Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Language and translation

If a manuscript contains dialogue in a foreign or alien language, should this be translated? And if so, how should this be done?

Translation : no.

Words or short phrases don’t need to be translated if the context makes it clear what they mean.

“Look, I’ll pay you twenty throne for it--”
Dyn!” she said through clenched teeth. “Dyn, dynal, dynalak! Now get out of here!”

The readers can probably tell that “dyn” means “no”. And the narrative could imply or suggest that the other words are a way of saying, “it’s no now, it will be no tomorrow and it will be no forever”, without spelling this out.

There are terms and sayings in other languages that can’t quite be translated, which don’t have exact matches in English – schadenfreude, savoir-faire and so on, so it’s realistic to have such terms in alien or fantastic languages as well.

Another reason not to translate something is if there’s more to be gained by allowing readers to imagine what it might mean. In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (Ender, Book 2), Quim insults his mother before a large crowd, in Portuguese.

"Mamae," he said loudly, mockingly. "Quen fode p'ra fazer-me?"
People gasped.

I can’t tell exactly what he said, but I know it was something shocking, and something he intended everyone to hear. That’s all readers really need to know; their imaginations will fill in the rest. Leaving a few things untranslated or not made entirely clear gives the impression of something going on beneath the surface, like the part of an iceberg that isn’t visible above the water level. I believe there’s a verse of a song in The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien left untranslated – and which contributes to the richness and mystery of his world.

Translation : yes.

Large sections of dialogue should be translated. Or better yet, not presented in a foreign/alien language at all, because it’s no fun reading through something really incomprehensible, and readers are likely to skip this. And if there are any words or short phrases which it is necessary for readers to understand immediately, those should be translated as well.

The question is, how to do so. In Speaker for the Dead, Card simply puts the English translation after the Portuguese speech.

“My true name is Detestai o Pecado e Fazei o Direito.” Hate Sin and Do the Right, Ender translated.

In another novel I reviewed, dialogue in Portuguese was translated by italicizing the English translation and enclosing it in brackets. I prefer the Card method, which blends the translation into the narrative more smoothly. Brackets always lend a story an academic feel to me, and they made the translations stand out.

In Watership Down: A Novel, Richard Adams translates the rabbit language Lapine through footnotes to the story, but this is a grey area. Too many footnotes and they can also seem too academic, plus they take the reader out of the story. A few times, after I’ve finished an especially long footnote, I’ve had to search for my place on the page.

If there are other ways to render translated dialogue, please comment and share them!


Maria Zannini said...

I'm glad you chose this topic, Marian. I've often wondered what was the least conspicuous method for using a foreign language.

I have a historical novel I'm editing now that uses a smattering of Spanish, Portuguese and French. The various characters are part of a pirate crew and their pursuers.

I try to be obvious with the intent of the word, rather than translate a word or phrase.

Only once when a long phrase was supposed to be said in French, did I write it out in English, with the narrator mentioning that it was spoken in French. In effect, the MC was translating what she heard.

I get a little annoyed as a reader if there is too much of a foreign language embedded in the story. I don't want to have to stop and figure out what was said. The intent is good enough for me.

Angela Ackerman said...

I can't help with the language (I think you covered it well!), but Becca is a master of introducing foreign words in fantasy for things in the world. She does it seamlessly by offering a few key details as the character interacts with it, and the word for it comes up either in dialogue or thoughts/pov so it's clear how the dots are connected.

Anonymous said...

Translated text, then re-translated text. All English.

GRRM once did this to great effect; the pov character spoke the native tongue, but did not let on when she had her interview with a rich slaver.

The slaver brought a translator, insulted the pov character up and down; lewd suggestions, mockeries, you name it. And then the translator would take the overall meaning and turn it polite and respectful.

It's not quite the same, but it's well worth mentioning while we're veering near the subject.

Anonymous said...

I've used other languages, mostly Japanese or Spanish. I only translate for the benefit of other characters.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Maria,

I forgot about the method of putting foreign words into a glossary at the back. One SF book which does this is Diane Duane's Star Trek novel The Romulan Way (Star Trek, No 35/Rihannsu Book 2).

Making the intent of the word clear sounds like a good idea. IMO, the worst place to put a translation would be in the middle of a tense confrontation or battle scene - even if this didn't slow down the pace, it might remind the readers that they're reading.

Marian Perera said...

elizaw - you mean the scene in A Storm of Swords where Dany inspects the Unsullied? It was so much fun to read, with the poor translator walking a fine line between rendering the spirit of the slaver's words but not the letter of them.

And that makes me wonder when A Dance of Dragons is coming out... :(

Anonymous said...


Yes! That scene! I was torn between being shocked at the language and giggling manically at the situation. Have I mentioned how much I love Dany?

A Dance of Dragons... I can't begin to say how much I've missed Tyrion. And Dany. And Arya... poor Arya. :(

If you haven't yet discovered Joe Abercrombie, though, you can console yourself with some of his 'First Law' series-- very much in the same vein, and GRRM really liked his work.