October 01, 2009

Lost and found in translation

My sister Kate has been watching Lois & Clark with the French subtitles turned on. In one scene, Lois is goading Clark to abandon a particular demand, stating that "it will never happen." With added emphasis she asks (hypothetically), "How long can you hold your breath?"

As Lois stomps off, Clark (aka Superman) mutters, "A very, very long time."

The subtitles simply render Lois's questions as "How long can you be patient?" which misses the play on words. Kate asks if there is a French colloquialism that means the same thing, or are translators doomed to miss some jokes when they move from one language to the next?

The question reminds me of a Star Trek TNG episode where the Enterprise encounters an alien race that speaks only in allegory. It's one of those clever but stupid ideas. All language is allegorical. Even mathematicians have to agree on what the symbols mean before they can communicate using them.

Every translation system--human or machine--depends on a corpus of translated material to work from. Granted, in a universe where a "universal translator" is plausible technology, I suppose it makes sense (though in that case, even Douglas Adams's "Babel Fish" would be more scientifically realistic).

In sociolinguistic terms, the episode does make a nice point. Consider the story of Amaterasu and Ame no Uzume. Back at the dawn of time, after the Storm God, Susano'o, went on a holy tear and trashed her temples and fields, the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, shut herself inside a cave, plunging the world into darkness.

Uzume overturned a tub near the cave entrance and began a dance on it, tearing off her clothing in front of the other deities. They considered this so comical that they laughed heartily at the sight. Amaterasu heard them and peered out to see what all the fuss was about.

When deployed metaphorically (such as in the anime Maison Ikkoku), "Ame no Uzume" describes a woman acting sensuously in order to lure somebody (usually a man) out of his metaphorical cave. If the name is meaningless outside Japan, once it's defined in context, it's perfectly understandable.

Human nature is universal enough that in most cases the substance of the metaphor or pun can be translated along with the text. Getting hung up on "close literalism" is the greater obstacle. In my own work, if a metaphor is unique but still understandable, I'll keep it, even if it requires a parenthetical.

Otherwise, my approach is, "How would I phrase this if I wrote it?" I don't mind imprecise translations if they preserve the intent of the writer and the meaning the reader takes away. Often I'll "translate" the image or sense in my mind rather than the words of the metaphor itself.

The translator faces the same literary challenge as the writer. Except that distributors have to expeditiously turn around products at the "good enough" level. Not many have the deep pockets to do what Miramax (thanks to John Lasseter) did with Princess Mononoke, and hire Neil Gaiman to rewrite the script.

Additionally with dubs and subtitles, there's the whole matter of space and time constraints. Sometimes anime DVDs do add liner notes to explain cultural contexts. I like adding footnotes to my translations. It's easy to do online, though I suppose could make genre fiction look too "scholarly" and the typesetting a pain.

Alethea and Athena Nibley (BYU grads) write a column for Manga Life (scroll down to "Words of Truth and Wisdom"), examining the nuts and bolts of translation. In this interview, for example, they 'fess up to confusing "Aegis" as a type of cruiser (specifically the weapon system) with the name of a cruiser.

Translators have to know what the author knows. Here is a sentence I translated from Yashakiden: "These Magnum revolvers had a double-action trigger pull of seven pounds, with four pounds in single action." The grammar is straightforward. The challenge was to phrase it the way a gun expert would in English.

I was vaguely aware of the term "trigger pull," but googled it to see how it was actually used in context. (Google and Google Books are the translator's best friend. I'll often translate a complex sentence, stare at it and wonder, Does anybody actually say that in English? and google it to see.)

So I sympathize with subtitle translator Natsuko Toda--often given only a week or two to crank out the raw copy--whose work on Lord of the Rings provoked storms of protest. She simply didn't have the time to familiarize herself with the source material enough to capture its subtleties to the satisfaction of the fans.

The other lesson here is to avoid translating stuff when the fans know the story better than you do even before seeing it.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
10/01/2009 12:29 PM   
Another interesting Lois & Clark French subtitle moment: in one episode, Clark as Superman responds to the question, "Is that clear?" with the word, "Completely."

The French subtitles present Clark/Superman's response as "Comme du cristal" meaning, "Like crystal."

I was so startled, I started laughing. Either "comme du cristal" is a French colloquialism or an English colloquialism that crosses the language/culture barrier. Or the translator just threw in for fun.

Apparently, the translator thought having Clark/Superman respond, "Oui" or "Je comprehends" was too boring! And I have to I agree that "comme du cristal" is more evocative. Would Superman say it? Yeah, I think so.