Peace be with you

Posted on July 3, 2012


Every tree casts shadow on its own bottom[1]Azerbaijani proverb

I’ve chosen this proverb because it gets to the root, as it were, of today’s blog – translation.[2] Apologies for all the footnotes by the way. Why translation? Well, because I’ve just finished (in about 2 hours flat) Amir Pahlavan’s The Ambassador.   I’d love to recommend this novel, part thriller, part history lesson, but the translation renders it somewhat comic, which I’m sure was not what Pahlavan intended, he seems like a passionate, politically motivated kind of a fellow.   That said, it’s a relief (as Kate pointed out yesterday) to have a change from the last few novels which have been as unremitting in their misery as this summer’s drizzle.

Before we begin, I should stress that within The Ambassador’s scant pages Pahlavan introduces a country about which I knew very little other than it is on the Caspian Sea (which must be beautiful because it sounds so C. S. Lewis), that Baku is its capital (I watched the adverts for Eurovision), and in the word association game played by our Press, it features alongside Human Rights’ issues.    Having read The Ambassador I now know that Azerbaijanis are Turkic people, the government is secular although the population are Muslim, they drink alcohol, they abhor the treatment of women in Iran, in fact the Iranians aren’t well-liked in general, and that the country is split in two, Iran taking and keeping the South, the Soviet Union taking, then giving back, the North.   Unifying Azerbaijan and freeing them from the tyranny of Iranians (and Armenians who support the Iranians) is the main theme of the novel.[3]

Of course, none of this may be true, there’s a certain amount of reading between the lines required when you have translation like this:

  • They told him that the date of today’s ceremony had been transferred to another day on account of some subjective and objective reasons.
  •  At this moment the professor felt lensult bad and komik on himself. The person who sat next to him quickly gave improvisation to serve. They him on the air deep.
  •  …he remembered that it was near the purr five days ago and carefully watched him. He was afraid of this chekist anew and stood a little back and turned in front of a mirror that hung on the wall. He watched Ahmet in the mirror, watched his teeth and loudred his fall with his left hand and paid attention to his face’s mimics.  It created a doubtful thought in the ambassador.

It seems like English, it’s almost possible for a couple of sentences to feel as though you understand it, but then at the last moment the meaning spins away.

Every now and then this type of translation does throw up some gems, such as describing the foothills of the Caucasus as the hem of the mountains, or the peak of a baseball cap as a bill.    It is also interesting to see how other nations see us. Describing Edinburgh…

  •  As the sun’s rays were not seen, the life of the city and the manner of its inhabitants seemed unfriendly. Although the people were bustling, one cannot witness any sincere, warm, heart-to-heart relation of talking people.

To be fair, I think what’s happened with the English translation is that the novel has been translated (for all we know, perfectly well) into German by a human and then has been shoved through google or some such translator and been printed on demand on a laser printer in a back bedroom in Battenberg.

So I’ve done a little experiment.  I took the Lord’s Prayer in Turkish, translated it into German and then translated the German into English and voilà!

Our father in the heavens, o

Get the name Bible;

Joe Melekûtun;

Get your place in heaven as well as in Iraden;

Enter today to us earn our daily bread from everyday life;

And let us forgive those who owe us our Borçlarımızı like Bağışladığımız;.

Şerirden us Iğvaya us, but go and recover;

Since Melekût and power and Izzet Ebedlere much Senindir.


At least this would bring a smile to your face at Mass before the subsequent rather awkward sign of peace where everyone leans up and down and across benches[4], shaking hands with near strangers and wishing someone would blow a whistle to put a stop to it before you slap someone.   It might be better if we all simply crossed arms Auld Lang Syne style,  jiggled ours arms up and down twice and be done with it. And no need for sincere, warm, heart-to-heart relation of talking people.

And while we are in such ecclesiastical mood, I need to make a confession.  A couple of evenings ago, while looking for books from the Bahamas, I happened upon a blog by a girl who is spending a year reading books from round the world.   I don’t know whether from every country (she’d have to be a very fast reader), or in alphabetical order, as I decided not to delve any deeper – I don’t want to be influenced by her choices or reviews – but I thought I should let you all know that, while I may be big (well plump, my bottom casts shadow) and reasonably clever, I am in no way unique.   So, having made my act of contrition, I will await the late arrival from Armenia, by sinning with the incredibly frivolous The Murder of the Maharajah by H.R.F. Keating, bought in my local Oxfam and a treat along the lines of Butterscotch Angel Delight – you shouldn’t like it, but at a midnight feast it can’t be bettered.

[1] For those who are confused, this literally means – Everybody takes care of their own, a tree casts a shadow only on those who are close, everyone else is on their own.

[2] If you have more than a passing interest in this subject then take a look at Umberto Eco’s excellent and funny Mouse or Rat.

[3] In fact Armenians are not portrayed in a very good light.  I’m rather glad that my choice of book for Armenia is still mid-Atlantic and I can therefore make my own mind up.

[4] I was once told by a very patrician parishioner – ‘pews are enclosed and sat in by the gentry. You sit on a bench.‘