Sunday, May 22, 2011


According to my records, my work has been translated into Dutch, French, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, South Korean, and Russian (with U.K. editions, too, of course). And I was recently contacted by someone who wants to translate them into Chinese. Predictably, the book most often translated is Middle Passage.
I've seldom had the opportunity to work with foreign translators of my books. A couple of times, but not many. That fact led to some foreign editions that are, to put this politely, problematic. For example, in 1986 the French publisher Flammarion did a translation of my novel Oxherding Tale as Le Conte du bouvier. They brought me to Paris for a week of book promotion, and at that time I had the pleasure of speaking with the delightful young woman, Hélène Devaux-Minié, who did the translation. She explained to me that the novel's final chapter, entitled Moksha, had given her much trouble. (In Sanskrit, it means "liberation from the cycle of birth and death, complete freedom, salvation.") She couldn't find, she said, that Hindu word in any of the French dictionaries she consulted. So instead for that chapter title she substituted the word Mokry, which means "mockery." That word-choice, sad to say, is entirely wrong and misleading.
And I have one other translation "war story" I can share.
Before I retired, I lined up on the bookshelves on one wall in my office at the University of Washington all the American and foreign editions of my books (Just in case we ever had a fire at our house and my other copies were destroyed). One was an Italian edition of Oxherding Tale entitled Il Racconto del Mandriano, published by Edizioni E/O in 1990. One day a student came into my office for a conference, sat down in a chair, and looked at that edition's cover. Then he asked, "Why is Langston Hughes on the cover of your book?"
Yes, that's right: Edizioni E/O had used as the novel's cover art an illustration based on a well-known photo of a young Langston Hughes. What were they thinking? Your guess is as good as mine. If only that publisher so far away had contacted me about their plans for the cover! But such was not the case. Moral of the story? If you can work with a foreign publisher and translator for one of your titles, I highly recommend that you do so.

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