Friday, November 20, 2009

The Shadow of the Wind / La Sombra del Viento


Get ready for a long post.

A friend read this book in English and thought it was really good. She wondered aloud (a-text? On her blog) if the translation was a good one. The original was written in Spanish by Spaniard Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I thought to myself "Self, I can read that in Spanish and let her know," so I ordered the Spanish version from Amazon and began to read it. Into the book by about 4 chapters, I realized something. How exactly would I know if the translation was good if I was only reading it in Spanish? DOH!

I put myself on the library's waiting list and set the Spanish copy aside until the English one was available. Upon receiving it, I caught up to chapter 4 and the read each chapter side by side. One chapter in English, the same chapter in Spanish.

I'm going to tell you something. This dual reading dragged me down. I was reading the same book twice. Chapter by chapter. Sometimes I would not pick it up for days because it was a literal redundancy.

I make it sound like it's a bad book. On the contrary. This book was a fantastic mystery novel full of colorful characters, suspense, twisting plots and beautiful prose. Mr. Zafon is a gifted author. His writing was descriptive, hysterical, creepy, mournful, exciting.

The book deals with a 10-year old boy named Daniel living in 1945 Barcelona, whose gentle father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten books, a library jealously and secretly guarded by a group of people who love books, who keep books from around the world guarded in the library's labyrinthine depths. Daniel gets to choose one, one that would be his to guard jealously. His choice was "The Shadow of the Wind," by a little-known author, Julian Carax. Daniel so loves this book that he begins to search for more books, more information, on Julian Carax, only to find road blocks. Someone has been scouring Europe and burning all of Carax's books.

The book takes us through the story of Daniel from age 10 through 19, his daily life as well as his on and off search for Carax. There are friends (Tomas), crushes (Clara), loves (Bea), nefarious murdering policemen (Fumero) and the nefarious man burning the books. Best of all, there is Fermin Romero de Torres.

Big-nosed, big-eared, skinny, hairy Fermin. He of the voracious appetite and silver tongue. Of all the characters in the book, Fermin was my favorite. We first meet him a a vagabond on the street who Daniel and his father decide to take in and help out. He is eccentric, extremely intelligent, and not just book smart but street smart. He knows people and how they tick. You want something done, Fermin can do it. A deposed spy of the fallen government, Fermin, if that's his real name, was living on the streets when the new government hunted down all the old regime. He has his ghosts and demons and yet he's a great man. I have not enjoyed such a character in a while. I laughed aloud and cried with and for Fermin. Zafon wrote him wonderfully.

Now, for the meat of the translating. This was an odd experiment, I tell you. Spanish was my first language, but after years of talking mostly English, Spanish is not my best language anymore. This book for me was an exercise in comprehension. I started hesitantly, hoping I was getting it, but hit my stride 1/3 of the way in. (I'm thinking about doing the Harry Potter series in Spanish now, to see if the translating to Spanish was good).

There were some differences that I could understand. Slang does not translate. Sayings and euphemisms don't translate well. Neither do the names of regional famous people.


1) In the original Spanish book, two characters are at the movies discussing Cary Grant and how handsome he is. The woman describes Cary Grant as her favorite, second only to Jose Antonio. Who? In the English version, the Jose Antonio comment is deleted. We wouldn't know who he was unless we were Spaniards.

2) In the Spanish book, someone mentions that book reading is an affliction, like Don Quixote had. In the English version, Don Q is replaced with Sancho Panza. This makes no sense. Don Quixote was the one with the brain muddled by his reading, not Sancho Panza. I don't understand why the English version would choose to change the name to Sancho.

3) In the Spanish version, a conversation is going on describing a person that looked like Carlos Gardel. We have no idea who that is, so in the English book the name is removed, replaced by
"a tango singer slick with brilliantine."

4) In English, protests fall on deaf ears. In Spanish, they fall through broken sacks.

5) In Spanish, a man looks at Daniel "as if I'd asked him about the quadrature of a circle." (the guy was dumbfounded.) In English, the man looked at Daniel "as if I had inquired about the sex of angels." What? Why the change? Are we too stupid to get the math reference?

Sometimes sentences are changed, for better or worse.

When asked why the music teacher was dismissed, Barcelo, who fired the teacher for having an affair with Barcelo's niece, replies in Spanish "I fired him. Abuse of his profession." In English he answers, "He got fired. Seems like there were not enough keys on the piano to keep him busy." I don't understand the change from Spanish to English, although the English one is wittier this time.

When Cemetery of Forgotten Books keeper Isaac discusses his broken heart, in Spanish saying his heart was "rotted by miseries." In English, it's translated as "broken by misfortune." Rotted by miseries seems a more compelling description to me.

Then there are the omissions that just don't make sense to me. Was the English publisher saving paper? I don't get the omissions.

1) Isaac's light, as he walks through the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, in Spanish is described as a flickering bubble of evanescent red light. Evanescent is removed from the English. I actually caught things like this, because in Spanish, it flowed and its absence, that one word, was felt when reading the English.

2) Fermin is describing his sister. He tells Daniel that her nickname was "Chicken Livers" because she had halitosis. The entire sentence is deleted in the English.

3) Chapter 34 has a complete paragraph missing! In the English version, Fermin is teasing Daniel while they were at work. Daniel tells him to piss off and thinks to himself that it was going to be a long day; end chapter. Not so in the Spanish. The chapter goes on to describe how the afternoon was slow and miserable. They had one customer, dressed all in gray who asked for a certain book, convinced that the book dealt with the life and times of a prostitute in Madrid. Daniel's father, a kind bookseller who does not deal in trash, does not know what to do, but Fermin steps in and says to the customer that he is confused about the book, but may he recommend "Don Juan" which deals with lots of skirts and the protagonist hooks up with a nun. The customer bought it. Now, I know that doesn't really move the story along at all, but it's funny. It shows how quick on his feet Fermin is and I got a chuckle out of it. Imagine my surprise reading the English and going"HUH? Where did the customer go?" Again, saving paper, oh American publisher??

4) Daniel is hoping to catch a glimpse of his best friend Tomas at Tomas' window. They've had a row and Daniel wants to wave at him. Tomas never shows up. "I waited almost five minutes hoping he would reappear, but he didn't." End Chapter. In Spanish, another sentence follows: "The rain ripped my tears, and I left in its company." Why delete that sentence? Can men not cry over lost friendship?

5) Daniel sees an "old man with long white hair, clad in a wonderful gray overcoat." In Spanish he sees "an old man, or possibly a deserting angel, clad in a wonderful grey overcoat." The reference to his being an angel is gone in the translation. In the same paragraph, the man looks at Daniel and "smiled gravely." In Spanish, he "smiled gravely, as if he could read my soul in one glance." I like the extra, and wonder why again the omission.

There are several others but this post has gone on long enough.

My final verdict: I enjoyed the Spanish more. It might sound hokey, but to me, Spanish reads more formal, more lyrical, more beautiful. In my head, I read the Spanish and feel it's like a song. I told you I was hokey.


The Foil Hat said...

I knew it, I just knew it!!!!! I loved the book in English, but it felt like parts were missing. Thank you so much for going through it so carefully - you absolutely hit on a couple of things that, like you said, don't really move the plot forward, but make a lot of difference in how you see the characters. Yay and thank you Kaaren.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Kaaren! Thanks for posting. I'm going to send your blog link to my book club since we read The Shadow of the Wind a couple months ago and some will find your comments interesting. We LOVED Fermin too! So funny!

I wonder if there are differences because the author made the changes or the publisher? You know, authors often say they wish they could make some changes later. But, then again, it looks like many of the changes were detrimental instead of improvements. Hmmm.

After this book, I read his next book, The Angel's Game. I absolutely loved it (more that TSOTW) up until the last part of the book. Then, it became too over the top and crazy. After completing the book, I wouldn't even recommend it except that there is a very interesting side to it. It takes place a generation before TSOTW. So, you'll recognize several of the characters from TSOTW in their younger days. That was quite fun! And, it was very engaging until it started getting wierd. The end ruined it for me. :-(