Thursday, August 31, 2006

Translating Mahfouz

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article about Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, who has just passed away. The article briefly mentions the issue of translation:

For English-language translators and readers, Arabic presents special difficulties: the dialogue sounds overwrought, the descriptions stilted. As Brad Kessler wrote in a 1990 article for The New York Times Magazine: “Mahfouz writes in the florid classical Arabic, which is roughly the equivalent of Shakespearean English.”

Peter Theroux, the American translator of several major Arab novelists, wrote about completing a new version of “Children of the Alley” in 1996: “Readers of Mahfouz in any language are in thrall to his magic. The warmth of Mahfouz’s characters, the velocity of his storytelling, his gift for fluent dialogue and telling details are unique in modern Arabic literature.”

So how should a translator best work with Mahfouz’s texts? By using Shakespearean English? Or by modernizing the language? Or some combination of methods?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Review of "Writing Between the Lines"

A review I wrote of “Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian Anglophone Translators” has just been published in the Danforth Review. The book is a collection of essays about Canadian translators who translate from French to English. Most of them see their work as a way to conquer the political and cultural divides that separate French-speaking Canadians from English-speaking ones.

As a bilingual country, Canada has two distinct languages and cultures, and this of course extends to the literary realm as well. Historically, there has been little contact between anglophone and francophone writers, but as a new book, Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian Anglophone Translators, describes, the work of dedicated translators has helped change this.
Writing Between the Lines is made up of twelve essays, each focusing on a specific French-to-English translator who has influenced Canada’s literary scene. An unfortunate limitation of this book is that there are no portraits of people who translate to French (with the exception of Susanne de Lotbiniére-Harwood, who translates feminist works in both directions). As the essays emphasize, translation is a necessity, especially in a country with two or more cultures separated by languages, religious and/or political beliefs, and ways of viewing the world. So by leaving out francophone translators, this book seems to have missed its own point. Despite this, however, Writing Between the Lines does have plenty to offer any reader interested in translation or Canadian literature, because, as the introduction says, this is the “first comprehensive, inside view of the practice of anglophone literary translation in Canada.” The essays give biographical information on the translators, review their work and their working processes, discuss some of the authors they have translated, and explain what the translators have done for Canadian literature.

Most of the translators profiled also produce, or produced, their own writing, as poets, novelists, academics, journalists, essayists, and one pornographer. This suggests that writers make the most successful literary translators, although this isn’t inevitably the case. But though they have creative writing in common, they certainly don’t share the same techniques for literary translation or opinions on what a translator’s role is. For readers not familiar with translation, the book might be an appealing surprise in that way, because the translators have a variety of different viewpoints on translation, and the essays make it clear that along the scale ranging from strict literalness (faithfulness to the original text) to total freedom (the translator takes liberties), there is no one perfect method of balance. Some translators featured in this volume, such as Patricia Claxton, believe that it is their responsibility, even a civic duty, to be loyal to the original author and his text and intention. William Hume Blake, for example, thought of translation as a way of preserving and sharing a specific sort of French Canadian life with English-speakers and thus used “Gallicized vocabulary and turns of phrase,” rather than anglicizing them for his audience. Others, including poet D.G. Jones, who helped found the bilingual literary magazine ellipse, see translation more as a transformation of the text that sets fewer restrictions on the translator. And Sheila Fischman believes translators and the original authors should get “equal billing,” which suggests something about how she sees her position in the creation of a text. Meanwhile, Barbara Godard has a somewhat different way of working; she includes a translator’s preface, not agreeing with the “concept of translator and translation as transparent.” In the prefaces, she explain the author’s ideas and style, and her choices as the translator.

These translators also choose, or accept, to work on very different types of assignments. de Lotbiniére-Harwood only translates writing by women, as a “political activity” that makes “the feminine subject reciprocally visible in two cultures.” Similarly, Ray Ellenwood sees translation in a political light and has therefore worked on documents as diverse as political satire, an artistic manifesto, and surrealist works. Linda Gaboriau has translated more than sixty plays, while John Glassco translated thirty-seven of the fifty poets in the anthology The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, and Patricia Claxton has translated, among other things, books on the history of Québec and articles by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

No matter how they go about their work or what topics or genres they prefer to translate, all the translators seemed agreed on why they were translating. Not only do they want to introduce great Québec novelists, playwrights, and poets to those who can’t read French, but they also see translation as the way to “bridge the cultural and political gap between English Canada and Québec,” and literature as a step towards bringing anglophone and francophone Canada closer together.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cows Have Dialects, Too

In the past few posts, we've looked at dialects and how to translate them. Someone then sent me a Swedish article about how cows, in common with birds and dogs, are thought to have dialects as well. Cows apparently have distinctive moos. Here is an article in English about the phenomenon. Good thing we don't have to worry about translating different cow dialects!

Update: See
this blog post for more information about the cow dialects and how the story got blown out of proportion. Thanks to Sarah for pointing this out!

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.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Translating Dialects

In the last post, we looked generally at dialects. But whether we can confidently define what a dialect is doesn’t necessarily matter when faced with a translation that includes something we believe to be a dialect. So what do we do?

Of course, we can simply ignore the dialect and translate it as standard language in the target language. That’s an easy, if not faithful, solution, and in general should probably be avoided. An author, after all, has chosen to use dialect for a reason, and dismissing that choice isn’t respectful of the author or his work. However, for some languages, ignoring the dialect may in fact be the only solution. Not all cultures represent spoken language as it truly is in the written language; for some languages, only a standard written style is acceptable. So there may be no actual way to express dialect in the target language, or the written language may have a strict style that does not correspond to the spoken and thus does not allow for the expression of dialects.

But if we decide to translate the dialect and believe it is possible to do so, what choices do we have? I believe some of the main methods available to us are to translate geographically, socioeconomically, or by equivalency of meaning. As with most things in translation, there is no one right way; each choice a translator makes is based on the context and the situation, and what may work in one translation could be completely inappropriate for another one.

A geographic translation means that we choose a roughly equivalent region in the target culture and pick one of its dialects. This doesn’t mean that the stereotypes and feelings that are attached to the dialect in the source language and culture will be translated correctly, although of course that could happen. If a book has a southern American dialect, for example, a Swedish translator might choose a southern Swedish (Scanian) dialect. The people who speak both these dialects are stereotyped to some extent as being “country” or “slow,” so translating the southern American dialect with a Scanian dialect could create some of the same feelings or impressions for readers.

Obviously, though, a geographic translation of this kind can be a problem when a translator is faced with source and target countries that have different sorts of regions or different stereotypes about those regions, or with languages that are spoken in more than one country. Should an Egyptian Arabic dialect be translated to a German dialect from Germany, Austria, or Switzerland? Or does that depend on where the publisher, or audience, of the translation is located?

By translating socioeconomically, I mean that a translator working with, say, an upper class dialect in the source text chooses an upper class dialect in the target language. The source and target dialects don’t have to be geographically related, although obviously that could be the case, but they simply represent the same approximate social and/or economic class. If the original author uses a lower-class dialect from northern England, the Slovenian translator may not be able to find an appropriate dialect in northern Slovenia, but instead can use a lower-class dialect from another region. Translating socioeconomically can be challenging if the source and target cultures have very different populations and/or social systems, and thus different class-based dialects.

A dialect may create a certain feeling or idea for the readers of the original text that is not quite possible to get across to readers of the translated text if the dialect is translated geographically or socioeconomically. In that case, a translator can decide to translate by meaning or feeling. If an author chooses a dialect to suggest a character is unintelligent, or whiny, or especially happy, an equivalent dialectical representation can be picked in the target language. However, not all languages have dialects with the same stereotypes, and not all people who speak a language have the same understanding of which dialect is considered cranky, or serious, or silly, and this translation technique will be unsuccessful and possibly even confusing if readers don’t understand what is meant or implied by the choice of dialect.

Clearly, there are pitfalls and difficulties associated with each of these methods of translating dialects, and translators must attempt to find a way to express the dialect in the target language without exaggerating how it is used or what is means. Dialects have to be translated carefully and judiciously, so that they portray the characters, location, and/or story in the source document without mocking them.

In the next post, I will show a few examples of translated dialect from the Swedish translation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


I was recently in Norway, and I found that for the most part, it was perfectly possible to use Swedish to communicate with Norwegians. After all, the two Germanic languages are closely related and some people even claim that they aren’t distinct languages, but are instead, along with Danish, simply dialects of a Scandinavian language.

Dialects can be difficult to define, and not just because of linguistic reasons. There can also be cultural, political, and historical reasons for why some people prefer to believe that their language is very different from another. For example, I’ve taught students who identified themselves as Bosnian, Serbian, or Croatian. They admitted that their various languages are mutually intelligible, but they firmly insisted that the languages were nevertheless distinct and that this fact should not be misunderstood.

So there are a lot of fascinating and difficult questions to consider. What makes something a language rather than a dialect? How many words or pronunciations have to be different before one language is said to now be two or more? How must the cultures behind the languages distinguish themselves so that the native speakers start to see themselves as separate? And who decides what is a dialect and what is a language?

Here are a few interesting sources of information about dialects:

I recommend Fredrik Lindström’s tv show about Swedish dialects,
Svenska Dialektmysterier.

You can listen to 100 different Swedish dialects on

In the US, PBS ran a show on American dialects, entitled
Do You Speak American?

For more on American dialects, there is the
American Dialect Society.

Finally, to learn about dialects in the UK, see the
BBC Voices site.

The next post will look at translating dialects.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The First Printed English Translation

According to the Writer’s Almanac, yesterday was the birthday of the man who first printed a book in English, William Caxton. We translators can be proud of the fact that the book Mr. Caxton printed was a translation! This means that English translations have been printed since 1475.

Here is the quote from yesterday’s edition of the Writer’s Almanac:

Today is believed to be the birthday of the first man ever to print a book in English, William Caxton, born in Kent, England (1422). He was a wealthy trader and merchant, and also a part-time linguist and translator. He was living in Cologne, Germany, when he translated a book about the history of Troy. The printing press had been invented about twenty-five years earlier, but it had only recently started to spread beyond Germany. Caxton realized that the new technology of printing would make the job of distributing his books a lot easier. So instead of copying the book by hand, he printed the book he had translated about Troy in 1475. He eventually went back to England, where he established the first English printing press. He printed all the available English literature, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1478). For a long time, people in England called printed books "Caxtons."

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Fits Like a Glove

Writer Alma Guillermoprieto said: "The best translators slip into the glove of a text and then turn it inside out into another language, and the whole thing comes out looking like a brand-new glove again."

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Choosing One Book

In the interview mentioned in the last post, Alma Guillermoprieto says, “Another magical translator, Alistair Reid, whose versions of Neruda and Borges are like the Holy Law of translated poetry as far as I'm concerned, told me once that every writer who speaks a foreign tongue should translate at least one book he/she loves into his/her (how are we ever going to get out of this pronoun dilemma in English?) native language.”

What book would you translators choose and why? It's interesting to think about, but also a little sad, because it often seems that the books we most want to see translated to another language are the books that publishers don't believe in and won't accept, making the translation a real "labor of love."