Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Translations and adaptations

Recent adaptations of classic literature for television dramatisation have left me wondering about the role of the adapter. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an adapter is a person who makes slight changes to a book, play or other piece of text so that it can be performed. What word, I wonder, should we use for a person who makes major changes to a book so that it can attract a large television audience?

In my early years of teaching, I used to collaborate with a colleague on adapting children's stories for performance in school. We always kept in mind the authentic voice of the author, only making those changes necessary for narrative to become dialogue and for the action to take place within a limited time. Even when we had a go at a musical adaptation of 'The Selfish Giant' the work obviously belonged to Oscar Wilde and not Butcher and Graham. I know that our audience never numbered more than a hundred but we felt the same responsibility towards our production as we would had we been writing for the London stage.

We saw in the recent production of Cranford that it is possible to make quite significant changes to a work, in this case three books, and still retain the integrity of the original. The same cannot be said of other television adaptations, where the behaviour of characters is changed, new characters and storyline are introduced and even, in some cases, the end of the story completely changed from that of the original book. Take, for instance, the recent Andrew Davies adaptation of Sense and Sensibility: much of the dramatic tension of the novel lies in the reader's ignorance of Willoughby's true nature and his connection with Colonel Brandon, yet Davies' adaptation opens with the seduction of Brandon's ward by Willoughby. Is this Andrew Davies improving on Jane Austen?

I'm sure that in a previous age, when honesty and integrity were quite commonplace virtues, programmes such as Lark Rise to Candleford would have been presented as having been 'based on an idea by Flora Thompson'. Then we would not expect to find a feckless Dawn French character, a benevolent squire with an unhappy wife or two communities pacing out the distance between hamlet and town in the book of the same name.

he role of the adapter is very different from that of the translator. I have been thinking a good deal about this since reading Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, translated by Sandra Smith. The book is so beautifully written that I wondered how much of that is attributable to the author and how much to the translator. Here is what Sandra Smith has to say about translating:
Translation is always a daunting task, especially when the translator has so much respect and affection for the author. It is also a creative task that often requires 'leaps of faith': a feeling for tone, sensing the author's intention, taking the liberty to interpret and sometimes to correct.
I suppose I must brush up my rusty French and look to the original in order to make a real judgement, but my instinct tells me that this book is true to the author's intention. I am looking forward to reading more of Irene Nemirovsky's books, all translated by Sandra Smith: Fire in the Blood, Le Bal and David Golder are on my reading list for 2008.

I've been playing around with semantics all day: adaptation, interpretation, translation, transliteration. Then on to concepts and qualities: integrity, honesty, authenticity, leaps of faith and taking of liberties. I'm too lazy to read books in their original language but I want to know that the translator is trustworthy. I love costume dramas and I think the works of Dickens and Trollope, in particular, lend themselves to dramatisation but I want to recognise the characters and events portrayed. Perhaps there should be a Code of Conduct for those engaged in this work.


  1. Fascinating meditations on a theme, M. The problem of translation is even more acute in poetry. Only yesterday, I was trying to find via Google the English version of Rilke's Liebeslied with which I am familiar. I couldn't find it, but I found lots of others - and how they differed! I don't read German, so how will I ever know which one captures the 'true meaning' of the original? Five of them are here - see what I mean?

  2. The more I've been thinking about translation, the more I've realised what a complex task it is. The translator is responsible to the author and to the reader and I think this must be particularly difficult when translating something written in another period.
    I'm sometimes asked to interpret for a deaf pupil or friend if there is no official interpreter present. I could simply give the English meaning of each sign but that wouldn't convey the intention or feelings of the person but that takes me into the realm of my personal judgement. Nightmare territory for me! How much worse to find that judgement in print.

  3. Lost in translation isn't a cliché for nothing, but we must trust translators or never read anything written in a language in which we aren't proficient.

    All you say about rewriting is so true and even with the best of intentions, the writer's meaning may be distorted, but that is forgivable.

    What I find unforgivable is deliberately skewing the meaning to fit the politics of the day.

  4. I have very much enjoyed reading your last few posts on adaptations,having 'popped' over from Juliet's lovely Muddy Island.
    I suppose experience has taught me that we are very rarely given the sort of adaptation we would like through the medium of television and it is why I always try to read or re-read a book before watching. However, having read your post I realize the responsibilities programme makers have to an audience who may not be familiar with the works they are using. Teresa

  5. Welcome, Teresa. I have seen from Juliet's blog that you are her fellow-islander. It sounds like a great place to live.

    I hope I didn't sound too curmudgeonly about adaptations but I love books so much that I think authors deserve proper respect!

  6. The saddest translation I have seen recently is Richard Howard's re-translation of Le Petit Prince. Katherine Woods original was perfectly judged, and I suspect that in this case the prime motivation was that of the publishers cynically seeking to extend the otherwise expiring copyright. But the language is leaden, and future generations of children (and some adults too) will not grasp the true wonder of the book as a result.

    Thanks for dropping by earlier; I'm sure you will enjoy Bad Blood

  7. Hello Stephen
    I can't bear to think that someone has tampered with 'The Little Prince'. My French is just good enough to get me through the original text and I have always been happy with the Katherine Woods translation. We always keep a good supply of copies to give as presents to any young people who come near us. Please don't tell me that this version is to be discontinued - I'll have to dash out and buy up all I can find.

  8. Happily Egmont, who publish the new translation over here, also keep the original in print in paperback, which now has all the original coloured illustrations.
    The new translation always comes with a dark blue cover, while the original remains white, so it is easy to tell them apart.
    Being out of copyright, the original is unlikely to disappear entirely

  9. Thank you for the information. What a relief!


I love to read your comments and promise that I will reply as soon as I can leave my garden, sewing room or kitchen!