Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Necessity is the Mother of In(ter)vention

The Irish have a reputation for being inventive users of invective – I should know, I am Irish and have spent most of my adult life so far in Dublin city, hearing the language of the street and the pub. There’s the classic long word bisected with a curse in the middle; abso-xxxx-lutely, the mixing of vulgar language and profanity; ah for Jaysus’ sake! My personal favourite is the former, it feels like language taken to its absurd yet logical conclusion. However, all this was taken away from me as a translator, when I began my dissertation recently.

I decided to see what would happen if I translated a text in French into English, but English of a certain flavour. Hiberno-English is spoken in Ireland, and glories in the turns of phrase I have just mentioned as well as many others, according to the region. My idea was to show that a quite specific kind, or variety of English can be just as expressive as any other. More importantly, I wanted to show that specific varieties of language can express big, important emotions and concepts as easily as a more standardised kind, (like the one you might read in a newspaper, or a literary novel).

The text I am translating is a short story by the Moroccan writer and novelist Fouad Laroui. It is an extended conversation between friends on the terrace of a café, during which ne character recounts a dramatic, often funny story about their city, El-Jadida. It is satirical and hilarious, pointed but subtle. Best of all, it reminded me of the conversations I would often hear on the bus, or at the next table at a Dublin café. This gave me a sort of model, a delineation for the kind of Hiberno-English I would employ. But the fact remained that nobody in the story really swears. Once or twice, this is suggested, and there are plenty of opportunities for the less than polite use of language in the friendly, yet combative discussions and teasing the story contains. As for blasphemy, it wasn’t even an issue.
The important thing to remember about translation, and this is especially obvious in literary translation, that it’s not just the words and the plot that have to be read again in the new language, it’s also aspects of culture. They affect both source and target text at every level; what characters assume to be normal, or good, or funny; the aspects of daily life which the author needs to explain to the readers and those things which are ‘obvious’. In seeking to help my readers in translation know Laroui’s characters better, am I inadvertently distorting them?

My solution was to let loose Dublin speech in the story and to employ just as much hyperbole and storytelling as in the source text. I did introduce one or two words which don’t exist in other Englishes, but the point was to be inventive. Without the blasphemous, curse-heavy aspect of Hiberno-English to fall back on, I had to engage more with the source text, play with sentence structure and make it funny without being rude. In my opinion, my story is the better for it. And, thank Jaysus, I have not misrepresented the characters, or at least done my very best not to.

Anna Bryant is completing her MA in Literary Translation at UEA, and hoping to start translating in the real world soon. She works from French and Irish to English and likes short and long form fiction. She is contactable at

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