January 2010


A profession I admire: Übersetzer

It took me awhile, but a year ago, whilst in England, I picked up some novels by David Lodge.

David Lodge is, in academic circles, famous for his academic trilogy, the David Lodge Trilogy, starting off with Changing Places, followed by Small World, and concluding with Nice Work. I’d never heard of the books before my journey to Bristol, but after learning about the books and listening to two full professors talk about the books, I decided to pick them up, along with one of his newer books, Deaf Sentence.

The trilogy was sold in one huge book and I immediately started reading it, although for reasons I’ve forgotten, I set it aside about half way through the trilogy and didn’t pick it up again until earlier this fall. And then once I was through with it, I picked up Deaf Sentence and started reading it immediately, starting with the dedication:

Conscious that this novel, from its English title onwards, presents special problems for translators, I dedicate it to all those, who over many years, have applied their skills to the translation of my work in to various languages….

Essentially I was put on notice and I smiled—yes, I could immediately understand how the title, “Deaf Sentence” could be problematic—although I didn’t completely understand how big a problem it would be until I got into the book. Obviously “Deaf Sentence” is supposed to play on the fact that it sounds similar to “Death Sentence.” Then it only gets more challenging: on the first page the narrator, who’s writing in the third person for fun, explains that he’s in a party and can’t tell if the person he’s talking to is saying “cider” or “side”; or if the person is saying “flight from hell” or “cry for help”.

These sound alike—but I could imagine that a translator could figure out words and phrases in the target language that would work, conveying the idea of the sound-alike words and phrases that are confusing.

It gets worse though: when a woman’s dress is complimented, her child says that it was purchased at “Marks and Spensive”—when of course the store name is “Marks & Spencer”. This works really well in British English, perhaps it’s a bit more obscure for readers based in North America, but it should be easily understood. But how on earth does one translate that word play? Obviously the store name needs to change, but how? It takes a lot of knowledge of English to get the word play in English, and then to translate into another language must require in depth knowledge about the target language.

On the very next page, the deaf man’s wife asks him for a “long stick”, while he’s seated at the breakfast table. Then it gets clarified: she wants a “long stick saucepan”, which still leaves him perplexed—it would be a long-handled saucepan, normally, but its apparent from his wife’s reaction that he still has the wrong answer. Then he realizes that she wants the “non-stick saucepan”. Which means that the translator needs to come up with a set of plausible sound-alike words and phrases that fit the breakfast table setting, preferably ending up with the man’s wife cooking “her porridge in a stainless steel saucepan which would be much more trouble to clean afterwards.”

I admire the artists who do this kind of translation.

It’s something I’ve actually pondered for awhile, perhaps most notably when in the middle of reading the Harry Potter series I learned that the name Lord Voldemort is an anagram for the character’s birth name, Tom Marvolo Riddle. I remarked upon this in my German class and my teacher said that in German they kept the name “Lord Voldemort” which would mean that the anagram would still work.

But I was having trouble imaging this – not that I didn’t believe her about German, but the novels are translated into a lot of languages and I could imagine a scenario where the name “Lord Voldemort” would be translated by some poor translator in the first book, only for the translator to discover when working on the second book that the name had to be an anagram for another name—and this is something that can’t be avoided, the letters move around magically with the flick of a wand in order to show the anagram.

I also pointed out that even if this wasn’t a problem for languages using the Latin alphabet which might decide to just take the name “Lord Voldemort” directly from English without changing the names, what about other languages like those using the Cyrillic (Волан-де-Морт) alphabet? Or Chinese? Or Japanese? Or Armenian?

There are all kinds of potential pitfalls for even the best translators working on the Harry Potter series, starting with the first book and working their way through it, not necessarily knowing how something in the first book will come into play in the fifth or sixth book.

It’s messy work to get it right.

And, when it’s done poorly, it’s annoying and distracting.

With poor translation, it’s easy to imagine that a reader would get annoyed with the translator on the first page—idiomatic expressions translated too literally, poor grammar structures, or just simply not “getting” the message of the original work and consequently not making intelligible sense in the target language.

Something like what you get from rudimentary machine translation.

Consequently it makes me admire the professionals – being a good translator must be a fantastic meal ticket.

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