Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Lost in translation


Last night my son Lex and I watched the film version of “The Kite Runner.” When it was over, I asked him what he thought.

“It was okay,” he said.

And he was right:  It was okay.

Except when I read the novel just six months ago, it was a gut-wrenching experience. I even cried. Twice. The tragedy of childhood betrayal and mixed-up identity against the background of poverty and lowered circumstances was breathtaking. As was the palpably new sense of how horrible it would be like to live under the Taliban.

None of that is in the movie.

Well, actually, all of it is in the movie — all of the scenes. In making the adaptation, they didn’t monkey around with the story or the characterizations. There’s only one scene I noticed missing from the book, and I have to agree that it could be cut. (Although given a later scene that’s in the movie, I suspect they shot that earlier one as well.) But what’s left out, somehow, is the impact. Some things just don’t translate to other media.

A notable example:  To get out of Afghanistan when the Russians and then the Taliban movie in, the boy and his father and several others have to be transported across the border in the belly of a fuel tanker. We have that scene in the movie, but there’s no resonance:  The boy gets into the tanker. His father tells him it will be all right. The boy says he can’t breath. To distract him and provide what comfort he can, his father has him turn on the small iridescent light on his wristwatch and recite a poem. Next scene:  They are in India.

This is pretty much the form the scene takes in the novel. Except Khaled Hosseini is able to convey the lingering, choking, searing stench of fuel, and the utter darkness of the tank. Film can’t do smell (although fiction can), and film can’t do darkness (although fiction can). When the boy looks at his watch, we see a closeup of a boy looking at his watch; there’s no context because there’s no way to see deeper in the frame. The novel isn’t limited by frames. The book, a seemingly sightless medium, offers greater vision.

Sadly, I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong in this movie. It just doesn’t make a statement the way the novel does. The impact was lost in translation.

I’ve  thought a lot about translation over the years. I remember reading “Ubu Roi” in French in college and wondering whether it just shouldn’t have been translated into English; no matter how hard one tries, a pun in French doesn’t work in English. (One of Pa Ubu’s recurring outbursts is “Merdre!” which makes a pun of “murder” and “shit.” In English, I’ve seen this translated as “Pschitt!” Which is just “shit” misspelled, and with none of the menace.) I wonder how far off the mark the translations of some of my favorite writers, Kafka and Rilke among them, must be. I remember translating “La Cancatrice Chauve” myself as part of my graduation obligations and wondering just how absurd my translation was. I remember one semester in particular raising the question of translation with several different professors, all of whom gave what amounts to the stock answer:  While a translation is not as good as the original, you usually get a fair amount.

I hope that’s true. And if I had to wait to learn German and Turkish and Spanish and Norwegian, I wouldn’t have read Kafka, Goethe, Kant, Rilke, Orhan Pamuk, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Knut Hamsun, to name just a few. Still, I would think it’s harder to translate from one language to another than from one medium to another, especially from novel to film, because film exists in the universal language of sight. And yet here we have a powerful, wrenching novel, faithfully translated into a film that, finally, is just okay.

One Response to “Lost in translation”

  1. Dave Says:

    I beg to differ that the movie didn’t make a statement and found it very touching. However, I didn’t experience the “handicap” of having read the novel beforehand…
    I guess, sometimes ignorance can be an advantage, after all…

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