Translation is a mediation. The role of the translator isn’t simply to recreate a text word-for-word, but to accurately convey the same meaning in a different cultural context. It’s known as the theory of ‘sense-for-sense’ translation.
Translators, therefore, must interpret language idiom, dialect, metaphor and connotation, which can mean modifying content too. These changes seem small, but they are essential. Like a musical composition, the ‘performance’ is an interpretation. If your fingers are too heavy or too light, the piece can be distorted.
Here we take a look at some popular literary translations to consider if and when hypercorrection of language is appropriate.
Does hypercorrection render translated text misrepresentative?
A translator’s creativity and originality can sometimes represent a threat to the integrity of a literary text, argued Professor Lance Hewson at an event with UCL’s Centre for Translation Studies. His findings showed that Gerard Hopkins’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Mme Bovary regularly uses both explicitation and addition.
He argued that Hopkins’s translation changes the interpretation of characters. For example, in giving the philanderer Rodolphe more florid and poetic language in his dialogues with Emma, Hopkins makes him “play the part of a different sort of lover” altogether. And the passage in which Mme Bovary decides to kill herself is 80% longer in Hopkins’ version, which cannot help but modify interpretation of the scene.
If there’s danger in too much of the translator’s own creative energies present in revised works, there’s also a danger of a translator stripping original texts of their grammatical style. When Barbara Epler of US publisher New Directions discusses the art of publishing, she lamented the house’s first attempts to translate the works of Portuguese author Clarice Lispector: “The portuguese of Lispector is broken… and we’d created something neat, and not at all the same…”. Translators tried to smooth her language, to correct odd punctuation and weird phrasings, but it does her a disservice: if you take out the weirdness of Lispector, then you take out Lispector.
How do we handle regional and dialectical writing?
Poetry in local dialects continues to flourish in Italy, together with novels that, like those of the Sicilian detective-story writer Andrea Camilleri, are dense with local idiom and phraseology. Indeed, the only absolutely neutral and hypercorrect Italian is to be found in translated fiction.
One way or another, prose style in Italy constitutes a gesture of allegiance and belonging, whether to an elite, a youth culture, an ideology, or a class. Unless a translator is able to render such regionalism in translation, the resulting text has hardly the same cultural value.
Accents and dialects can similarly be used to portray a character’s social standing, but these are ultimately phonetic devices, and prove difficult to handle in translation.
Literature and translation lecturer BJ Epstein has produced work on the translation of dialects, in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rather than speaking in the standardised American-English of the time, the characters in Twain’s novel speak in numerous different dialects with varying comical and political implications.
However, language standardisation is, more often than not, the preferred method employed by a translator. In the cases studied by Epstein, this means every character in Huckleberry Finn speaks the same common form of language no matter what their background. The result strips away much of the political and social texture from the book.
There are cases that have translated dialect with success. The Scottish accent of Gimli in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, needed to be rendered in other languages to reflect the fact that he speaks with a regional accent with a particularly tribal heritage. In the Russian translation, he speaks with a distinctive south Georgian dialect, which to an Eastern European reader conveys a similar provincial feel.
Canadian francophones tend to use more anglicised and slang terms in everyday speech. For example, they might refer to seventy as ‘septante’, which in metropolitan french takes the more standardised construction ‘soixante-dix’. ‘Why’ in French is: ‘pourquoi?’, but in Canada you’re more likely to hear someone ask ‘à cause?’ Likewise, a bathroom is ‘une toilette’ in France, but in Canada you’ll hear the word ‘bécosse’, a deformation of the English ‘backhouse’.
And not to forget US English vs UK English—words like elevator, trash and sidewalk are recognisable to a British audience, but not so immediately relatable. Likewise, a US reader might not understand a reference to primary school or understand why we all snigger at the name ‘Trump’.
Spelling is often ‘localised’ in literature in translation: color for colour or realize for realise, but further efforts towards ‘Americanisation’ are also made, as in US ‘translations’ of A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. While British Pooh and Piglet enjoy skipping, the American pair play jump rope. There are also grammatical changes, as Eeyore exclaims “I’ve gotten all spruced up for spring” while he ponders being reunited with his tail: “Swishes real good, too.”
Wordplay and linguistic innovation
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde uses wordplay on ‘Ernest’—the nickname of the protagonist—and ‘Earnest’—meaning sincere—to make a comedic effect though association of a characteristic the protagonist certainly has. In any other language, the name would have to be changed to make sense of it. Sadly, that kind of wordplay is lost in translation.
J K Rowling’s characters similarly connote characteristics: Professors Lupin, Snape and Sprout to name but a few. Wizarding terms are similarly noted for their linguistic innovation. Some of the words are transparent blends of existing words (animagus blending ‘animal’ and ‘magus’) and others are more onomatopoeic (Bludger). This a cause of significant concern when it comes to translation.
The name Dumbledore, for example, derives from an old Devonish word for ‘bumblebee,’ which was replicated in the Czech translation as Professor Brumbál. However, for the Italian version, a literal translation was used—as ‘dumb’ can be synonymous for mute, the Italian Dumbledore is known as Prof. Silente.
Most of the time, translating words whose meanings are figurative is simple enough, but other times, cultural variations are not so easily navigable, and the subtlety of language is lost: any UK child knows what Sellotape is, but international readers might only know it as Scotch or adhesive, and so the pun on repairing a broken wand with ‘Spellotape’ is lost.
Metaphor and cultural connotation
The first translation of Camara Laye’s L’Enfant noir appeared under the english title, The Dark Child—a literal transposition of the French. But it is also pejorative in meaning: the adjective ‘dark’ has a negative connotation and it does not carry the same cultural meaning as ‘noir’ (commonly used to mean ‘African’) in French.
A later version of the same novel was consequently released under the title The African Child, a more accurate representation of the cultural dichotomy at play within the novel.
Another technique used is amplification, where the translator adds more information to the original text for the reader to be able to make the metaphoric expression clearer. For example:
“Et puis, où nous étions, ne permettait pas de se tenir à l’écart. En décembre, tout est en fleur et tout sent bon et tout est jeune.”
“Besides, at the particular season, it was impossible not to wait to join in everything. In our December, the whole world is in flower and the air is sweet. All is young and fresh.”
Here, “décembre’ becomes ‘our December,’ ‘tout’ becomes ‘whole world,’ and ‘jeune’ becomes ‘young and fresh.’
Idiomatically, too, instead of translating knotty idiomatic expressions word-for-word, he resorts to the use of the direct English equivalents. For example: ’Une carrière où vous serez perpétuellement treize la douzaine’ translates literally as ‘a career where you will always be the thirteenth person in every dozen’, but idiomatically as ’Clerks are ten-a-penny.’
Since translation is an intercultural activity, the translator is expected to creatively exploit the altered cultural, linguistic and literary context in order to realise the different potentials of the target language.
Finally, there is the issue of grammatical gender, which is traditionally marked many languages, and how to render it into English.
Gender distinctions operate in the Spanish language using the definite articles el (m) or la (f), noun suffixes (like -a) or gendered adjective endings to indicate whether the person or thing in question is male or female. In cases of gender-indefinite reference, the neutral ‘das’ serves as the unmarked form as opposed to the masculine which serves, at least as the apparent neutrality, in English.
The poem ‘Ninguneo’ (‘Nobodying’) by the Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos, the first person reference hago (‘I do’) could refer, in theory, to a woman or a man, but in the second line, this ambiguity is resolved, as the verb construction reveals the sex of the referent:
“¿qué diablos hago aquí en la Ciudad Lux,
presumiendo de culta y de viajada“
But the English language text, which does not mark gender, must resort to other methods to supply the reader with the necessary information, in this case, about the sex of the protagonist in the poem:
“What the devil am I doing here in the City of Lights
putting on the airs of a cultured and well-traveled woman“
The translator has found it necessary to extend the line by adding a word, but has also slightly altered the focus of interest compared to the original text. Similar problems occur everywhere where the source language, by means of agreement structures, operates differently from the target language.