Friday, 16 December 2011

History and Translation

We have nearly finished this year’s Case Studies module of the MA, and it seems to have gone alarmingly quickly, in the way these things do. We have looked at translating children’s literature, drama and crime fiction, but have also touched on the translation of historical fiction. I found this particularly interesting, as I’m currently working on a (sample) translation of a Dutch historical novel, and being mentored in the process by a much more experienced literary translator, which is nice!

In a talk to the class about historical fiction, Philip Wilson mentioned the phrase ‘the tyranny of fact’. What this means for the translation of a historical novel, for example, is that the story cannot be relocated, which would not apply to translating some other genres of fiction. This fact was revealed to me in my translation when I tried to change the name of one of the characters – doh! Carelessly, I had changed ‘Cathrientje’ to ‘Catherine’, thinking this would be easier to pronounce for an English reader. My mentor pointed out that it was ‘unusual to change names in this kind of novel’, which is of course true, as Cathrientje would have been a real person.

Having established the fact that you can’t change the facts, because this is history, it's important to make sure you don't go too far back in history in your eagerness. In my translation, a character enters a room holding a candle in a candleholder. Anxious not to repeat the word 'candle', I initially had my character holding a sconce, but as my mentor pointed out, ‘this word sounds almost medieval’, and is definitely not correct for a book set at the turn of the 20th century. And I thought I was being so clever …

So, just because it’s history, that doesn’t mean we have to switch automatically to Ye Olde Englishe. However, we do need to get the period right. In my translation, I had a character studying 'oude talen' in Dutch, which I merrily translated as 'the Classics', until my mentor suggested this terminology might not be correct for the period. I rethought and decided to go for ‘the classical languages’.

Incidentally, a useful tool for getting the correct terminology for a particular historical period, and one I didn’t know about before, is the option to search in books only and to narrow by time period in Google. I found this helpful in establishing details about Liberty shantung silk dresses - wonder why they ever fell out of fashion? They would certainly brighten up the playground on the school run …

Finally, no historical research would be complete without becoming fully acquainted with the sexual practices of the day. At least that's what you can tell your partner when then happen upon you reading something dubious: 'It’s research, darling'. In my translation, I had a rather emancipated young character ‘sitting astride’ the object of her affection, but my mentor pointed out that this might be rather anachronistic. I haven’t decided what to change it to yet, but as I can feel this blog post turning into an episode of Carry On Translating, I think it’s time to stop …

Rebekah Wilson is a translator from French, German and Dutch. For more information, go to

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