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Marissa Lingen

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Dreaming in Danish gibberish [Aug. 2nd, 2013|10:40 am]
Marissa Lingen

I’ve heard people talk about dreaming in a foreign language as a sign that they’re getting really fluent in it. I have a step that is much, much, much earlier in the process, and that is dreaming in foreign language gibberish. Yesterday I watched two hours of The Eagle (because Netflix is taking it away from me! WOE!), and last night I went to bed and dreamed that people were speaking in Danish I couldn’t quite hear and mostly couldn’t understand. The vowels were right, the proportions of consonants–it was clearly Danish. It was clearly Danish like listening to hockey announcers with the sound turned down gets your clearly northern North American accents.* I don’t speak Danish; I’m certainly not fluent in Danish. But I now dream in Danish gibberish; oh good.

(I cannot see anyone else to blame for this but myself.)

I really don’t understand why the subtitler made some of the choices they did when they were phonetically obvious and not false cognates. I write for kids even though this blog is not for kids, so I’m going to be a little coy here: there are all sorts of English obscenities and profanities that sound exactly like their Danish counterparts. “Like which ones, Mris?” All of them. You cannot get away with fooling a 7-year-old by swearing in Danish, so why would you subtitle a heartfelt obscenity as “No”? Also, the phrase “after min mor” is practically identical to English–when someone compliments a new grandmother on her granddaughter’s name and she says that it is “after min mor,” you don’t have to speak anything but English to know that she has said that the baby is named after the speaker’s mother (the baby’s great-grandmother)–why, then, would they translate that as, “Yes, it is a lovely name”? Why not just say what she said?

One of the most systematic differences between the spoken Danish version of S1 of The Eagle and the subtitled English version, though, was the obscuring of ethnicity. I complained before that the switches in language were not marked, and this is true–people spoke all sorts of languages at all sorts of times, and the only one that was marked is that English was not subtitled. But within the commentary the characters were making, almost all ethnic and religious references were obscured. “Islamisk” is not a subtle word, people. Even people who can’t pick out what the rest of the sentence is will know if it has “Islamisk” in it and you did not use “Islamic” or “Muslim” in the translation, there’s something missing. Frequently the original Danish talks about something happening all through Scandinavia or someone being the Scandinavian this or that, and the subtitles say nothing of the sort, leaving the linguistically inert viewer not knowing whether someone or something is global, European, Scandinavian, Danish, local to Copenhagen, what. This is important to the plot. And I can’t really see saying, “Americans don’t care about this,” if you’re already dealing with a subset of Americans who are willing to watch subtitled Danish cop shows in the first place. And having to come in at the end and say, “Oh, by the way, these people are Serbs, these other people are Chechens, it matters, now you know,” is just less effective. And frankly weird. And I don’t get it.

(The Protectors is even worse about subtitles in the current Netflix iteration. I hope they get it back, but with better subtitles; there are places where two people are talking and the dialog of only one of them gets translated. Not what we do.)

*That, for those of you just tuning in, is how I became a hockey fan: I was a homesick Minnesotan in California, looking for vowels in all the wrong places.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


From: swan_tower
2013-08-02 05:34 pm (UTC)
Even people who can’t pick out what the rest of the sentence is will know if it has “Islamisk” in it and you did not use “Islamic” or “Muslim” in the translation, there’s something missing.

This is something I wonder about, actually. I have an ear for languages, so yes, I often pick out words like that even when the language isn't one I speak at all. But does everybody do the same thing? Or is it, for some listeners, just a smear of incomprehensibility?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-02 05:47 pm (UTC)
So I do think that there are people for whom it's a smear of incomprehensibility, given that there's a spectrum of both hearing and language deciphering ability (not to mention language deciphering desire); there are people who can't really process their native language spoken by a native speaker with a thick accent not their own--I know people who had to watch The Wire and Wire in the Blood with subtitles, because the accents of each were too far from their own to be comprehensible just with listening.

But. I don't think that you can rely on that as a translator, and I don't think that you should rely on that as a translator. I mean, yes, there are false cognates--one of my favorite in the Scandinavian languages is "semester," which means "holiday," more or less, making it almost completely opposite how English uses the word. But I think there are enough people who hear bits of languages or are using subtitled programs to improve their use of [insert language here] that you're not "safe" leaving stuff like that out--and certainly not in closely related languages like Danish and English.
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From: swan_tower
2013-08-02 06:18 pm (UTC)
Oh, sure -- I'm not saying the translators should rely on lack of comprehension. I don't think they should ever do that, even when an easily-recognizable cognate isn't involved. I mean, I raised an eyebrow at Pacific Rim when Mako said "He's different than I expected" and they translated Raleigh's reply as "Better or worse?," because what he actually said was something along the lines of "Different, huh?" ( 違うって?-- for anybody who was wondering.) And those aren't the same reply, personality-wise.

But your phrasing implied that everybody would be picking that word out. Which I probably wouldn't have commented on, since I don't expect you assume everybody has that capability, but a) I had just woken up and b) this really is something I wonder about -- how many people have the ear for such things, and how foreign speech comes across to people without that kind of pattern-recognition.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-02 06:24 pm (UTC)
I do think a word with political hot-button tendencies at the moment--like "Islamisk"--is going to get picked out by a much, much larger percentage of the population than a randomly selected cognate, though.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2013-08-05 03:48 am (UTC)
I thought the same, not about Islamisk, but about "after min mor". I know the excellently descriptive words for grandparents mormor, morfar, farmor and farfar because they're in one of L'Engle's books, but I can easily see, say, my husband missing that.

But yeah, there's still lots of people who do agave an ear for languages or who have picked up random words along the way, and who will notice mistranslations.
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[User Picture]From: zelda888
2013-08-05 02:39 pm (UTC)
This is why I say I read French, rather than speaking it. I also have significant reading comprehension in Spanish. But in the spoken languages, I have trouble hearing *where the words start and end*, so that even vocabulary I know just fine, I can't recognize in real time because the syllables have gotten ungrouped. My best success following conversation in Spanish was when it involved a person I knew very well, and whose speech cadences I was already used to from previous conversations (in English, although he is a native speaker of Spanish).

So I think you're right that cognates won't necessarily stand out in speech. It might be interesting to see whether there are pitch patterns that make grouping syllables properly easier (for English speakers) in Germanic languages than non-Germanic, or whether it's just a matter of "an ear for languages," or what.
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From: diatryma
2013-08-04 03:02 am (UTC)
A data point: my household watches The Wire with subtitles because we can't always hear the dialogue or understand it when we do. We all read faster than they talk, anyway, and are likely to be knitting.
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[User Picture]From: between4walls
2013-08-02 06:40 pm (UTC)
I just watched La Marseillaise and "galere" was constantly translated as "gallows" instead of "prison." Which made the trial that opens the plot a good deal more melodramatic!

Then they translated "qu'un sang impur abreuve nos sillons" as "let impure blood flow in our veins" rather than "water our furrows," at which point I gave up looking for the logic there. Why would anyone want impure blood in their veins?

Edited at 2013-08-02 06:41 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-08-02 06:42 pm (UTC)
Cognates! They are not always our friends, and they do not always mean we can just make guesses at the rest of the sentence even when they are our friends!
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2013-08-03 02:18 pm (UTC)
Subtitles always seem to vex me. These days I have them on more often than not, even when watching movies & TV shows in English. And the little bits that are wrong (and big bits) annoy me. Sometimes they're bad enough Kevin insists we turn them off.

When they're slightly off and they're the official subtitles that are on an actual DVD, I sometimes find the differences interesting because often it seems likely the subs are from the shooting script and the differences are improv by the actors.

I download lots of subtitles from http://opensubtitles.org/ and http://subscene.com/ for currently airing TV shows as well as for some movies and so on. There are people out there who clean up the broadcast subtitles, bless them. I swear given my obsessive tendencies I'll be doing that myself before too long. (One project I can easily imagine myself tackling with great joy would be putting together subs for Homicide: Life on the Street as the DVD set doesn't include them. But boy would that be a project!)

I confess when I'm watching something in a foreign language and reading the subs, I mostly pay attention to the subs and not so much to the spoken word. I don't know if it's because I lack an ear for language or usually am watching things where the foreign language is truly foreign to me. I did take German in high school and I guess when I'm watching German films, I do notice both. I suppose sometimes things spoken jump out regardless (as I'm sure "Islamisk" would in the case you mentioned).
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