Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Killing a Mockingbird or Killing a Dialect?

In the last two posts, we have looked at dialects and how to translate them. Now I’d like to show a few examples from the Swedish translation of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” uses both standard English and southern American, or more specifically, Alabaman, dialect. When the characters speak, their dialect is represented by non-standard spelling and grammar. Of course, there is no Alabaman dialect in Sweden, but there is a southern dialect that could be used, or the spelling and grammar of certain words could be changed to reflect the original.

The first example is the word ‘scuppernongs,’ which appears on page 44 in the English text. I’ve gathered that this is a word for a sort of grape that grows in the South. The Swedish translation, on page 44, is ‘persikor,’ or ‘peaches.’ If my understanding of ‘scuppernogs’ is right, then not only does this translation ignore the dialect, but it also changes the meaning of the word, and thus changes how a reader pictures the story. This kind of grape may not grow elsewhere, but at least a translation could call it ‘grapes,’ or ‘druvor’ in Swedish. It’s as though the translator thought that grapes don’t exist in Sweden.

To move on to a whole sentence, on page 14, a character asks ‘Ain’t you ever waked up at night and heard him, Dill?’ Clearly, neither ‘ain’t’ nor ‘waked’ are standard English. Ideally, this would be shown in translation, even if the target language doesn’t necessarily have a similar dialect. But the Swedish text uses standard Swedish. On page 16 of the Swedish version, which is entitled ‘Dödssynden,’ the same sentence reads ‘Har du aldrig vaknat på natten och hört honom, Dill?’ Translated back to English, the sentence is ‘Have you never woken up at night and heard him, Dill?’ Some sense of who these characters are and where they live has been lost along with their dialect. To really show the characters and their way of speaking, perhaps a better translation could have been, ‘Har du aldrig vaknade på natten och hört honom, Dill?’ Now the word ‘vaknat’ has been changed to the incorrect ‘vaknade,’ making the back-translation ‘Have you never woke up at night and heard him, Dill?’ Of course, the sentence could be played with a little more, maybe by changing the word ‘har,’ but even just using ‘vaknade’ or making a similar change would make the translation clearly strike a native Swedish speaker as incorrect and would help the reader understand the characters better.

A longer example comes from page 213 in the English text:

Not the same chiffarobe you busted up?’ asked Atticus.
The witness smiled. ‘Naw, suh, another one. Most as tall as the room. So I done what she told me, an’ I was just reachin’ when the next thing I knows she – she’d grabbed me round the legs, grabbed me round th’ legs, Mr. Finch. She scared me so bad I hopped down an’ turned the chair over – that was the only thing, only furniture ‘sturbed in that room, Mr. Finch, when I left it. I swear it ‘fore God.’

Here is the Swedish translation, from page 184:

“Inte samma chiffarob som du högg sönder?” frågade Atticus.
Vittnet log. “Nä, sir, en annan en. Nästan lika hög som rummet. Så jag gjorde som han sa åt mej, och jag skulle just sträcka mej opp när det nästa jag kände var att hon – hon tog tag om mina ben, högg med om benen, mr Finch. Hon skrämde mej så dant så jag hoppa ner och välte stolen – det var det enda, det var den enda möbel som var flyttad på i det rummet, mr Finch, när jag lämna det. Det svär jag inför Gud.”

This translation is different from the previous example since it does not simply use standard Swedish. Here, the translator has chosen for some words to represent spoken rather than written Swedish, such as by using ‘mej’ instead of the correct ‘mig’ and ‘opp’ rather than ‘upp.’ Another choice the translator made was to use some incorrect grammar. ‘Hoppa’ should be ‘hoppade,’ for example, and ‘lämna’ should be ‘lämnade.’ Otherwise, the character speaks more or less acceptable standard Swedish, with some English mistakes or other dialect features ‘corrected’ in Swedish translation, including how ‘suh’ is made ‘sir,’ ‘done’ becomes ‘gjorde,’ back-translated as ‘did,’ and there are no shortened words, such as ‘an’’ or ‘‘sturbed,’ in the Swedish version. My opinion is that a little more should have been done to clearly show the reader that this character has a specific, non-standard English dialect, without mocking his way of speaking.

So the main choices this translator made were standardizing the language, orthographically showing how characters speak, and using incorrect grammar. Personally, I think standardization generally is not the correct way to translate dialect. Orthographic and grammatical changes – which are included in what I called in the previous post the method of translation by equivalency of meaning – work well here, but they don’t quite do enough in the Swedish translation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’d be interested to know what choices the translators of this novel to other languages made.


Erika Dreifus said...

Fascinating post, Brett. Thank you!

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Erika! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Best wishes,

Jane said...

I read a Malay version of this book and the dialect is lost in the process of translation. In my opinion, this is inevitable due to the language gap. Or perhaps there is a better way to maintain its characteristics?

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for your comment, Jane. I do think there are certain ways of maintaining what is contained in dialect -- a translator can add footnotes, for example, or an introduction, or use various strategies such as orthography or word choices to show that the language is non-standard.

Best wishes,