Sunday, 18 March 2012

Lost in translation?

I was fortunate enough to share lunch with a gathering of East Anglian Writers yesterday and we were treated to an inspirational presentation by renowned academic and writer Sandra Smith, whose translation of Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky has received many plaudits. Sandra talked - fascinatingly - about the challenges and responsibilities of translating, especially posthumous works, and about how it is not just about changing French words for English ones. Idiomatic expressions in particular just don't always literally translate, even between European languages, and context can need 'adjusting'. Clearly in Sandra's work, she must also consider historical settings too.

When I asked Sandra what she does when expressions are untranslatable she said that the emotional essence of an expression is what has to be communicated. Sometimes a completely different metaphor needs to be found.

This made me consider what I do when I write reconstructed dialogue generated from an conversation in the Nepali language, for example. In Kathmandu, people talk of pulling another's leg and the first few times I heard this I presumed that it meant something like the English expression - a tease. But this is very far from what is meant.

To appreciate the idea of pulling someone's leg in Nepal, you should to imagine that the target of the leg-pull is up a ladder and you grab them from below and pull them off the ladder so that you can succeed in their place. It isn't a kind, friendly or generous act. When I discovered this translation I wondered how many other 'difficult' expressions I might have misunderstood and used inappropriately. Oh there is so much scope for misunderstanding, and it seems to me that the better you think you understand a culture, the more hot water you can get into.

Idiom (“Don’t call me an idiom”) and idiomatic expressions are one problem area but in addition I face to the challenge of trying to communicate the poetry and syntax of an unfamiliar language, without making anyone sound retarded when I translate it into English.

I strive to get humour into my prose wherever I can but trying to communicate what I personally find hilariously funny, can fall really flat. For example, the Nepali word for aubergine, baanta, is so similar to bhaanta (vomit) that I find them pretty much indistinguishable so when people talk of cooking or eating baanta I'd find it difficult to suppress silly playground giggles. Consequently I'm sure my Nepali friends and acquaintances think I'm a little unhinged. Similarly my son was especially delighted in what he saw as an almost-pun - the word hissab meaning bill rhymes deliciously with pissab, to urinate. More pausing for tittering.

Meanwhile, what I find odd is why my friends think I have a filthy sense of humour.... especially when it is often a case of the pot calling the kettle black.... or a leg-pull, perhaps

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Lent bumps

Final division of the university Lent bumps last evening 

The March sunshine enticed us out onto our bicycles and we reached the A14 bridge as the one-minute canon went off for the Lent bumps.

I'd not been that close to the starting cannons before, and it nearly scared the juice out of me.

I hope that the oarsman who was injured during one of the bumps - in a pile up in The Gut presumably - is fully recovered by now.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

I'm expecting

It was almost as exciting as an antenatal scan... seeing outline drawings of the cover of the new, northern hemisphere edition of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows. The artist, Neil Gower, had cleverly evoked Tharu designs, as well as lots of other elements of the story. Gratifyingly Bradt Publications listen and are interested in their authors (not all publishers are like this) and responded to my feedback. I asked if the designs could be slightly simplified, to mirror the almost child-like style of Tharu artwork making it look more ‘primitive’, more like the stylised forms we were used to seeing in western Nepal. I eagerly awaited the artist’s reaction to my suggestions (I wondered if he might not like what I said), but he absorbed my ideas and made lots of changes including turning the sunflowers into lollypops. THEN I couldn’t wait to see what this would look like once colour had been added.

I didn't have to wait long. The artist added suitably rich colours, in combinations of green, orange, pink and blue that conjure the vibrancy of the Gangetic Plains. It is finished and I'm delighted.

The crazy thing about publishing - and about anything to do with publishing - is that there are bursts of frenetic activity than total silence, until the next mad phase. Today I sent the tweaked typescript of the book to the lovely Commissioning Editor at Bradt so that an independent editor can go through it and see how it can be further improved. Now I predict that there will be a lull while the new editor gets to work. Meanwhile I continue to slowly sift through photos from our six years living in Nepal and have posted more in my Glimpse photo-gallery. I've organised them so that the order of the pictures follow the chapters of the book.