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

1 comment:

  1. Tim emailed to say... Now then, “pulling your leg” comes from the days of public hangings in England when relatives and friends would pull your leg so you strangled more quickly. Correctly used, normally one says “Stop pulling his leg” Cos’ he’s dead!