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Marissa Lingen

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Translation, regionalism, colloquialism [Jul. 24th, 2015|05:27 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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A few weeks ago now I read this New Yorker essay about Camus, specifically about the first line of The Stranger. And around the same time, I was reading Kazuki Sakuraba’s Red Girls, translated from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen. And I ended up with thoughts.


The thing about the Camus essay is that it doesn’t really go into why “Mom” feels like a wrong translation of “Maman” to the author. It does, I agree, but my theory is that as far as I know (and my French is not that great), “Maman” is casual, familiar, intimate…but not regional. I have been in Montreal, and I have been in Paris, and I have been in Normandy, and I have heard small children shouting, “Maman!” in all of them. Whereas “Mom” is…American. And “Mum” is Commonwealth. (Canada, in my experience of Canadians, is a maternal middle ground where you’ll hear both depending on the person or family.)


Translating from non-regional to regional vocabulary is tricky; going from regional to regional is, if anything, more fraught. In several anime–Azumanga Daioh, for example–a character with a regional accent in Japanese is given a corresponding regional accent in English. Osaka in Azumanga Daioh has a southern accent in the translation I heard; in some apparently she is given a Brooklyn accent. While her accent is a non-trivial part of the character and needs some equivalent to be translated, the fact that translators couldn’t agree on which of two extremes of American English she should speak seems pretty indicative of how difficult this choice is.


Allen, the translator of Red Girls, used a lot of word choice to indicate regional and informal dialect in the original. This is a book where you see a lot of “nothin'” and “uh huh” and similar word choice. Unfortunately, it ended up reading to me like she had chosen a High West American dialect (think Montana, Idaho, Wyoming) and then gotten some details of it wrong. It ended up being somewhat jarring, especially because the language used by the older generation who hadn’t been much exposed to mass media when forming their accents and speech patterns was very, very similar to that used by a young generation who had turned to gangs (or, more accurately, started them). It was one of the main things that I complained about while reading the book–and okay, yes, I am a translation nerd, I am likely to snag on things like that. But my point is not that Allen did a bad job, it’s that she had an incredibly hard job to do at all.


And it’s worth doing, because otherwise…otherwise we are only translating things we read as “standard” in one language into things we read as standard in another, and a lot of richness is lost, a lot of books whose content and ideas simply do not meet that description. The ones that do have a homogeneity to them that doesn’t reflect human life.


How much you want to give the accurate feel of the original vs. giving an accurate feel of things like characterization can also be hard. There’s paragraph length, which varies from language to language as well as from person to person. And then there are details that would be telling details if applied to someone from one culture that are just cultural norms in another. Two examples: how often does someone grunt in conversation? You can describe someone as grunting and give a very vivid picture of them in English, just by how often they do it. (I am currently rereading the Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries, and Dalziel, for example, is a grunter.) But then listen to your Cantonese-speaking friends. Possibly, you might think, I am just mistaking foreign words for grunts. Okay, then listen to your friends who speak other Chinese languages make fun of your Cantonese-speaking friends. Whether it’s linguistically or culturally, grunting is very much expected in Cantonese speech. In translation, should you portray that every time it happens? Should you leave in enough to give the “feel” of that difference without overwhelming the Anglophone reader? Hard call, dependent on each circumstance. Or take for example endearments. So far as I can tell from Danish TV, there is only one endearment in Danish, and that is “elsker” (approx. “love”). Everyone is “elsker” every time you would have wanted an endearment. Waitress offering a refill on your coffee? Elsker. Your mother having a heart-to-heart with you? Elsker. Your mother having a special moment with your father? Elsker. This is fine when you’re translating from English to Danish, but if you pick an endearment to map to elsker–whether it’s “love” or “hon” or what, it’s going to read repetitive to the Anglophone audience. Which would be great if “elsker” was a weird word that only people from Aarhus used, actually–you could pick something like “petal” that you see regionally on Vera and go to town with it. How regional is the Danish of Aarhus vs. the Danish of Copenhagen? How do you measure regionality from outside?


Word are hard. I think that’s my grand conclusion. Words are hard.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: whswhs
2015-07-25 12:03 am (UTC)
This is really tangential, but I'm reminded of a friend showing a group of us How to Train Your Dragon, where all the kids spoke standard General American and all the adults spoke movie Scots. It was just totally distracting. What, were all the kids going to some upwardly mobile secondary school that was never shown on camera, and imitating the way their teachers talked?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-25 01:25 pm (UTC)
I had the same reaction to The Man in the Iron Mask, where Depardieu as Porthos spoke with a French accent and none of the other Musketeers did. My usual mental end-run around this problem is that he's from a different part of France, except I know too much about the Musketeers to deploy it in this case.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2015-07-25 01:11 am (UTC)
When I think of the endless debate over why okay is okay or not okay to use in fantasies, ay yi yi, multiply that outward.

And that doesn't even tough translating from one language to another. I read a nifty essay on that in The Delighted States by Adam Thirlwell.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2015-07-25 03:55 am (UTC)
I'm one of those people who bounces hard off "okay" in fantasy worlds. Especially faux-European ones. *twitch*
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2015-07-25 04:36 am (UTC)
Yeah, me too. I hear the voice in an American accent, twang!
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2015-07-25 01:08 pm (UTC)
This is true--and I heard it used by German speaking people during my year in Austria, but it still "sounds" American in my head, Diction, yes, although I waver when people point out that their fantasy characters would have their own slang. And since we're writing in English, okay is as much an approximation as forsooth!
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-25 01:28 pm (UTC)
Exactly. And I would like to see more completely secondary world fantasies with 20th and 21st century "feel" to them--not identical tech but similar--and "forsooth" would feel way more wrong there. I think it's not about whether it's fantasy, it's about a particular kind of fantasy setting--but a lot of people default to a fantasy setting where "forsooth" feels more natural than "okay," and so the two end up being equated, fantasy and that range of diction.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2015-07-30 03:56 pm (UTC)
I'd be good with that but I've seen it, or other Americanized locutions, in fantasy Victorian steampunk! Rubs me wrong every time. (I have also seen it in Jane Austen fic, including published ones, but there it's a useful indicator that this is probably not one I want to read.)
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[User Picture]From: malkingrey
2015-07-26 04:11 pm (UTC)
I bounce off of "okay" in most but not all secondary-world fantasy -- it depends more upon the general level of diction in the narrative voice than it does on the setting or tech level -- but not in most science fiction . . . provided it's spelled "okay" and not "OK." My mind will accept the former as a word in translation from whatever language is actually spoken there-and-then, but not the latter.

(This has at least a bit to do with my own position, linguistically speaking, on the origin of "okay" . . . I remember getting into an, um, spirited argument about it years ago on the old GEnie network.)
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2015-07-26 04:35 pm (UTC)
I just realized that yes, I feel the same about okay and OK but never examined the reason why.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-25 01:32 pm (UTC)
I have been noticing that while reading the Dalziel and Pascoe books--lots of ways to say "pregnant" based on who you are, where you are, who you're talking about, etc. And this is key: a lower percentage of them sound twee and euphemistic than the ways to say it in US English. "Up the spout" and "up the stick," for example, are not tiptoeing around the concept that someone might do something as grossly physical as gestating another human being in the way that "a bun in the oven" is.
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2015-07-25 04:06 pm (UTC)
That's a meaning of "up the spout"? I've only encountered it in Henley's "Villon's Straight Tip to All Cross Coves," where it seems to have something to do with fencing stolen goods:

It's up the spout and Charlie Wag
With wipes and tickers and what not.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-25 04:27 pm (UTC)
It's also used for things that have gone wrong or are useless or not working. Which...is kind of nasty, once you put the meanings side by side like that.
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[User Picture]From: sam_t
2015-07-28 10:24 am (UTC)
In my head, the crossover meaning is '(probably unplanned) major inconvenience' rather than specifically broken/useless, but I'm not sure whether that works with the actual etymology.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-07-25 06:03 pm (UTC)
I don't think I've ever noticed that about expressions for pregnancy -- any examples? I do remember one of the Nancy Mitford novels having someone announce that she was in pig, which I assume is not a standard term for people.

I've always thought "knocked up" (which of course is US, when referring to pregnancy) is a fairly violent sounding expression. Never heard "up the spout" to mean anything but squandered or destroyed (assumed it was from water disappearing out the kettle spout in steam). Apparently it's from being pawned, when items were sent upstairs for storage? So you've got the "ruined" meaning alongside the "temporarily in storage" -- huh, that does make sense of a kind for pregnancy.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-25 07:20 pm (UTC)
To my ear "going in for a baby" sounds like something you would have to consult with air traffic control about, but being able to distinguish between trying and not if you cared to distinguish is useful.
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[User Picture]From: blue_hat_guru
2015-07-26 04:19 am (UTC)
That phrase causes me to imagine chasing after the stork with a giant butterfly net.


Narrated by David Attenborough, of course.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-26 10:59 am (UTC)
You're on a roll this morning.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-07-25 08:14 pm (UTC)
Huh. I'm not sure that's a universal connotation, given that I've definitely seen people talking about trying to fall pregnant. "Catch pregnant" I've never heard, though I've seen people saying that the pregnancy "caught this time" and the like. "Going in for a baby" I don't recall hearing but is obvious in context.

The US does have "in trouble" and "got herself pregnant," but those would be for unmarried girls/women, not just anyone with an accidental pregnancy.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-25 08:16 pm (UTC)
"Got herself pregnant" really frustrates me because it's never about parthenogenesis, which is interesting. "My cousin Anne went and got herself pregnant." "Holy crap, she DID?" "Oh, no, actually it was a joint effort between her and some dude." "Oh. Why are you telling me this? We understand the science of that way pretty well."
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-07-25 10:20 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that's a weird one. Plus the literal meaning implies intention rather than the reverse.

IIRC it took me a long time to work out "up the duff" (I mean when I first encountered the expression, not just now).
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2015-07-30 02:51 am (UTC)
Huh - in my (admittedly idiosyncratic) dialect, 'got knocked up' strongly carries the connotation of accidental-and-perhaps-unwanted. No specific phrasing for the opposite, though - it would get carried in tone.

-Nameseeker
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[User Picture]From: malkingrey
2015-07-26 04:22 pm (UTC)
There are regional differences within the US as well. "Mom" is what my own offspring, raised mostly in New England, call me; but I called my mother "Mamma", which is the more common term in the south. Grandmother-names can get even stranger; I called my paternal grandmother "Memaw" and my maternal grandmother "Mamamama."

(An amusing side-note: some web-site or other, a few years back, posted a list of "Things Women Shouldn't Do Once They Hit 30", one of which was "Call your father 'Daddy.'" Their comment section was promptly flooded with replies from southern women of all ages vigorously disputing this assertion. And in fact, I called my own father "Daddy" . . . still do, in conversation with family, though he's no longer alive to answer to it.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-26 04:43 pm (UTC)
It is hard to get more northern than me without actual polar bears, and I call my father "Daddy" all the time. I sometimes also call him "Dad," but I call my parents "Mother and Daddy" collectively quite often, even though my mom is hardly ever "Mother" ("Mom" or "Ma" or "Momma" or "Mor" unless I'm really really sick--when my fever goes above 103, it's "Mommy"). But I also just call him "Daddy" directly.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-07-27 02:38 am (UTC)
My mother, who was from Wisconsin, called her parents Mother and Daddy. Can't remember her using any other names (apart from generic references to "my father used to say" and the like).
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[User Picture]From: genarti
2015-07-27 08:22 pm (UTC)
Not to mention contextual. I grew up calling my mother Mom or Mommy (in southern Ohio, with lots of extended family from upstate NY and less extended family from Tennessee and Ohio), but now as an adult I call her Mom and Mother and Mama depending on context. It's not just me; my younger brothers do the same, and in the same general contexts. I grant that we're a family that loves to play with words and nicknames, but still.

Mom called her mother Mom, and she was Grandmom to me; Dad called his mother Mother, and she was Grandmother, except when she was Grandmom too.

And my father is Dad, except on the rare occasions that he's Daddy, but he signs his emails "Da." (This can probably be laid at the feet of a bunch of expat friends plus a formative year or so in London, rather than any local regionalism, though. He has a number of random Britishisms that he uses side-by-side with Ohioisms.)

...This is all by way of personal side rambling, really! I do find it interesting that the article on L'Étranger went for Maman and never considered "Mama," though. What are people's associations with Mama? For me it's a rarer term but not so regionally linked (though Momma sure would be.)
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-07-28 01:12 am (UTC)
I've heard Mama in the northwest and midwest, anyway (my kids say Mama and Papa, and I used to babysit kids who said Mama and Dada). The pronunciation is identical to Momma, or nearly so, but I'm sure people have strong views about the spelling. I tend to visualize Mamma or Momma when I hear Mama said in a southern accent (even though I'm sure I've read books by southern writers who use the spelling "Mama" -- just checked and Faulkner does, for instance).
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2015-07-30 03:51 pm (UTC)
Have you read Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau de Marot? If not, you really should (and it is not much like his Godel, Escher, Bach); if so I'd be very interested to hear what you thought of it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-07-30 07:34 pm (UTC)
I have indeed read it, and I very much like its comprehensive attempts at one small poem.

Just this week I was watching Danish TV again (DANISH TV HOW I LOVE), and I was very pleased that the main character was saying, "Piss! Piss! Piss!", which is a cognate, but the translation at the bottom of the screen said, "Shit! Shit! Shit!" because when you're frustrated and repeatedly saying something scatalogical in English, mostly it isn't "piss." That was a properly idiomatic rather than literal translation, even if it was funny to be able to understand both simultaneously.
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[User Picture]From: nipernaadiagain
2015-07-31 06:51 am (UTC)
Such occasions are amusing and sometimes thought provoking - as for why, when something matters, in English it counts, but in Estonian it reads?
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