Book Review: “Translator, Trader” by Douglas Hofstadter


Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

I’ve just finished reading Translator, Trader: An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation by Douglas Hofstadter and am still trying to digest the big translation questions that the author raises in it. As you might discern from the title, this essay – which reaches 100 pages – is a playful description of a translator’s quest to faithfully translate a piece of work. What a quest it is!

Hofstadter takes us through his process of translating the French book La Chamade (by Françoise Sagan) into English. He states that the idea of his essay is to demonstrate “that high-quality conversion of a novel from Language A to Language B reflects the depths of the translator’s soul no less than Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter reflects the depths of Ella’s soul.” In a nutshell, that translation is an art form involving endless translation choices, numerous “trades” between the languages, and carefully selected words which go beyond simple literal translation.

Regrettably, I am not bilingual, but I expect that speakers of multiple languages frequently encounter the conundrums he discusses. Even as a monolingual speaker I was able to get an understanding of the difficulties he faces with translations.

Hofstadter supports a non-literal translation style as opposed to a literal one, which he characterizes as typically dry and often rendering the finished translation as “wooden.” He humorously defends his choice to translate La Chamade with his own “translator” voice, even admitting when he may have pushed the line just a little when translating a word or phrase.

His essay introduces various struggles related to translation that readers might not typically know exist. For example, he discusses the original French text making use of the two forms of the French second-person singular: the familiar “tu” and the more formal “vous“. How should a translator express this difference in English, or should they even attempt to do so?

While a literal English translation of the text might do away with any such distinction and simply substitute the word “you” for both tu and vous, Hofstadter makes the argument that the original author, Sagan, made a deliberate choice to distinguish between the two forms. To solve this translation issue, Hofstadter chooses to capitalize “You” when referencing the “vous” form and uses the lowercase “you” when referencing the “tu” form.

If this sort of thing appeals to you, you are in luck as his essay is full of subtleties in this regard. What could have been a very technical book is a fascinating read. One strong point of his essay is how passionate Hofstadter obviously is about his work as a translator. It is apparent that he loves the original text and I got the idea while reading it that he lost a lot of sleep in his effort to represent the original text as best he could.

This unique essay is a must-read for anyone who reads translated texts. Even if you don’t agree with every point he makes, you will gain a much greater appreciation for the artistry of translation. I plan to read the accompanying copy of Hofstadter’s translation of La Chamade (That Mad Ache) in the near future. I have no doubt that my experience will be all the more richer having read his essay about the translation process beforehand.

Have you had your own experiences translating texts from one language to another? Or have you read a book that you felt was particularly well-translated? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Short Story Review: “The Red Room” by H.G. Wells

Isn’t the book jacket just awesome? The hardcover underneath has planets etched into the spine and front cover

Last night, I opened my copy of The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, also Selected Short Stories, a collection of works by H.G. Wells. I bought this delightfully vintage, 1963 edition hardback copy from a fun downtown bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina.

The bookstore itself is a two-story building with a coffee shop and champagne bar located within it, so if you’re ever visiting the area, I highly recommend stopping in. There are tons of good literary finds around the place, and when I saw this particular edition of my favorite science fiction author’s works, I had to buy it.

I’ve read both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine in the past, and have them in mind for another reading in the near future (and hopefully, accompanying reviews!). Last night I was in the mood for a quick science fiction story before sleeping, so instead of going for the novels, I chose an unfamiliar work from the collection, the very short story The Red Room.

The Red Room turned out to be less of a science fiction story than a supernatural one, which is just fine by me. I hadn’t considered the idea before, but really, the genres are very closely related. Many of the typical science fiction tropes actually run parallel with horror themes. Unchecked technological “advances” turning society into hordes of misanthropic robots? Aliens from another planet destroying the earth with no regard for life? Science fiction yes, but still all fairly horrifying, in my humble opinion.

The Red Room opens with the narrator deflecting any idea that he is afraid of ghosts. At 28 years old, he makes it very clear this isn’t the sort of thing he believes in (unlike your faint-hearted blogger here). He is very adamant about spending the night in a room of Lorraine Castle, a place that three “old pensioners” (as he so kindly describes them) who live in the place believe to be haunted.

Against their judgment, the narrator decides to spend the night in the room to disprove the stories of it being haunted. I won’t reveal the ending, but the narrator’s final conclusion of the events that take place leave for some interesting interpretation into the beliefs of humans.

I suggest this story if paranormal events are your thing. If you’re a fan of H.G. Wells, you’ll recognize his style of not naming the narrator and offering little backstory to the characters. This habit is actually one that I like about his writing. I don’t get bogged down by all the past baggage in his characters’ lives. He typically takes us straight into the story, immediately putting us in the character’s current frame of mind. The Red Room is a great option if you want a short, gothic read just before bedtime, but its theme will definitely have you questioning your own beliefs about the supernatural long after that.

Do you have any thoughts on the blending of science fiction and the supernatural? Or are you also a fan of H.G. Wells? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks for visiting Paper Crow Blog!

Book Review: “On Trails: An Exploration” by Robert Moor

A few months ago, I purchased “On Trails: An Exploration” after reading the back cover in a bookstore during a trip to Greenville, South Carolina. Hiking, in addition to reading and writing, is another one of my hobbies, and so I decided to give this book a try. Plus, I have to admit, I think the simple cover art is beautiful, with its gold print and silver, minimalist landscape contrasting with a solid black background.

I really enjoyed this book and considering it was a New York Times bestseller, it appears many other people did as well. Within the book, Moor talks about (spoiler alert!) trails. He covers pretty much everything about trails, from detailing the world’s oldest known fossil trails made by ancient organisms to hiking the Appalachian Trail in modern times.

The book as a whole is informative and for most of the chapters, an easy read for relaxing evenings. A few parts of the book (such as the epilogue) were a bit long-winded for my attention span, but that is just my preference. I know plenty of people whose reading preferences lean towards the more technical side of things, so I think the book offers a lot for both types of readers.

Moor heavily emphasizes the correlation between landscape and people, describing how both influence the production of trails. He discusses why some trails are designed for shortest travel time while other trails may take meandering routes (for purposes of preventing erosion, for example).

One fascinating topic he describes is the concept of “wilderness” and the changing perception towards wilderness in some cultures (i.e., wilderness was formerly a thing to be feared and to avoid but is now considered a pristine refuge away from industrialization).

I was particularly interested in his depictions of the Appalachian Trail, as the trail goes through my home state. Moor even participated in a trail-building session with the Konnarock Trail Crew, the same one I volunteered with a few years ago through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (and you can, too, no matter which state you live in! For free and with gear provided! Just check out the link for information).

All in all, I would definitely recommend this book if you are a hiking fan. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for both human and animal trails and now have several hiking destinations to add to my travel list!

Have you also read this book or ones similar? Feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll get back to you. Thanks for visiting, and happy reading!

Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House

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Photo by Edan Cohen on Unsplash

*The review below may contain spoilers*

I, like many others I know, have found myself hooked on the recently released Netflix show “The Haunting of Hill House.” As I am fascinated with all things paranormal, it was the down the rabbit hole I went after watching only one episode. I ended up watching all ten episodes in a matter of days, occasionally with every light turned on in my house.

My boyfriend noticed how much I enjoyed the show and bought me a copy of the book it was based on. He actually bought me a very lovely Library of America compilation, which also contains several of Shirley Jackson’s works including The Lottery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and miscellaneous other short stories. I had previously read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and liked the tone, so I was excited to dive into another one of Jackson’s mysterious stories.

From the beginning, The Haunting of Hill House is very different from the Netflix version. There are few similarities in plot except the overarching theme of a creepy house taking over its inhabitants. The characters’ names overlap as well, but their relationships to one another and their personalities are completely different in the book than their onscreen representations.

Published in 1959, the book follows the character of Eleanor Vance, a thirty-two year old woman who from the start, raises a few eyebrows with the reader. As a child, she was involved in a bizarre event during which rocks fell from the sky onto her family’s house. Due to this prior involvement with the supernatural, she is contacted (in present day) by a paranormal investigator, Dr. Montague. He invites her to take part in a summer study involving supernatural activity at Hill House, a place Eleanor has never heard of. Against the wishes of her sister and brother-in-law, she takes the family car and sets out for the house. Upon her arrival, she meets two others invited by the same paranormal investigator: Theodora, a woman with a history of ESP abilities and Luke, the nephew of Hill House’s owner, and thus the man who will one day inherit the house.

The plot centers around Eleanor and the other three main characters’ experiences as they spend several days in the house. Loud banging on the walls at night, a phantom dog running through the hallways, and a ghost family’s picnic are all the sorts of odd things they encounter. Jackson does a superb job of interweaving the thoughts crossing Eleanor’s increasingly unstable mind with these supernatural events. Eleanor slowly begins to distrust the others around her, especially Theodora. As Eleanor’s thoughts turn more violent and nonsensical, the reader is left to wonder just how many of the strange events in the house are caused by the paranormal and how much of it is actually in Eleanor’s head.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the paranormal or even just the psychology of the human mind. While it doesn’t follow the plot line of the Netflix version, it does capture the sense of dread Hill House gives off. By the end of it, I wasn’t quite sure what really had happened in Hill House, and I think that’s just what Jackson had in mind when she wrote the story.