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Christmas Dinner (The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb)

February 13, 2012

This review turned out ridiculously long. The short version is, I liked it a lot (though not quite as much as the Liveship Traders), but hated the translation.

It took me a long time to start reading the Farseer trilogy. I’d read and enjoyed Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy and the first two books of the Rain Wild Chronicles (and the Soldier Son trilogy, but that’s set in a different world, and I read it long enough ago that can’t remember it well, and I’ve never felt like rereading it), but I was hesitant to start this one.

I always have some reservations about books written in first person (even though I frequently write in it…) and I couldn’t imagine I could identify with a male main character – an assassin, moreover.

I did finally pick up the first part, Assassin’s Apprentice about a year ago when I came across it in a store. (Now I wish I’d ordered it in English instead of buying the German translation.) I can’t have been too impressed with it, because I never bought the other parts.

When I was making my Christmas wish list, I looked through my “library” for incomplete series and trilogies. Royal Assassin, the second part of the Farseer trilogy was one of the books I asked for.

When I got it for Christmas, I immediately had to read the first part again, and then order the third, Assassin’s Quest, because this time I was hooked.

And I found the trilogy “tasted” remarkably similar to our Christmas dinner. I always have fun comparing books to food, and the Farseer trilogy had a lot of “meat” and “potatoes”, a lot of drama and adventure and a well-crafted world, but not a lot of “salad”. At Christmas, we had potato salad, which is delicious, but also very filling, while something like lettuce or tomato salad makes me feel like I can eat more. In a book context, “salad” means “humour” – something that makes me forget about the serious stuff for a moment, just as a crunchy leaf of lettuce briefly washes away the taste of the meat and makes me feel a little less full.

But I didn’t mind. A well-cooked meal, a well-written book, will make me want to keep eating, keep reading, even if there is no salad, no matter how stuffed I am. (And the way my head felt after reading too many fat, delicious books in just a few days was remarkably similar to the way my stomach felt when I finally stopped eating at Christmas.)

Magic is to a Fantasy book what spices and salt are to a meal. Too little, and it tastes bland. Too much and it becomes nearly inedible. It’s a fine line to walk, but I think Hobb has done it well. The Skill and the Wit are present throughout the books, but not often the main focus of the story. I guess neither of them are entirely new concepts – there must be other books with telepathy/mind-manipulating and talking/bonding to animals, even though I can’t think of any examples right now (but then, I’m not as widely read as I’d like to be, either), but Hobb remembers to give each power its drawbacks as well. I think my favourite part about that has to be the beginning of Assassin’s Quest, with Fitz having to re-learn to behave as a human.
I have to admit, when Fitz bonded to Nighteyes, my first reaction was, “Not another wolf!” I don’t know if it’s just me (I did pounce on every book with a wolf in it as a kid), but there do seem an awful lot of wolves in books. It is kind of funny – after being seen as “evil” for so long, now a lot of characters seem to have a more-or-less “tame” wolf. On the other hand, if wolves/dogs were the first domesticated animals, it makes a sort of sense – and I really can’t complain if people are fascinated with wolves and want to read/write about them (I started at least two stories about wolves myself as a kid, had a bookshelf dedicated to books about wolves, and my then best friend and I spent whole weekends pretending to be wolves.)

Der Weitseher (Assassin’s Apprentice, in German). Didn’t like the translation, don’t like the cover. But I don’t like posts without pictures, either.

But even the best magic would be useless if the world didn’t measure up. Maybe I’m especially picky about worlds because of all the work and time I’ve put into my Kivailo world (not that I think I’ll ever publish anything), but for me, a soundly-built and detailed world has to be the foundation for a good Fantasy book. As important as a consistent and original system of magic is – the best spices won’t do much good if they’re added to a hastily prepared meal of low-quality ingredients. But Robin Hobb’s world definitely measures up to my standards.

I think it helps that she has several trilogies set in the same world.

Partly because it allows her to show a large and detailed world without cramming all that information into just three books, which could all too easily turn into an unnecessary “look how big and detailed my world is!” info dump – instead, in the Farseer Trilogy, the world outside the Six Duchies is only hinted at, and in the Liveship Traders trilogy, the events in the Six Duchies are only hinted at. (I recently reread the Liveship Traders because I wanted to find all those little hints.)

Partly because, as a reader, I sometimes find it a little exhausting to have to get used to new worlds all the time.

And partly because I have a hard time letting go of characters I’ve come to like (and despite my earlier apprehensions about assassins, FitzChivalry has grown on me, as have the other characters.)

I can’ help but wonder: When Hobb started Assassin’s Apprentice, did she have the Liveship Traders, Tawny Man and Rain Wild Chronicles plotted out already, or did those stories come later? Either way, it’s quite a feat. I guess I wouldn’t think about that if I weren’t a story-scribbler myself, but I know how hard it is to keep a world consistent over the years – so many times I’ve gone back to change something because I’ve “learned” something new about the Kivailo world. But that becomes impossible once you’ve published your book, so you’ve got to get it right from the beginning, or keep working with what you’ve got even if you’d like to change it. So, hat off to Mrs Hobb! (If I did wear hats, anyway… knit cap off to Mrs Hobb, then!)

There are two things about the Six Duchies that would normally bother me, but Hobb pulls them of in such a way that they seem normal and natural.

One is the names – usually, I strongly dislike mixtures of real and made-up names, and Hobb has real names like Molly and nouns like Chivalry and Kettle, and a couple of names that I assumed were entirely made-up, but googling suggests they actually exist outside the Six Duchies.* Still, that leaves actual names and nouns, and I’m still not ruling out the possibility that there is a made-up name or two somewhere (not counting Kettricken and Rurisk, because they’re not actually from the Six Duchies).

And yet, I feel that the names have a consistent “sound” to them, and the nouns-as-names thing makes sense as well, so I don’t mind.

Another thing that bothers me in other books is gender equality. Sure, it’s a good thing – but it’s so easy to make it feel “artificial”, just catering to the readers’ wishes, or just plain ridiculous (I’m still slightly traumatised by the badass female mercenary magician), but by simply mentioning it without giving much attention to it, Hobb makes it appear perfectly normal and natural that women can be soldiers, too.

Royal Assassin. I’m inordinately amused that I recognized the cover artist. Not because of the style, but because the silly pose reminded me of the covers of Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series. Then I checked, and lo and behold, they were all done by Michael Whelan.

I can’t really think of much to say about the characters… I’ve become fond of all of them, except for those we’re supposed to dislike (I guess I’m just easy to manipulate that way.)

Admittedly, Regal as an antagonist annoyed me a little. We get it, usurpers are bad. Was it necessary to make him such a bad ruler as well – the whole King’s Circle and abandoning-the-coastal-duchies thing? The funny thing was that while reading, I felt as if I had read something similar several times already… until I tried to come up with examples. My mind immediately jumped to “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” (which it does frequently – Qantaqa is definitely one of the reasons for my “everybody’s got a wolf!” reaction), but no, Elias is the rightful king. It took me several days to remember The Lion King, and one of my own old stories. So I guess I haven’t read it that often, although I’ve written it (and if I ever rewrite that story, I will make that usurper a little less of a stereotypical bad king.)

What I liked, on the other hand, was the way the focus shifted from the Red Ships to Regal and then to Elderlings and dragons, the overarching theme that links the different series set in this world. (OK, I have only read the first part of the Tawny Man Trilogy, but I’m pretty sure there’ll be dragons, too.)

This is another thing that’s easy to do wrong, easy to make it seem as if the author couldn’t make up his/her mind about what he/she wanted the story to be about. I did actually wonder if the mystery about Forging would ever be cleared up – and then it not only was cleared up, but even closed the circle back to the dragons.

I didn’t expect it to be cleared up in such a short way, in one of the “quotes” that are placed at the beginning of each chapter. But then, it makes sense – the trilogy is written in first person, after all, and Fitz can hardly describe something he didn’t witness personally. I find the quotes a good idea – they give us a wider view of the events in the Six Duchies, the things Fitz isn’t involved in, or background info while avoiding an annoying info dump in the middle of the story. Although I sometimes found them a little repetitive.

What else? I’ve already babbled on so long, but I always seem to find another thing I want to babble about.

This trilogy had no “dessert”, no lovey-dovey happy end. Kind of like our Christmas dinner, too, because we were just too stuffed and couldn’t eat our cake until several hours later. Which isn’t to say there is no romance, but it’s threaded through the middle of the story rather than finding fulfillment at the end. Kind of how we eat schnitzel with cranberry jam (or redcurrant jelly, in our family, because we get that free and homemade from Grandma). Much as I usually like my dessert, I actually liked this quite a lot. It’s a refreshing change, and I think a traditional happy ending wouldn’t have fit well anyway.

Assassin’s Quest. I like this cover. I have “Fool’s Errand” and “The Dragon Keeper” with similar ones, and I kind of wish the rest were the same, but I’ll still keep buying what’s available and/or cheap. My books never match (except for the  Inkworld trilogy.)

Oh dear. Nearly two thousand words of praise – was there anything I didn’t like?

Yes. The translation.

I know, I know. I really should know better than to buy books in translation when I can get the English original, but sometimes I’m just impatient. And maybe I’m unreasonably critical with translations (same thing with movies. Never watch a movie with me if I’ve read the book.) I’ve been that way pretty much since I started reading in English. At the very least since I made the mistake of reading Harry Potter in translation. (OK, stop. Stop. Don’t go there. Mustn’t rant about that now.)

And I seem to be going through a particularly critical phase right now. When I read a book in translation, I feel like I’m constantly picking out mistakes (if I can spot them without even having read the original, something is seriously wrong), and if I read it in original, I’m always thinking about how I would translate it. Kind of annoying, but I can’t stop.

To get back to the Farseer trilogy, specifically Assassin’s Apprentice, which was thankfully the only part I read in translation: Der Weitseher is a “new and revised translation”? Seriously? If this is new and revised, do I want to know how bad the old and un-revised was? Or have they revised it to make it suck more? At least the old translations kept the titles more or less the same. Der Weitseher means “The Farseer”, which at least makes some sense. The old translation was titled, Der Adept des Assassinen, which is a more or less literal translation, although I guess there were quite a few people who looked at that title and just thought, “huh?”, because neither “Adept” nor “Assassine” are very common words in German.

But the other titles? Royal Assassin went from Des Königs Meuchelmörder, which is more or less literal, to Der Schattenbote (“The Shadow Messenger”), and Assassin’s Quest from Die Magie des Assassinen (“Assassin’s Magic”) to Der Nachtmagier (“The Night Magician”) – and both of these just make me go, “huh?” I mean, seriously? What? What is this supposed to mean? Did I read different books, or is my memory so bad, but I have no idea what those titles are supposed to refer to.

I don’t know how well or badly the text itself is translated. That was one book where I didn’t pay so much attention to that – I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that if any particular errors had stood out, I’d remember them. Or maybe I simply didn’t notice them because I was so distracted by the names.

Oh. My. God. The names. Again: what? And why? I mentioned earlier that I don’t like books that mix real and made-up names. Well, that’s nothing compared to what this translator did.

I don’t usually like it if names are translated, but if people have character traits for names, yes, please, translate them. That shouldn’t be too hard, right? A professional translator should be able to find German equivalents for Chivalry, Verity, Regal, Shrewd, Patience… right?

Well, for some of them, she did. King Shrewd becomes König Listenreich, Prince Regal, Prinz Edel, which isn’t quite literal, but close enough.

But the rest? Chivalry turns into Chivalric, which is definitely not German, and if I hadn’t already known what “chivalry” means, that name would have been gibberish to me. (And I don’t think the average Austrian knows the word “chivalry”, and I’d guess it’s about the same for Germans – I definitely didn’t learn it at school. I have the Sorting Hat to thank for it, and now I wish my brain would stop singing, “their daring, nerve and chivalry set Gryffindors apart”!)

Verity becomes Veritas. OK, I must have missed the part where they spoke Latin in the Six Duchies. And also, if I hadn’t taken Latin at school, that name would only make me think of the Austrian school book publishing house of the same name.

And Patience? How, how do you get from “Patience” to “Philia”? Why drag Greek into that mess as well, and for the sake of all that is holy, they don’t even mean the same thing! I was pretty confused when I read the second book in English, I had no idea who this “Patience” was, at first – but more than that, if I hadn’t switched languages, I’d totally have missed out on the contrast between Patience’s name and her personality.

I really have to shut up about this – I can work myself into quite a ridiculous rage by thinking about bad translations.

The other issue I had with the translation is one I can’t blame the translator for, and I don’t know how to do it better. Some things just don’t work in German. In German, all nouns are capitalized, so there is no way to differentiate between, for example, a “skill” and the “Skill”. So the Skill is translated as “die Gabe”, which could mean “gift” or “talent”, not quite literal maybe, but it works.

The Wit is even harder to translate – there simply is no German word that means exactly the same. Still, I’m not quite happy with the translation “Alte Macht” (“Old Power”), because it is too close to “Old Blood”.

In the case of the Sacrifice, the translator went for all-caps. Which is another case of I-don’t-know-how-to-do-better, but I still don’t like it. It looks clumsy. I’ve never seen anyone use all-caps in a book originally written in German, and it just screams “translation of a capitalized noun!” at me. Sorry, maybe I’m unreasonably demanding, but stuff like that throws me out of the story. A good translation should make me forget that it is a translation. And this one definitely did not.


* It recently occurred to me that my sensitiveness in the name thing might be a cultural thing. In the US (and probably other countries), people seem to be able to name their kids any damn thing they want, but here in Austria, we can’t. Maybe that’s why I have difficulty with different naming systems within the same culture.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 23:48

    Oh, this was an interesting read! I wish I knew enough German to read novels, but as it is, I only remember enough to say inappropriate things at parties to people I meet from the region.

    My introduction to Robin Hobb was about a decade ago with Assassin’s Apprentice. I think I read the Liveship Traders trilogy between reading the books in the Farseer trilogy, and I have only read the first book of the Rain Wild series (which, by the way, irked me at a low level throughout the entire novel–the main character just doesn’t seem well-developed, to me, for all the stuff he’s gone through in his short life. It’s like he’s not completely experiencing the events, and when he picks up on that and starts to worry that others might be catching on, he reacts like he “should” to kind of cover his sociopathic apathy up. It’s almost like reading L’Etranger, in some ways. Also, I can’t wait to read the other books to see when he finally comes out as gay.). But I do enjoy Hobb’s world!

    I’ve never thought about translation issues–I’ve come across it when things are translated into English, of course, but more in the professional science world, not in personal entertainment. I can’t imagine how frustrating it might be to have the names change on you between books in different languages!

    It seems to me your issue with translating capitalized nouns isn’t really one of translation: it’s more one of style. Instead of capitalizing every letter of the word, which is jarring, I would just italicize the whole shebang, which is a common practice with words and phrases from foreign languages–the word could even be kept in the original English, if desired, to further emphasize its conceptual difference from the specific meaning. Sure, some people may not be able to understand it, but the actual word is not as important as the concept–and if a bad translation throws that concept down the toilet, then it’s harming the reader more than just not translating it.

  2. February 14, 2012 06:52

    I think keeping the word in English would throw me off even more. But italicising is definitely better than all-caps, because it doesn’t stand out quite that much.
    I guess what I’d have done as a writer, writing in German, is make up a word in the Mountain language, and mention that it actually means “sacrifice”. But writing in English, I’d probably not have bothered either. But that doesn’t help with the translation, though.

    It’s been a while since I read the Rain Wild Chronicles, so I don’t remember much of them – gotta reread soon, though, because there’s a new book out. Which reminds me, I have to check if the bookstore has it. Anyway, I think the parts I liked most were the glimpses of Liveship Traders characters – like I said, I have a hard time letting go of characters (so it’s kind of lucky that Robin Hobb doesn’t allow fanfic… I shudder to think what a timesuck that would turn into. Not to mention I don’t really want to accidentally read any more I-have-to-gouge-my-eyes-out sort of terrible stories.)

  3. Sophia permalink
    April 12, 2012 00:34

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    I just finished reading the entire Farseer trilogy in about 3 days (I just couldn’t put them down. A bad habit of mine). Anyways, I stumbled across your blog entry, which I absolutely loved! Not just because of the parallels you drew between eating and reading (I know I tend to do them at the same time and always end up spilling something on my shirt in a graceful manner) but because of what you said about translations and names. SO TRUE! I have never found another soul so like-minded on the topic of book translations. You made my day. The horror of wrong and just out of place book title translations has been nagging me ever since I first started reading books in their original language and I have often and maybe too often ranted about it to my friends, none of whom have ever understood the pain those bad translations have caused me. I also really like your pictures of plants, even though I am shamed to admit I know next to nothing about gardening and horticulture. I will continue to procrastinate and read the next trilogy. So much greatness. I would be curious to find out about other fantasy books/series you have read/reviewed. Eragon maybe?

    Keep up the great writing and I am glad that there is at least one other Austrian out there that shares my love for correct translations and pretty covers 😉

    • April 13, 2012 06:22

      I didn’t much care for Eragon, so I decided not to review it. I don’t want to review a book if I’m only going to end up mocking it. There should be a bit on Inheritance in one of the “mini-review” posts – here. If you click on the “Fantasy” tag, most of the posts are book reviews – mostly “mini-reviews”, and a couple of separate posts for Harry Potter, Tad Williams and Jenny-Mai Nuyen.
      I just finished the Tawny Man trilogy myself – going to review it soon, but first I want to read the Rain Wilds Chronicles as well.


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