Let's Don't Get Lost in Translation
January 23, 2013
Shamefully, I admit that snippet of conversation is the extent of my bilingualism, along with Donde esta la bibloteca? Veterans of the Audio Lingual Method of learning languages, popular in American schools in the fifties, sixties, and into the seventies, may remember reciting these phrases in Spanish class. There is a lyricality to them that has allowed them to live in many of our memories for so many years. We may not remember the grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich we had for lunch yesterday, but will carry es un amigo mio long into senility.
In weaving a story, one can add texture to the tapestry with foreign characters who bring with them a different language, exotic foods, an unfamiliar world view, and uncommon customs—different, exotic, unfamiliar, and uncommon to the rest of the characters. An untranslated sentence in a language other than the author’s could be an important plot key, revealed when—later in the story—it is translated. Exclamations in a character’s native language lend credence to the character and can easily be incorporated into dialogue that will provide translation via inference or further discourse. But…can you add such texture to your story?
If you are fluent in other languages (as well as the attending grammar), including those languages in your writing would be natural. If you are not, you may be tempted to take a shortcut—Internet interpretations. A variety of sites (I prefer Google) provide interpretations of foreign passages; conversely, they also provide an interpretation of your language into dozens of other languages. Theoretically, this is an ideal way to get reliable translations (after all, you wouldn’t expect Google to insert “dirty” words into your text just for fun). Practically, it is not ideal at all.
When I was associated with a website that provided news and opinion (along with just about anything anyone wrote), I had a disproportionately large Pakistani following. I learned that it was, perhaps, not so disproportionate since many of the writers were Pakistani. Many of the articles they published contained such horrible grammar and inappropriate word usage that I would often say, “this thing reads like a bad English translation.” Being one to follow things to their illogical conclusions (some would say, “bordering on OCD,” others would not be so kind), I decided to do a bit of research and experimentation into computer-generated translations. I began with what I thought was a simple paragraph: I have not been feeling quite myself lately, are you well? Grandfather is riding an ass in the pasture and Grandmother is sorting laundry. Do these things happen at your house? I then translated the passages into several dozen languages (really, I’m not obsessive) which I then translated back to English.
Norwegian came close, but I wouldn’t consider “I have not felt quite myself lately, are you? Grandpa is riding an ass in the pasture and grandmother are sorting laundry. Do these things happen in your house?” a reliable translation. Yes, readers might get the gist of what I was expressing, but they are unlikely to take me seriously as a writer.
Although I loved the Urdu (I have not been quite recently found myself doing, you are well? Grandpa and Grandma type of pasture is a donkey ride laundry. What are these things going at home?), the Latin (I do not me to have sufficiently well lately are you? Pasture with grandfather, grandmother sitting on her ass in the genus laundry. I come to you those things in?), and Galician (I do not have much feeling lately, okay? Grandpa is riding on a donkey pasture and grandmother is the classification of laundry…), and I found Russian, French, and Yiddish interpretations to be in line with the original text but totally unusable, I must admit that my favorite translation is English-to-Polish-to-English: And I do not feel very recently, are you okay? Grandfather is a horse’s ass in the pasture, and Grandma is sorting the laundry…
So what should the aspiring/working writer do when the proper foreign passage begs to be included in a literary tapestry? Instead of looking like grandfather in the pasture, writers should forgo the Internet interpretations and find speakers fluent in the languages of choice. Where? My first choice is a professional interpreter or interpreting service, which may cost more than one is willing to spend on a sentence or two. Other good sources are fluent friends (and be sure they are friends), language educators (such as those in a community college), language majors recommended by their instructors, and bilingual speakers who have a good grasp of both your and their languages. And—most importantly—always get a second opinion!
As for me…I’m gonna’ go sort the laundry. Y’all know what Grandpa is doing.