This past week I finished a book called The Hangman’s Daughter, a translation from the original German by Oliver Potzsch. The book has been something of a sensation, at least the e-version at a discounted price, and has garnered a number of reviews, mainly positive.
Basically it’s a well-told story about a hangman in 16th century Bavaria. One of the things I love about it is the historical detail. The book gave me wonderful details about what village life was like back in those days—not to mention a plethora of information about the duties and social status (or should I say lack of social standing) of the hangman and his family. Of particular note is that the author is a descendant of a hangman, which evidently sparked his interest in exploring exactly what that meant.
For those reasons, I would recommend the book. But that’s not to say I loved the book, because I didn’t. I think part of my issue is because it was a translation. The language was so passive, and I wondered about a few word choices that sounded more modern than 16th century Bavaria. There were also point of view shifts between omniscient and various characters within the same scene. Minor details, very likely the kind most readers would either not notice or, if they did, wouldn’t let it get in the way of the entertainment value. Kind of like the reviews of a “regular” movie-goer rather than a film student, two parties who often have an entirely different experience at the very same movie.
I’ve had no such issues with books originally written in English by authors whose primary language isn’t English (Life of Pi, The Kite Runner, and Ursula Hegi books for example). Nonfiction translations have never bothered me, either, perhaps because I’m mainly looking for information rather than style. I think of The Art of War and The Communist Manifesto. (The latter two for research purposes only, lest you think I’m a militant communist!)
And of course I read the Bible almost every day. We all know the English version is a translation. 🙂 Perhaps style for this specially inspired book still works in any language.
Since I can’t read German (much to my forebears disappointment were any of them still alive) I have no idea if the original language was as passive as it turned out to be in the English version of The Hangman’s Daughter, which is my biggest disappointment with this book. It’s a shame, really, because there was so much action, which the passive voice diluted (he was running, for example, rather than the more immediate he ran).
What about you? Have you read any translated books where you feel it was the translation that got in the way, rather than the author’s storytelling ability?