Category Archives: Translation

Lessons in Translation: The War Hasn’t Started Yet

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Here, professional translator Noah Birksted-Breen talks about translating the same play three times, taking into consideration different audiences and cultural reference points. You can also read an interview with Noah about Russian theatre here.

I have just finished translating Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Hasn’t Yet Started for the third time in as many years. I’m in an unusual situation – one translator creating three different versions of the same play. As far as I know, that doesn’t normally happen. I have tried to take advantage of each opportunity to re-translate the play, adapting it significantly to the specific target audience.

In 2015, I translated The War for the first time, for my Ph.D. at Queen Mary University of London. Subsequently, this translation was presented as a rehearsed reading at the Frontline Club in London. I knew that the Frontline Club attracts a specialist audience, already familiar with Russian culture. I left the play in quite a ‘raw’ state. For example, I could indulge my audience with references to ‘dachas’ rather than ‘country houses’. I left the language sounding rather ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’. To English ears, it was somewhat stilted – although it worked for people who already know about Russian culture.

In 2016, Theatre Royal Plymouth produced The War in the Drum Theatre in Plymouth (their studio space with approx. 200 seats). I developed my translation further with the director Michael Fentiman, who directed the production in Plymouth. Fentiman had a good eye for clarifying cultural references which would not be clear to audiences in the UK. So, ‘dacha’ would become ‘country house’. But there were more difficult decisions to be taken as well about ‘hidden’ references.

For example, one scene in The War refers to ‘another country’, without specifying which one. Russian audiences would know from the scene that it refers to Ukraine. Russia has been waging a covert – and later more overt – war against Ukraine since 2014. It felt wrong to name Ukraine in the scene, since the drama works on a metaphorical level, as well as commenting obliquely on real-world geopolitics. Fentiman encouraged me to develop the references in a certain way. For example, the Russian TV journalist who willingly broadcasts a ‘fake news’ story about Ukraine refers to ‘them’ and ‘they’.

Image by Dragonfly Design © created for Theatre Royal Plymouth’s production (2016) of The War Hasn’t Yet Started by Mikhail Durnenkov, translated by Noah Birksted-Breen.

In my second translation, working with Fentiman, I ended up going for ‘those other people’ – which is tacitly xenophobic or at least judgemental. This less literal approach to the original text helped to create the sense of two hostile, warring neighbouring countries without needing to specify Russia and the Ukraine. It even added to the drama of the scene, I think, by highlighting the mentality of ‘us versus them’, which motivated the scene and the play as a whole. (The playwright is looking critically at the ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather than endorsing it!).

In January 2018, a new production of The War opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse. It is produced by the same company, Theatre Royal Plymouth, but there is a new director and therefore the translation will also be different. This has been my favourite experience of translation to date. Working with the director Gordon Anderson, I altered my translation even more than in 2016.

I moved yet further away from translation as a technical process which is ‘faithful’ to the original. Anderson’s TV experience gave him a keen eye for opportunities to edit and shape the dialogue – a step closer to adaptation. In the past, I might have objected. Scholars often feel that retaining the ‘foreignness’ of the play’s language is the highest priority of translation. Yet, my approach to translation has changed over many years – and Anderson pushed me to develop my approach still further. At times, I added to the dialogue and at times, I cut dialogue from the scenes, where I felt that the spirit of the original was getting ‘lost in translation’.

This way of working sees the translator as essentially creating a ‘new play’. Obviously, this ‘new play’ has to embody the spirit of the original, but it needn’t be overly faithful to the original. Translating The War for the third time, I wanted the London audience to experience the drama (the story and structure) of this play, without getting bogged down in the ‘strangeness’ of the language itself. This method captures a more nuanced view of Russian culture. It aims to create a natural-sounding text in English which retains difference, or even ‘strangeness’, in the plotting or characters.

That makes sense when you think about it. After all, Russian culture is not ‘isolated’ in its own bubble. I regularly speak to Russian playwrights who tell me that they are equally inspired by Russian culture as by British playwriting. Any translation must find a nuanced balance between being ‘strange’ (or ‘foreign) and ‘natural’. The language should not be an obstacle for the audience. Otherwise, Russian plays are being translated solely to be watched by audiences who are already familiar with Russian culture.

I have come to believe that translation is more about capturing ‘unfamiliar ways of thinking’. In The War, there are a series of competing realities. Different characters see the world in contradictory ways. The play suggests that ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ cannot both be true. In other words, The War offers an experience of living in a post-truth era – just as relevant to British audiences as Russian ones. I have come to feel that translation is like telling somebody about a dream you had the previous night. You have to explain what you saw as clearly as possible, in a language which they will understand. The meaning of the dream is elusive…. What matters is how it felt when you were asleep, and finding a natural-sounding way to explain the odd experiences in the dream to your listener. I hope that my least ‘faithful’ translation of The War captures the dream-like but arresting quality of the original play in a clear and lucid language.

Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deer jumping in your heart?

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog, and was written by Dr Marianna Bolgonesi. Here, Marianna talks about the issue of metaphors when it comes to learning a foreign language. A long version of this post is available here.

Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that some words are more difficult to master than others. This seems to be particularly true for words with multiple meanings, and specifically words that can be used metaphorically.

But why? Metaphoric expressions vary greatly across languages, and they are often soaked in cultural habits and beliefs. For example, while English people may have ‘butterflies in their stomach’, Chinese people will have ‘a little deer jumping in their heart’. Moreover, while some of these expressions trigger images that can help the learners understand the metaphorical meaning, others are less clear, and some seem to have no rational explanation: alarms go off when they actually go on, and houses burn up as they burn down!

Image by Schwoaze on Pixabay

The following questions arise:

  1. Is metaphor, a universal phenomenon across languages, a hallmark of human language?
  2. Is it possible to distinguish what is universal and what is language/culture specific in relation to metaphor?
  3. Why is metaphor a problem for foreign learners and how do language learners understand and use metaphor?
  4. Can metaphor be taught? (And if so, how?)

These questions were explored in a discussion chaired by Dr Marianna Bolognesi with Professor Jeannette Littlemore (University of Birmingham) and Dr Linda Fisher (University of Cambridge) at an event in Oxford in February. During the debate it emerged how metaphors in language influence the way we think, and therefore, metaphoric expressions that we use on a daily basis can indeed be quite tricky for learners that have a different mother tongue, because they might think in different ways. If we look at how language shapes our world view, in particular when it comes to metaphoric expressions, we can see that while some expressions translate directly from one language to another, word by word, others do not.

Consider, for example, ‘the statement it’s raining cats and dogs’, a classic idiomatic expression (a specific type of very conventionalised metaphor in language) that we use to say ‘it’s raining a lot’. In other languages the image of cats and dogs is quite different: in Catalan it rains barrels and casks (Està plovent a bots i barrals), in Dutch pipe stems (Het regent pijpestelen), in Irish Gaelic cobblers’ knives (Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí) and in Norwegian female trolls (Det regner trollkjerringer). These various ‘entities falling from the sky’ are probably related to cultural traditions and experiences that are typically shared by the communities that speak these languages. These expressions are therefore very different from one another. However, they share an underlying common trait: all of them are quite unpleasant when falling from the sky, as well as unexpected, and heavier than normal (literal) rain. All of these common traits constitute the core, underlying meaning of these metaphoric expressions, which is related to our bodily experiences with heavy rain. These bodily experiences, at the very basic level of perception, are not that different across languages and cultures, because we are all humans and share similar bodies.

Even within the same language, for example English, it is possible to come up with creative variations of conventional metaphoric expressions. Urban Dictionary, for example, has an extensive list of alternatives to ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, including ‘it’s raining pitchforks’ and ‘it’s raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock’.

[…]

In the second half of the debate we focused on the problems that metaphors cause for foreign language learners, and the solutions proposed to overcome these problems. On the one hand, metaphors can indeed be problematic for learners, because learners tend to process linguistic input word by word, and translate word by word what they hear in a foreign language. However, metaphors, as already discussed, do not translate word by word, most of the time. Moreover, learners often do not realise that they have not understood the intended meaning, and this can cause additional problems in the classroom, because they give misleadingly positive feedback to the teacher (‘yes, we understood everything!’). It seems therefore crucial for the teacher to be very careful when using metaphors in the target language and to double check with the students how they have interpreted the metaphor.

Metaphors, on the other hand, can also be a very productive tool when used in the classroom to express beliefs and conceptualisations that students may be more willing to share through metaphors than through literal (and often quite abstract and difficult) language. In this sense, metaphors can help the students to embrace a creative way of thinking and talking, putting aside their fear of making mistakes, and conveying messages in a way that better reflects their personal, cultural and social identity.

Translating Songs: The Art of the Impossible?

This post was written by Dr Alex Lloyd, a lecturer in German at Magdalen College & St Edmund Hall. Dr Lloyd is a key member of the team behind the Oxford German Network, and a convenor of the Oxford Song Network. Today she tells us about when German and song come together…

How do you translate the words of a song into another language so that it still fits the music when it’s sung in the new version? This was the challenge my students set us when we offered to translate Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘An die Freude’ [Ode to Joy] for the collaborative translation collection, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives.

Schiller’s poem is well known in the setting by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. My second-year students suggested we attempt a translation which rhymed and scanned like the original and which could be sung to Beethoven’s tune. I had done translation workshops with students in the past which involved working with song texts (you can listen to some examples of German World War One texts here), and had also started to explore the theory behind producing singable or ‘vocal’ translations. So, we decided to try and fit our text to Beethoven’s music. Each student took responsibility for one or more verses of the text, and we discussed their ideas and solutions in our weekly translation class. The students enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the experience (it’s one thing translating by yourself, but quite another to have to reach compromises and negotiate!), as well as the challenge of thinking about text and music. One student reported: ‘It was great fun collaborating for this translation, as we realised we all emphasised different aspects of the original poem and had different interpretations of some of the images, so we had to pitch our ideas against each other to come up with a final version.’ When we were translating, we had to take a number of factors into account: the style and structure of the text, the register (formal or informal?), the literal meaning of words as well as the associations they have within society and culture. The first few lines of the first verse will show you what I mean:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

[Joy, the gods’ own spark of beauty
daughter of Elysium,
Fire-drunk pilgrims’ solemn duty
to your kingdom we shall come!]

This is not the sort of thing that comes up in everyday conversation.

Often, it’s actually quite difficult to translate a text without losing something of the original – references, sounds made by the position of words in a sentence – and to say just exactly what the original text did. To translate a text so that it also fits the rhythms of a song is a very tall order. Indeed, this kind of translation has been called impossible. We had to think about the style and structure of the music as well as the text: phrasing, rhythm, stress, range, word painting. We also needed to think about the needs of the singers (not putting awkward vowel sounds on a very high note, for example), as well as the function of the song (the tune is used as the European Union’s anthem though performed without words), and the needs of the audience members who are listening to it. To use a technical term from translation studies, we had to ‘compensate’, by trying to introduce things elsewhere to achieve the same effects overall. Vocal translation encourages us to ask questions about the dynamic relationships between text and music. Perhaps have a go at translating your favourite song from English into German. Can you make it fit the music without sounding really strange?

Singable translation might be difficult, but it’s something we can encounter without thinking about it. Many people at Christmas sing the carol ‘Silent Night’ which is actually a translation of a German song, ‘Stille Nacht’. Or, take David Bowie’s famous song ‘Heroes’ which he also performed in German and in French.  One of the students who worked on the translation is now doing an extended project on the way hymns change between languages, and another will be taking a course on advanced German translation next year. A group of students and I performed the singable English translation of the ‘Ode to Joy’ at the launch of the book, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives, in November. ‘It was a lovely surprise to be a sent a video months later of our translation being sung at the relay reading event in the Taylorian!’.

And you can see a clip of Dr Lloyd and her students singing ‘An die Freude’ here…

 

“Tiens la porte, Tinlaporre!”, Part Two

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posted by Simon Kemp

Last week, I left you with the problem faced by the French dubbers of Game of Thrones, who needed to find a phrase that meant something a bit like ‘hold the door’ and sounded something a bit like ‘Hodor’. So what did they come up with?

From ‘Odorr, it’s only a small step to au-dehors, the formal French expression for ‘outside’, which is pronounced almost the same way.

So in French, Meera yells, ‘Qu’ils n’aillent pas au-dehors!’, which becomes ‘pas au-dehors’, which becomes ‘au-dehors’ and then ‘Hodor’.

If you’re not familiar with the grammatical construction: que + subjunctive can be used in French as a kind of third-person imperative. So, just like you can say Go! in the second person – Va! or Allez! and Let’s go! in the first-person plural – Allons! – you can use this construction to say Have him go! or Let him go!: Qu’il aille !

Or Let them go (outside)!: Qu’ils aillent (au-dehors)!

Or Don’t let them go outside!: Qu’ils n’aillent pas au-dehors!

It’s maybe not the most natural way to say it. Qu’ils ne sortent pas! would be a more obvious thing for Meera to say in the circumstances, and even with the way she does say it, just ‘dehors’ would be more usual than ‘au-dehors’.

Qu’ils n’aillent pas au-dehors! is a bit formal and old-fashioned, perhaps more what you’d expect someone to tell their cat-sitter about their long-haired pedigree Persians than what you’d naturally scream out as you ran from ravening undead hordes. But given the quasi-medieval setting of Game of Thrones and the slightly formal, archaic language the characters often use, it actually works very well in the context.

Here’s a short article in French on the Hodor dubbers’ dilemma, if you’re interested to find out a bit more.

And here’s a list of how other brave dubbers and subtitlers around the world tackled the problem, from ‘Halt das Tor!’ (not too bad, Germany) to ‘¡Aguanta el portón!’ (Hmmm, Spain, not so sure about that one…)

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PS. The same grammatical construction appears in the most famous French quotation that nobody ever actually said. Marie Antoinette’s notorious ‘Let them eat cake!’ is, in the original French, ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!’

“Tiens la porte, Tinlaporre!”

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posted by Simon Kemp

The translator’s life is fraught with peril. Especially if there’s a long-running literary saga involved. Month after month, year after year, you wrestle the writer’s intentions into the target language, reaching for an impossible balance between expressing exactly what was meant and producing something that doesn’t sound hopelessly clunky and false in its new language. And then… And then you discover that a time-bomb was lurking in the source text all along, cunningly hidden, its deadly ticking sound unheard until it was too late to stop the countdown…

We saw in an earlier post how J. K. Rowling left such a device for her poor French translator, Jean-François Ménard, which, when it eventually detonated, left him with no option but to rename evil dark wizard Marvolo Gaunt as ‘Elvis’ in the French version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

At the end of the last season of Game of Thrones, viewers discovered that the world’s other favourite purveyor of magic and dragons, George R. R. Martin, had done the same thing. Now, as the seventh season is about to start, let’s look back at what happened.

If you know Game of Thrones, or as the French call it, er, Game of Thrones (the novel got a French title, Le Trône de fer, but the TV show is known by its English name), then you know about Hodor. He’s the big, friendly giant of House Stark, the lovable Hagrid-alike who, in later seasons, becomes the companion and protector of paralysed Bran on his mission to find the Three-Eyed Raven. He’s also, famously, a man of few words. Of just one word, actually, the nonsense word ‘Hodor’, which is all he can say, and from which he gets his name.

hodor-5

“D’accord,” thought the translators of the novels into French, “il dit ‘Hodor’, nous l’appellerons ‘Hodor’.”

“Pas de problème,” thought Dubbing Brothers, the French company with the contract to produce the version française of the TV show by dubbing all the dialogue into French. “Il dit ‘Hodor’, nous l’appellerons ‘Hodor’,” which will mean that the lip-movements you see on screen will match the dialogue nicely.

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Except, as it turns out, ‘Hodor’ is not a nonsense word. It has a very specific English meaning, which George R. R. Martin has known from the start, but which nobody found out until  Season Six of the TV show.

By which time it was much too late.

hodor-death

‘Hodor’, we discover, is a contraction of the sentence, ‘Hold the door’. To recap: Bran, Hodor and Meera are fleeing the horde of ice-zombies who have invaded the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave. As they rush outside, Meera shouts ‘hold the door!’, which Hodor then does, using his bulk to keep the cave door closed behind them, and sacrificing his life to keep the wights trapped while Bran and Meera escape. Bran, meanwhile, is doing his mystic mind-travelling thing, his consciousness simultaneously in Hodor’s mind in the present and time-travelling back a couple of decades to witness his family’s past at Winterfell.

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There, he sees Hodor-in-the-past, up to that point a normal teenager named Wylis, fall to the ground in a fit of premonition, and hears his cries of ‘hold the door’ gradually degenerate into ‘Hodor’, which will be the only word he says from that moment on. (It makes more sense when you see it.)

Oh dear. What to do?

If only Martin had let his translators in on the secret from the beginning, they could have rechristened Hodor something like ‘Tinlaporre’, French-language Meera could have shouted ‘Tiens la porte!’, and everyone would have been happy.

Now, though, the translators, subtitlers and dubbers for each of the many languages Martin’s work is enjoyed in have to translate the sentence ‘hold the door’ into something  that means approximately the same thing and at the same time sounds a bit like ‘Hodor’. It’s such a key moment in the saga that there’s no way to avoid it, but, for the French translators at least, no easy way to make it work.

So what did they do? Well, obviously, anything close to the literal translation, ‘tiens la porte’, won’t do at all. But there is a neat solution available. What they were aiming for was the French pronunciation of the character’s name, which, as you can imagine, was more ‘Odorr than Hodor. Can you come up with an answer of your own that works? I shall leave you with the problem, and tell you the dubbers’ solution next week.

Is Donald Trump bright? It’s a translation issue

This post by Professor Julie Curtis originally appeared on the Oxford Creative Multilingualism website.

Strolling past a Paris café recently I was amused by a disarming mistranslation on their menu – ‘Velouté de potimarron du chef’ rendered not as ‘The chef’s cream of pumpkin soup’, but instead by the somewhat bizarre ‘Softness of pumpkin of the leader’. There is always room for approximate translations in the world, and nobody will ever suffer any significant consequences from this particular error, even if the dish is unlikely to find much favour with foreign customers.

However, some mistranslations can have wider repercussions. Donald Trump, in several boastful speeches in the run-up to the election, claimed that Vladimir Putin had described him either as ‘a genius’, or as ‘brilliant’. This claim, which significantly increased perceptions across the world that the Russian government was supporting his campaign, turned out to be based on a simple mistranslation. Putin had described him as a talented man, certainly, but he also added that he was ‘yarkiy’ – a word which can reasonably be translated as ‘bright’ (as in ‘a bright colour’). But when applied to someone’s personality, there is no doubt that what Putin intended was an ironic comment on Trump as a ‘very colourful’ personality. Trump had no justification, therefore, to cite it as a compliment to himself from the leader of a world superpower. What he needed was a better translator.

This reminder that mistranslations can have important repercussions on the international stage is why we need to have lots of well-qualified linguists in Britain. It takes several years of study to achieve the level of knowledge and understanding to translate accurately, and that means that foreign languages are a great subject to study over a four-year course at university. And whether you opt for Portuguese or Japanese, Czech, Arabic, or German, your course will also provide an adventure: the compulsory third year abroad will take you away from your British university routine to live, work or study in one or even two foreign countries. That experience of independent living abroad at the age of 20 or so proves formative in many people’s lives – young people get to discover new landscapes, beautiful cities, or foreign rock music or cinema; they come to appreciate alternative ways of organizing society and family life; they acquire new friends, and even fall in love. All this undoubtedly impresses future employers too: many qualified linguists go on to acquire further postgraduate qualifications in a huge range of subjects, or else vocational qualifications – and then find themselves very much in demand for the most exciting jobs in international law firms, businesses, the world of finance, international organisations and journalism, as well as the more obvious careers of translating and interpreting. Employment rates for modern linguists are excellent.

The decline in numbers studying foreign languages in British state schools over the last twenty years is therefore deeply unfortunate. Differences in languages bring home to us just how different societies have evolved over time, how different peoples develop different priorities in matters as specific as how you should address a stranger, or as broad as how nations view matters such as land-ownership, gender, environmental issues or public transport. Discovering that other people live – and thrive – in differently-organised societies teaches us that we have much to learn and much to share with foreigners. It encourages openness to difference, and promotes tolerance. An increasingly monoglot Britain is likely to become more inward-looking. If modern languages had been truly celebrated and widely taught in the British education system, would British people really have voted for Brexit?

In September 2015 Donald Trump reproached former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – one of his political rivals who speaks Spanish fluently – saying that he should “set an example and speak English while in the United States.” Trump is also currently obsessed with building an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” between the US and Mexico. If you are a linguist, you learn to listen as well as to hear, to interpret as well as to understand: the trouble with walls is that you can hear nothing coming through from the other side.

Julie Curtis is Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. She is a Senior Researcher on our 4th strand, Creative Economy: Languages in the Creative Economy.

Europe

posted by Catriona Seth

In 1813, Germaine de Staël published a seminal work called De l’Allemagne, which offered a wide-ranging introduction to German romantic literature and philosophy. She had long been an advocate of learning from one’s neighbours and had a particular admiration for the British political system. She had also written Corinne ou l’Italie, a novel which suggested that Italy, at the time a fragmented series of little duchies, principalities and papal States, could unite around its common cultural heritage. She was very interested in what languages and reading foreign texts or those written in the past can teach us:

Comment pourrait-on, sans la connaissance des langues, sans l’habitude de la lecture, communiquer avec ces hommes qui ne sont plus, et que nous sentons si bien nos amis, nos concitoyens, nos alliés ? Il faut être médiocre de cœur pour se refuser à de si nobles plaisirs. Ceux-là seulement qui remplissent leur vie de bonnes œuvres peuvent se passer de toute étude : l’ignorance, dans les hommes oisifs, prouve autant la sécheresse de l’âme que la légèreté de l’esprit.

Enfin, il reste encore une chose vraiment belle et morale, dont l’ignorance et la frivolité ne peuvent jouir : c’est l’association de tous les hommes qui pensent, d’un bout de l’Europe à l’autre.

This is one of the extracts included in the anthology of texts mainly from the long eighteenth century, freely available to download here. All of them deal with the subject of Europe which seemed to us to be particularly topical. There are pieces taken from works by major figures like Rousseau or Voltaire – and others who did not write in French, like Gibbon or Kant. There are also some by forgotten authors. Most are short, some of them are almost aphoristic, a few of them are in verse. They all show that during the Enlightenment (and indeed before), thinkers were wondering about political integration, ties with neighbouring lands like Turkey or the Maghreb, common cultural practises and social rituals, but also about the role individuals might play in shaping the future of international relations.

Putting together the anthology was a collective effort. Like Tolérance. Le combat des Lumières, published in the aftermath of the January 2015 killings in Paris, it was carried out under the aegis of the Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle. Like its predecessor, it was a collaborative effort, piloted by my the Professor of French and Italian from the university of Augsburg, Rotraud von Kulessa, and by myself, with the help of colleagues from different countries. This, however, is only part of the story. We want people, wherever they are, to be able to use the book, to read it freely, to download it, to dip into it or to read it from cover to cover… That is already possible now. We also want it to be available to people who do not speak French or who would benefit from having the texts in two languages. Tolérance was translated into English in an amazing manner by Caroline Warman and 102 students and academics from Oxford—if you have not seen it yet, this is where you can find it:

http://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/418/r

Our plan is to translate L’idée d’Europe in the same way. Language students from all over Oxford and their tutors are getting involved and once the work is finished and the book online, we will make sure you get the inside story on this blog so… enjoy reading L’idée de l’Europe in its initial French version and watch this space for The Idea of Europe.

 

Harry Potter and the Rosetta Stone

 

posted by Oxford’s Creative Multilingualism project

When Creative Multilingualism hosted LinguaMania at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the Greek and Roman sculpture gallery was taken over by a crowd-sourced version of Harry Potter. During the evening event, visitors to the gallery were asked to help translate Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sentence-by-sentence into whichever languages they happened to know. The translations were written on a giant scroll rolled out along the length of the gallery, allowing visitors to see Oxford’s linguistic diversity unfold.

The activity was entitled “Harry Potter and the Rosetta Stone”, with a nod in the direction of the British Museum, home to the Rosetta Stone itself. It proved to be one of the most popular at LinguaMania and people queued up to be able to contribute and engage with this celebration of Oxford’s linguistic talents. During the course of the evening, the team collected over 88 translated sentences in 51 different languages, ranging from Chinese and Esperanto to Welsh. Towards the end of the event, the scroll moved to the Atrium in the centre of the Ashmolean Museum and was unfurled over the balcony, allowing LinguaMania participants to see the many translations which had been collected. This was followed by a recitation of a section of Harry Potter in various languages, so that visitors to LinguaMania could hear as well as see the hidden multilingualism in Oxford’s community.

The activity was conceived and organised by doctoral students Henriette Arndt, Annina Hessel and Anna-Maria Ramezanzadeh from the Oxford University Department of Education. In the below video they describe why they chose Harry Potter to help highlight Oxford’s linguistic diversity and explain how the activity gives participants the opportunity to showcase their creativity through translation. You can see photos of Harry Potter and the Rosetta Stone below.

 

Les Derniers Jedi

posted by Simon Kemp

When the title of Star Wars Episode VIII was released a few weeks ago, speculation was feverish. Who was The Last Jedi?

Was it him?

…in which case, is Rey not going to be a Jedi after all?

Or was it her?

…in which case, was Luke Skywalker heading for a sticky end, leaving Rey as the sole remaining Jedi?

Or was it someone else entirely?

Certain regions of the internet were abuzz with many arguments but few answers.

And then, a month or so later the official French translation of the title appeared (along with various other languages too, of course):

…and suddenly, everything was much clearer. The Last Jedi is plural!

Rather like sheep, Jedi, it turns out, do not change in the plural form. So, just as you wouldn’t be able to tell if The Last Sheep was a film about a lone ewe or a whole woolly flock, The Last Jedi is ambiguous about how many Jedi are involved.

In French, though, the English definite article the has to be translated as either le, la or les, to agree with the gender and number of the noun that follows it. In the same way, last must become dernier, dernière, derniers or dernières, forcing the translator to specify whether we’re talking about one or several, male or female Jedis.

So, while The Last Jedi could be about pretty much anyone, Les Derniers Jedi is most definitely a film about two or more Jedi, at least one of whom is male.

It was the gift of the French language to sci-fi nerds everywhere. The French newspaper Le Figaro covered the happy moment in detail here. Here’s a short extract:

Fin janvier, le titre anglais The Last Jedi du huitième épisode de la saga avait engendré de nombreuses théories chez les fans. Ce vendredi matin, la franchise a révélé la traduction française.

Les fans ont eu raison de se méfier, la saga Star Wars a encore une fois habilement brouillé les pistes. Ce vendredi matin, la franchise rachetée par Disney a dévoilé sur son compte Facebook la traduction française du titre du huitième épisode: Les derniers Jedi. Un détail pour certains, un bouleversement pour d’autres.

(If you follow the link to the article, it’s worth also scrolling down to the comments, in which French Star Wars fans excitably debate with each other how English plurals work, and proudly declare the whole episode as evidence that ‘le français est une langue bien plus riche que l’anglais’.)

The ‘last Jedi’/’derniers Jedi’ issue actually illustrates a common problem for translators. In one language, the word or phrase you’re translating has a different scope from what it has in the other language, where it’s either more general or more specific.

Say, for example, you’re translating a French text containing the word ‘étudiante’.

The obvious choice would be ‘student’, but the English word includes male students (‘étudiant in French) as well as female ones, and also includes school students (more usually ‘élève’ in French) as well as university ones. The English word is more general than the French one.

Now let’s say that, later in the same text, you have to translate the word ‘belle-mère’.

You now have the opposite problem. The French word ‘belle-mère’ can mean both ‘step-mother’ and ‘mother-in-law’. The two English words are each more specific than the broader French one.

The solution you decide on will depend on several factors, including:

  • the context of the source text (can you work out which of the two English options the belle-mère actually is?)

 

  • the relevance of the information (does the reader need to know the gender of the student or not? If so, do they need to know right now that she’s female, or can the translator slip in a subtle ‘she’ or ‘her’ later on in the text instead?)

 

  • and the style and purpose of the translation (‘the mother-in-law, or, as the case may be, stepmother’ might be an appropriate rendering if you’re translating a legal contract. If you’re translating a poem, not so much).

It’s a nice example of what makes translation a tricky and fascinating business. Languages never quite map onto each other exactly, and translating between them is never a straightforward matter of replacing words in one language with their equivalents in another. Rather, you have to negotiate your way between two different systems, balancing the need for accuracy with a desire to be stylish or sound natural. Sometimes you may decide to leave out information that you can’t find a practical way to include in your translation (‘the female university student’), and sometimes you may even have to take a best guess about something the source text doesn’t make clear (‘her stepmother, or, you know, possibly her mother-in-law, I can’t really be sure).

Often, language differences can cause real problems for the struggling translator. Sometimes, though, as with the title of Star Wars Episode VIII, a simple difference can make a big change, and the translator can make everyone happy. Apart, perhaps, from the film-makers at Disney who were hoping to keep everyone guessing for a while longer…

Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi (Part Two)

asterix2

posted by Catriona Seth

(Continued from last week’s post.)

The best known poem in English about Waterloo is certainly Lord Byron’s ‘Eve of Waterloo’ from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Three allusions that I have noticed in the translation of Astérix chez les Belges refer to this poem (there may be others I have missed.) Let me point just one of them out[1]. It is the caption the English translators give to a full page illustration of festivities which is a visual pun on a painting by Breughel: ‘There was a sound of revelry by night’. This is the first line of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ so they are bringing in a famous poetic allusion to the battle which English-speaking readers might recognise, in the same way as the francophones will hopefully have picked up the reference to Victor Hugo.

The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat

 

The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder

 

One of the great strengths of the Asterix series is that there is something for everyone, from the highbrow Waterloo poetry puns to the franglais names of the self-explanatory Zebigbos or of a village maiden called Iélosubmarine in honour of the Beatles song. You do not need to get them all to enjoy a good read, but everything you pick up draws you a little further in. The more you read them, in a sense, the funnier they are. So… if you want something instructive and fun to read, go for the French version of any one of the 36 albums which recount ‘les aventures d’Astérix le Gaulois’ or compare the original and the English translation: you will be in for a fun, stimulating and thought-provoking treat.

[1] The others, for curious minds, are ‘Nearer, clearer, deadlier than before…’ and ‘On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined.’