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?"
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!