Dan Smith
Weird translation: why would a translator of "The Alchemist" omit Oscar Wilde's name?

I was planning to read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist in English translation, but I thought it might be interesting to see how difficult the Spanish translation is. And when I looked at it, I realized there was something really strange about the English translation.

To begin with, in the English translation, the Prologue is translated by a different translator than the rest of the book. That's odd in itself.

Now, here's the first paragraph of the English translation. It's two sentences long.

The alchemist picked up a book that someone in the caravan had bought. Leafing through the pages, he found a story about Narcissus.

Here it is in the original Portuguese:

O alquimista pegou um libro que alguém na caravana havia trazido. O volume estava sem capa, mas conseguiu identificar seu autor: Oscar Wilde. Enquanto folheava suas paginas, encontrou uma história sobre Narciso.

Notice that there are three sentences. I don't know Portuguese, but apart for spelling differences, the Spanish translation matches it almost word-for-word. In both of them, it is clear that the second sentence says:

The volume did not have its covers, but one could manage to identify the author: Oscar Wilde.

Why would a translator leave this sentence out?

A few paragraphs later, Portuguese and the Spanish translation say "But this was not how Oscar Wilde ended the story." But the English translator says "But this was not how the author of the book ended the story."

What follows this nine paragraphs that are almost a verbatim quotation of Oscar Wilde's poem in prose, "The Disciple." (It is longer than "The Disciple," you could call it an expanded paraphrase.) ("The Disciple" can be read online here: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/2315/ )

The English translation is a special "25th anniversary edition" so there was plenty of time for any corrections or second thoughts about the translation.

Can anybody think of any plausible reason why a translator would leave out the parts identifying the author of the book as Oscar Wilde?

Apr 2, 2019 11:16 PM
Comments · 14

That is indeed very weird.  

It does remind me of something: When I was in high school, I was rather disturbed to find that although the literature textbook I was assigned did include a section on Oscar Wilde, the biography (which was a page or so long) did not mention anything about his sexuality, his imprisonment, or anything even remotely related to these subjects.  Presumably the editors were concerned that parents might object to their children reading about "those kinds of people." 

I wonder if it's possible that Wilde himself was omitted from your translation for similar reasons.  It seems unlikely, I admit, but I can't think of any other explanation.  I believe The Alchemist is popularly taught to high school students, much like my unfortunate textbook (though I have to say, I would imagine that the kinds of parents who would object to Oscar Wilde's mere presence in a book would probably, on the whole, also object automatically to any work titled The Alchemist...).

April 3, 2019

There’s a school of thought in translation—let’s call it “postmodern translation”—that believes that works can and should be amended to make them relatable to more people. That’s the purpose of translation, after all. One famous example I can think of is a poem by Rumi in which the Sufi poet supposedly says, “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field / I will meet you there.” What Rumi actually says is “religion” and “infidelity”, but the translator took a lot of liberty to make Rumi more relatable to a wider (Western) audience.

It’s possible that the translator thought that Oscar Wilde isn’t globally known and therefore the book would be more relatable without his name. Vagueness and abstraction seem more mystical, and The Alchemist is all about spirituality and mysticism. The translator might have felt that having the book mention an aspect of the real world would taint its mysticism.

April 3, 2019

"Question - is there a book published with Wilde's Poems in Prose in it ...? What book did the alchemist find? "

If you just want to read it for insight, all of it is--six poems--is online at http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/2315/

I find that it was originally published, privately in 1905, as a volume in itself--it must have been awfully slim. Otherwise, it seems as the set of six poems is included in various anthologies and selections, "Plays, Prose Writings and Poems of Oscar Wilde," "Miscellaneous Writings of Oscar Wilde," etc.

As far as I know, there isn't, say, any famous notorious edition with erotic illustrations or anything like that. 

There was indeed a famous/notorious illustrated Wilde book, Salome, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. But it didn't contain anything but Salome

April 3, 2019
Very odd, especially since Paolo Coelho does mention Wilde in the English version of his own blog:  <a href="http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2012/01/01/narcissus-and-the-lake/" style="background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);">http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2012/01/01/narcissus-and-the-lake/</a>;
April 3, 2019

Here's another weird thing. The Portuguese original and the Spanish translation include a quotation from the New Testament, which you can see in Google Books:

<a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=OYnKEnTnzicC&lpg=PP1&dq=o%20alquimista&pg=PA15#v=onepage&q=lucas&f=false" style="color: rgb(17, 85, 204); font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);">Lucas 10,38-42</a>

It also contains a short prayer, just after the dedication: "Ó Maria concebida sem pecado, rogai por nós, que recorremos a Vós." Amem.  

The English translation omits both the short prayer to Mary and the New Testament passage.

(The Spanish translation includes both).


April 3, 2019
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