Monday, 16 January 2012

Translating a Tom Stoppard Play on Words into French – and yes, pun very much intended...

Sarah Adams: “It ain’t what you lose, but how you gain it in translation...”
Maybe contrary to popular opinion – or do I mean unpopular opinion? Either way, it’s not like I’ve carried out a survey – the pun is a challenge I always relish when faced with a new translation; in fact, I would go as far as to say: the more the merrier.
There are many reasons for this, as I see it, but mainly it is because I have very much come to believe in Sarah Addams’ above philosophy. I also take Lena Kaarbebol’s point, the Danish writer of children’s stories. She translates her own books into English: “Translation is impossible,” she states, but “Transformation is not.” She sees translation as one more re-write; or a “writer’s tool”, with which she is able to “gain new insight into what my characters might say or do” – she sees the story afresh! More importantly, she says: “Language is bound up with the way we see the world. And despite teasing similarities, even the most closely related languages do not match, word for word. A switch in language means a switch in perception.”
Indeed, it is armed with these last two sentences that I approach any play-on-words. And while I do not normally adhere to the concept of believing that the original author is sitting beside me – ‘this is what the author would have written, here, today, were s/he writing in English’ – I believe that translating the pun is where we, as translators, shouldn’t feel too guilty in allowing ourselves that romantic privilege – all translators do it in spite of themselves, I am sure.
Without resorting to a dictionary, or another quotation, I need firstly to ask just what a pun is and its intention. Actually, I prefer to think of a ‘play-on-words’, for such a title offers me at least two clues to go at: ‘play’ and ‘words’. Having fun with words, then? This, however, should not distract me from the pun’s possible intention, which could be anything from comical confusion – staged farces couldn’t live without them – to corrosive satire – extract the puns in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and we’d be left with half a book.
But I do believe that Lena Kaarbebol’s wise words offer that handy “tool” with which to approach the pun, which either works by a rare literal translation, or by creating another pun – all depending upon its satirical importance. Or it doesn’t work at all, in which case I might look to ‘compensate’ with a preceding or subsequent sentence – gain something elsewhere in translation, as Sarah Addams might put it. After all, as Phyllis Zatlin rightly points out: ‘A pun that is not translated as a pun stills yields its information content.’
Bearing in mind Laurence Venuti’s very valid concerns about the status of the translator today – which isn’t a good one – I guess what I’m trying to say is that a translator should strive to get as much fun out of translating as possible. Language is bound up with the way we see the world, and conceptual metaphor, the proverb, the pun, are all ways in which we have the possibility to delve right into the spirit of the text – why not imagine the source text author is looking on with a smile?
As for the pun, then, my strategy is a simple one: if nothing comes to mind immediately – which is rare; I tend to work quickly – then I move on, leave it to the subconscious process; something will come along in the next 24 hours, rather like the source text author might work.
For Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, I did just that: met with my first ‘hurdle’ on page 3 and decided to move on:
AEH: ‘[...] There are places in Jebb’s Sophocles where the responsibility for reading the metre seems to have been handed over to the Gas, Light and Coke Company.’
The salient word being ‘metre’ – either poetic beat or something we might once have put a shilling in.
My response was:
« Il ya des parties dans le Sophocle de Jebb où la responsabilité concernant la scansion semble avoir été mise en place en accordance avec les mesures de sa taille. »
My gloss is:
‘It there has parts in the Sophocles of Jebb where the responsibility concerning the scansion seems to have been put in place in accordance with the measurements of his waist.’
What is the purpose here of Stoppard’s pun? Primarily to make the audience laugh. One doesn’t put money in a ‘metre’ in France exactly, so I chose to play with ‘mesure’ – ‘measurement’ in English – which can be used for poetry as well as clothes sizes. If I’ve managed to keep with the theme, yet chosen to play with a different word, then perhaps I’ve attained my goal with part compensation. I believe the translation works equally well.
A pun I was actually able to put to the test earlier this year, on a real live French boy, was my translation of a chapter from children’s author Roald Dahl’s The BFG – now here’s a writer who enjoyed his word play! And rightly so: nobody appreciates a pun more than a child; I think it’s the thrill of getting it. My daughter loves this one in particular:
‘Meanings is not important,’ said the BFG. ‘I cannot be right all the time. Quite often I is left instead of right.’
The translation I tested on the French boy reads:
« Les signifiances n’avons pas d’importance, dit le GGG. Je ne peux pas toujours avoir des raisons. Des fois c’est plutôt des raisins. »
Here is something of a part back/part literal translation:
‘Meanings has not any importance, said the BFG. I cannot always have reasons. Sometimes it’s more like grapes.’
The ‘left’ and ‘right’ wordplay was out of the question, but again I was able to work with the same sentence, and add to the theme of food: ‘avoir raison’ – translating as ‘to be right’; literally ‘to have reason’ – and ‘avoir raisins’, literally ‘to have grapes’. Once more, if something was lost, something else was gained – Roald Dahl is one of those writers I can’t help but feel is sitting beside me! As for my little French friend, well, his mum tells me he now uses it at parties.
Very free rewriting is better than omission, I have heard said somewhere, I just can’t remember where... And as I sit here writing this blog, keeping in mind all I have said, I arbitrarily turn a page of Lewis Carroll’s The Annotated Alice and meet with:
“Why did you call him tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily. “Really you are very dull.”
Still looks scary out of context, doesn’t it... but that’s all it is, out of context. I must have a go at translating the book one day.
Sarah Addams and Lena Kaarbebol quotations taken from a copy of Outside in, Translating Children’s Literature
Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, 1997, Faber and Faber
Roald Dahl’s The BFG, 1996, A Ted smart Publication
Phylis Zatlin quotation taken from her Theatrical Translation and Film Adaptation, 2005, Multilingual Matters Ltd
The Annotated Alice, Lewis Carroll – chapter provided by BJ Epstein

Biography of Chris Rose:
After graduating in French Language and Literature with subsidiary Spanish from The University of Sheffield, I have mainly taught English, in London, on the south east coast of England, and in France, where I lived for nearly eight years. It was in France where I also began to write, completing a novel as well as a number of short stories. I’ve also dabbled in children’s stories – not the easier option some might believe.
I am currently reading for a Masters in Literary Translation at The UEA, where I am able to combine just about all my language interests in the one package; it is a course I’d recommend for any budding novelist/poet/ translator...

Monday, 9 January 2012

Belay the translator!

One of the things I have enjoyed about studying Literary Translation is being given texts that I have never been faced with before or would never have thought myself capable of doing. From nonsense rhyme to a psychological thriller, we have had a wide range of texts put in front of us. But there has been one genre that I knew was going to be quite a challenge for me: Drama. Everyone who goes to school in England will have had their fair share of Shakespeare. I completed my secondary education in Turkey and we did not study English Literature. The fact that I have never studied the genre I’m translating may not be such an issue; I can read the play and get a sense of what is going on and the style it has been written in. But no, the play in question is Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. For all I know I may as well be translating Carroll’s Jabberwocky again! But at least those were made up words. This is nonsense in a language that I can actually speak. I have never really felt at a disadvantage before when translating from or into English. But this time I’m not so sure of myself. As for the references, those are a completely different matter.

I start translating the first two lines into Turkish and already there is a problem.

Charon ‘Belay the painter there, sir!’

From the introduction I already know that someone is approaching the bank of the Styx. I look up what ‘belay’ means and it turns out to be a term that means to fasten or secure. So there’s a painter approaching the bank of the Styx and Charon is ordering someone to moor the boat. After having translated about a page or more I realise that this person is not actually a painter, but a Professor with a possible personality disorder. And that the reference to ‘the painter’ is the Victorian art critic John Ruskin who appears a few lines down in the play. There are many more references to Oxford and mythology in the text which makes it especially difficult when translating for a Turkish audience. I do not want to under mind them but I doubt they would get the references at all. What do I do then? Do I try and find an equivalent, or do I just leave it as it is? The setting of the play is so particular I think I need to leave it as it is, plus there is no equivalent that I can think of. Another aspect of the text that I thought might be a problem was the use of Latin and Ancient Greek. This is where I feel at a disadvantage on behalf of my Target Culture. I am afraid of having already alienated them with my references to Oxford and now they have to struggle with dead languages. But wait, Stoppard has saved me the trouble and has provided translations in English. All is not lost after all!

Of course there are many other issues related to the translation of Drama. I have to think about the target audience of the text. Is this going to be read by an academic or am I translating for the purpose of a performance? Does the dialogue flow as well as in the original? Should I just trust my language abilities and leave the rest to the audience?

After all this complaining I am glad I got given this assignment. As translators we may not always (or never) be lucky enough to pick what we want to translate and should be willing to give different genres a go. However hard I found the translation of this play, I have not thrown the towel in yet with Drama. Although next time I might start with something a bit easier!

Selin translates from French and Turkish into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA where she did her undergrad in Modern Languages. Her literary interests include magical realism and crime fiction and she occasionally translates Turkish poetry.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Mystery of Translating Crime Fiction

It is my view that in order to translate a literary text, it is necessary to have some understanding of its genre. Given that conventions can differ between cultures, a translator should ideally have read a number of texts from that particular genre in both the source and target culture before beginning to translate.

Crime fiction is a genre which has been hitting the top of the bestseller lists for a while now and novels of this kind from Scandinavia in particular have seen an impressive rise in popularity. Translated crime fiction, therefore, currently fills the shelves in bookshops and in libraries. So it seemed to me, as an aspiring translator, important to consider the characteristics of crime fiction and some of the challenges involved in its translation.

What did I already know about crime fiction before I began reading about it academically for the Case Studies module? As a library assistant, I know only too well that crime books are extremely popular. Not only that, people who read crime fiction do not generally pick up one book with a yellow ‘CRI’ sticker on the spine and then head for a different section of the library. They select a stack of crime books. They read an entire series from start to finish. They read every book ever written by one author then move on to the next author ‘who writes like’ the first. Crime fiction is addictive and this I have learnt from experience. I was brought up to read about and indeed watch Hercule Poirot exercising his “little grey cells” and have recently devoured twenty novels about M.C. Beaton’s middle-aged amateur detective, Agatha Raisin. And this was all before I was introduced to the unputdownable chilling thrillers by Sophie Hannah.

In fact, crime fiction has long been criticised for its formulaic nature and as a result has traditionally been classed as ‘low’ literature. However, as I have already identified, crime fiction is a popular genre and I would even argue that this could be due to its formula as readers step into the detectives’ shoes and attempt to solve the riddles, which they know will undoubtedly be solved by the end of the final chapter. It could be that readers are most attracted to the charismatic nature of the hero or the gripping plotlines with their anticipated unexpected twists and graphically violent scenes.

Or perhaps the popularity of these works of fiction stems from the honest and often brutal portrayal of real life. As B.J. Epstein discusses in the article ‘Girl with the Dragon Translation: Translating Thrillers and Thrilling Translations’, through the portrayal of crimes and the reactions to them as well as the specific language used by crime authors, the reader is given an insight into the ideology and mindset of the culture in which the novel is set as well as those of the author. The boom of Scandinavian crime fiction has previously been put down to the loss of faith in the welfare system and at a recent conference called ‘Crime across the Continent’, Dr. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen similarly mentioned its “emphasis on social realism and critique” whilst Barry Forshaw, who has written extensively on the subject, talked about the fact that Scandinavian crime writers are now regarded as “social commentators.”

As crime fiction is so deeply rooted in and reflective of a specific culture, the translator is faced with a number of difficult decisions to make such as those regarding names, places and cultural references. The language of crime fiction has been discussed at great length, for example by Epstein, because the use of slang, dialects, swearwords and jargon feature heavily in such novels and the usage of such language varies between cultures. Should the source culture be reflected as closely as possible in the translation? Surely this would enable the target audience to learn about different cultures and ideologies whilst remaining faithful to the original intentions and voice of the author. On the other hand, the translator could change aspects of the original text in order to make it more accessible to the target audience but with the risk of losing in translation elements of the source culture which are important to the text. However, in this case, what is likely to be gained instead is an insight into the ideologies of the target culture and indeed the translator. In addition to cultural and linguistic aspects, the translator must also take into account the translation of suspense whilst being careful not to provide the target audience with any additional hints which did not appear in the original.

It is safe to say that the translation of crime fiction is challenging as I have learnt from my own attempt to translate a section of The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah into German. However, it is also extremely rewarding to solve the puzzles we are faced with in such translations. In fact, I believe that translating crime fiction is of great importance because, as Porter suggested, the novels which are popular within a certain culture can tell us a lot about that culture and, as a reader of crime fiction, I hope that it could help the so-called ‘low’ literature of today become the classic literature of tomorrow.

Fiona Hayter translates from German, French and Spanish into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA where she is also undertaking an internship at the British Centre for Literary Translation. You can contact her at