Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Carol Brown Janeway) Lost in Translation

Cover image When I was a reviews editor I tried my best to make sure that translators were credited in the bibliographic information that accompanies reviews. It didn’t always work: sometimes space was tight and the sub-editors had to cut the copy but sometimes the fact that it was a translated work was not immediately apparent. Perhaps the translator hadn’t been credited on the book’s jacket or I may have been sent a manuscript with no mention of a translator’s name.

I thought about this last week when I finished Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent Measuring the World about two eighteenth century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border.  I read the book partly on a recommendation but also because it had been translated by Carol Brown Janeway. I first noticed Janeway’s name when I read Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader many years ago and have since read several other novels just because she translated them.

I remember hearing a radio programme about how poorly paid translators of fiction are, and that many of them do it for love of the books that they work on. Low pay for such a skilled job seems unfair – a good translator captures both the spirit and style of the book, a bad one will ruin it. Haruki Murakami uses several translators, two of whom – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel – managed to replicate the same idiosyncratic style when translating the zillions of pages that make up 1Q84 to the extent that you really can’t see the join. Perhaps poor fees in the UK have been justified because fiction in translation is notorious for not selling well here but that can’t be true of the many Scandi crime novels whose authors must have gratefully set up a shrine to Henning Mankell in their living rooms. Whatever the reason, translators at least deserve recognition so many apologies to anyone I failed to credit over the years. And for any fellow Murakami fans who haven’t yet heard, his new novel – already going down a storm in Japan – looks set to be translated in 2014.

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