How do you buy a book?

Carol’s book is no longer with me, it is now sitting on one of my friends bedroom. I don’t know if he might think as I did, that something was wrong with the translation, I won’t know until he reads it. Up to then, I stand by my opinion.


By Gustavo Osorio

I used to have two rules for buying a book: first, it had to be long ― 500 pages or so ― and second, I would have to open it a few times, to read a couple of lines, if I liked what I’ve read every single time, then, I would buy it without any doubts. However, there was one book I could not bring myself to buy right away. It sure was long and reading was guaranteed, but I had never heard of that particular author, and to be honest, it wasn’t displayed as a great book would normally be.

A saturday morning ―five or six years ago― I was looking for a book to read in a mostly secondhand bookstore. I was stacking books from one place to another, trying to find a cheap one that could meet my criteria in order to buy it. I first started with the books on some of the shelves, then I moved on to the ones on the floor, and finally, when I was about to buy a book I wasn’t sure about, I dived under the last shelf step and found La hija del sepulturero, a book written by Joyce Carol Oates: a translation of The Gravedigger’s Daughter.

At the time, I had no clue whom she was nor could I think of anyone ever mentioning anything about her, so I placed the book back under the shelf step and went home to do a little research on her. That’s when I found she was an American writer with quite a lot of success. I remember then trying to get a copy of the book in english, but it wasn’t possible; that’s when I decided to go back to the bookstore and buy the only copy I had ever seen of that book.

Saying it was a shame to read it in spanish is certainly not true; I enjoyed the book, albeit there were a few times it did not meet the expectations the name had given me, I had never read anything like it before and to this day, I haven’t find a book alike. However I had the same sensation when reading Anna Karenina. I knew the book was great, the story was unlike any other, and yet something about it kept throwing me off the page.

When reading Tolstoy’s book, I understood that what was bothering me, was the great amount of adverbs that ended in ly, and since I couldn’t compare my copy to that of Tolstoy’s native language, I assumed it was a translator’s issue, what I later on confirmed with a book from another publishing house. Despite that, the uncomfort felt when reading Carol’s book wasn’t the same, I couldn’t tell what was wrong and gave up on the thought. It might have crossed my mind a few times over the years, I’m not sure, but recently that doubt came back to me.

Umberto Eco has a book named Dire quasi la stessa cosa that in the english speaking world is known as Experiences in Translation. A book that talks about his experiences as a translator and the experiences of some of the translators of his books. I’m barely halfway through it, but it wasn’t far off from the begging that I realized what went wrong with Carol’s book. Eco explains something I have always fear when reading a book that has been translated, and often made me ask myself: is everything in this book the same as it is in the original?

Even If you were not to read Eco’s book, you will probably come to the same conclusion: no book that has been translated is the same, nor it should be. Believe it or not, there is inevitably a target public, whether it is the language, the theme, the knowledge or anything else that might determine it, if the book is meant to be read then it shares a bond with it’s readers. Nonetheless, sometimes that bond is broken when a translation is done. That’s what I think happened when I read The Gravedigger’s Daughter, something was off-putting, it wasn’t the structure, but the context, the sayings, all was kept as it was in the original, and though it may seem as a logical thing to do, Eco explains it otherwise.

When translating a book some boundaries should not be cross, if the book says someone was traveling by train, the translation must say it as well; but if the book says someone owes money to the IRS, there is no point on leaving the acronym as it is, for it won’t make any sense to those that read in spanish, french or any other language. There is quite a lot of stuff to pay attention to when doing any work that involves translation. However, as the reader of a book that has been translated from a language you do not speak, there is almost no possibility for you to know if what has been written on those pages is loyal to the original copy, if it has been modified for the sake of your understanding, or if has been kept the same no matter the difficulties that may imply to the reader. You buy the book as an act of trust, that’s why I bought La hija de sepulturero, there is no other way to put it, and I didn’t realize anything about the problems in the translation until I began to read Eco’s book.

Carol’s book is no longer with me, it is now sitting on one of my friends bedroom. I don’t know if he might think as I did, that something was wrong with the translation, I won’t know until he reads it. Up to then, I stand by my opinion.