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.”
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