The OF Blog: Translation and changes in reading approach

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Translation and changes in reading approach

Reading, no matter how hard some people try to argue otherwise with their "popcorn reading" stances, is far from a passive process.  The reader has to be at some level actively engaged with the text in order to decipher the encoded symbols and to process what is transpiring in a fiction or non-fiction.  Some readers, such as myself, decode these symbols extremely fast, with some interesting results when it comes to memory (mine is better if I read rapidly compared to trying to slow it down to a pace that is "unnaturally" slow, say 30-40 pages/hour) and how information is analyzed and interpreted.  Others read more slowly and in the lacunae between the words/paragraphs that they read, there might be more time spent on the mechanics of the text at the grammatical and syntactical levels.

Yet when it comes to translating what one is reading from a secondary language into a primary one, certain things can shift.  I found myself thinking on this late Saturday night and into Sunday morning when I was busy reading/transcribing/translating Serbian writer Zoran Živković's 2011 novel, Пет Дунавских Чуда/The Five Wonders of the Danube.  I have dedicated this year to learning how to read Serbian at least at the level of fluency that I currently have in French (late beginner/early intermediate) and Živković has been kind enough to provide me with copies of his works in Serbian for me to use as practice (I've read all but the latest in English 1-8 years before).  It is one thing to read in a language, say Spanish or Portuguese to a lesser extent for myself, in which one has long had exposure.  Then, the words are not as much of a mystery and the processing takes only a slight bit more time than it would in say English.  But Serbian is not a language with which I have a lot of experience.  The alphabets are different (the Latin-based one has extra characters, while the novel at hand is in Cyrillic, which involves the use of 30 different letters) and this forces me away from reading 2-3 lines at a time to reading only 2-3 characters/letters at a time.  It is akin to starting all over again as a reader, except this time there is a residual effect from the nearly 35 years of previous reading experience (I am an autodidact when it comes to reading, so the early reading skills I developed were not precisely those taught in school; this does affect matters). 

After some initial problems in deciphering letters, the Cyrillic script itself causes very few problems (н is n, not H, for example).  But what I've noticed is that I'm having to pay very close attention to the prepositions and to related affixes.  Although I use a combination of the English translation and Google Translate to check my comprehension of words (and to see how the translator chose to render certain passages), there is a lot of time spent on affixed words and how they relate to the passages.  This is not something that a native speaker would be wont to do with something they've written, much less something they are reading.  This has caused my reading rate to plummet down to something like 3-5 pages/hour (only this past night have I reached the latter after nearly a week's extensive work with the novel).  After I finish transcribing (and jotting down the translation possibilities) for unfamiliar words (I was averaging at first something like 60-70/page), I end up having to re-read the paragraphs individually each time to work out the syntax and then eventually the semantics of what is transpiring within.  Otherwise, I would not remember the story at all for the attempt to decipher what is being said there.

Although this can be taxing on my brain, I have noticed that this laborious process has had some interesting results.  I can detect certain stylistic choices when it comes to descriptive adjectives (and can see that the translator hews closely to the text both in terms of sentence structure and the number of times certain adjectives are used).  It has made it easier in recent days to extrapolate from this how other sentences are formed and how certain characters will be described.  When I first read the translation almost exactly a year ago, I remember it being a whimsical story in places, but 4/5 into the first section, this re-reading/translation/transcribing effort has opened up new insights into the layerings that Živković's story has.  There seems to be something going on within the syntax of the sentences that appears to trigger a sort of "looping" mode in which there is a pattern of description and dialogue that begins to feel familiar after a few repetitions, yet there is no exact replication.  It could also be that in staring at the words too long in my attempt to learn them that I have created patterns that may not actually exist, so there is that caveat to consider.

Yet it does bear further consideration.  It will be interesting to see what happens when the process begins to speed up and I can understand 85% or more of the words by both context and memorization (I did this same thing with Spanish in early 2004 and went from barely understanding any written Spanish to reading it semi-fluently in six months.  However, I had years of exposure to spoken Spanish and two years of half-remembered HS courses, so it was much easier to move rapidly).  It may be that the "connections" will prove to be faulty.  I may not be able to read Serbian the way that I read English or Romance languages.  But it may be that I'll become a more reflective reader, at least for a while, when actually engaged in the act of reading.  It certainly shall be something worth paying more attention to in the near future.


roussefolle said...

Great post. I admire Your dedication. I learned english similiar way, but there was no alphabet barrier. And since you learned cyrillic already, you should definitly go for "Master and Marguerita" by Bulhakov - I've read it in good translation to polish, but original is soo much better.

Larry Nolen said...

Thanks! I eventually will try Russian, but I want to master Serbian first, since it uses both alphabets. And The Master and Margarita certainly is a title I'd want to enjoy in the original :D

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