully accented German – better than mine! I was very impressed, not because I had expected them to be a worse speaker than me, but because they were fluent in such a wide array of languages.

An unstringed violin

I feel about Afrikaans like “Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk” says about English to “King Richard II”, in William Shakespeare’s play:

“The language I have learnt these forty years,
My native English, now I must forgo;
And now my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.”

William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

Most books written in Afrikaans do not get translated and reach other countries – no matter how acclaimed they are. It’s not a matter of subject or quality. It’s simply that it makes no sense. A case in point is the poetry collection called Comas from a Bamboo Stick – or Pole – in Afrikaans, Komas uit ‘n Bamboesstok, published in 1979. Written in Afrikaans by award-winning poet, D.J. Opperman, who died in 1985, it is a highly praised and studied work. But, to the best of my knowledge, it has never been translated from Afrikaans.

Komas uit ‘n Bamboesstok, by D.J. Opperman, Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 1979

Translating a difficult poem

When I was writing the music for my album, Thermós, the poetry in “Comas From a Bamboo Pole” was one of my many sources of inspiration – because these things come out of your Mr. Potato Head Bin of random memories. To show you why I remember this particular collection, I have loosely translated a few lines from it into English, below. Afrikaans readers will notice that the poem has evocative imagery, and clever poetic techniques such as puns and alliteration.

What did I understand of this when I studied it as a young student? Nothing. I had no experience of the world and did not understand a fraction of the literary and historical references in different languages with which Opperman had loaded the poems in this collection.

“Tai Khoen” – the title of this particular poem – I just found out, has nothing to do with Kublai Khan or China or Marco Polo, as I’d always believed! It could refer to people of a specific region of Myanmar. But now it’s just one more example of something that got lost in translation as well as in transliteration.


– by D. J. Opperman

“We bring back three plumes of fiery tobacco leaves,
lumps of minerals, verses in strange sheaves,
salts, letters and journals, new grapevine species,
stories to shock you, and a travel treatise.
Before the great Mongol we’ve knelt in fetters;
his green eyes gleamed of gems and metals.”

The original Afrikaans verse is:

 - D.J. Opperman, Komas uit 'n Bamboesstok (1979)

"Ons bring drie pluime vurige tabakblare, 
gerwe vreemde verse, klonte minerale,
fosfate, briewe, joernale, nuwe kultivare
van die wingerd, reis- en skokverhale.
Voel voor die groot Mongool die mens verdwyn
in die groen oë se skeel kyk van myn en dyn." 

About the header:

A screenshot from the 2003 romantic comedy, Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

%d bloggers like this: