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.