Hippoi Athanatoi

WorldCon: Day 2 - Part 3

While Elio attended the Realistic Swordfighting 101 panel, I went to see Translation: Controlling the text, as I hope to be able to get a foot into the translation business sooner rather than later. The panelists were Frank Borsch, Didi Chanoch (who I believe translated A Storm of Swords into Hebrew), John-Henri Holmberg, Alain Nevant and Terry Pratchett. A Gail Dana should have been part of it as well, but was nowhere to be seen.

As with many other panels, the title and description didn’t necessarily guide the discussion all that much. What was discussed fell into a couple of distinct group. One, sparked by a question from Pratchett (who acted as the moderator), was why so much British and American literature is translated into German, Swedish, etc, but almost none of the reverse happens. Frank Borsch noted that one reason was that it was cheaper to pay a translator to translate a book than to pay a writer for a manuscript. However, he noted that this is changing as books grow longer and longer since translators are paged by the page. John-Henri Holmberg also noted (and Frank Borsch agreed that the same was true in Germany) that when it comes to Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as other “entertainment” literature, foreign books are translated because all the Swedish writers just want to be write serious stuff and become the new Strindberg. As an example, he noted that one of the current darlings of the Swedish media was reviewed in a British paper, and that the reviewer thought the books reached such depths of Swedish doom and gloom that it was unintentionally hilarious. Pratchett noted that all this talk about foreign writers being translated to entertain people when their own writers wouldn’t made him feel like cheap immigrant labour. ;)

Another point that was discussed at was what poses problems for translators. John-Henri Holmberg turned to Pratchett and asked him to avoid puns, dialects and invented words, and all the other translators agreed. Pratchett noted that his one of his translators (the French, I believe) had once contacted him about a made up word (I forget which), a new construction that worked just fine in English but just couldn’t be put together in French, and so he needed to know precisely what it was supposed to convey to be able to find a replacement. While on the subject of humour, which all agreed is hell to translate, Alain Nevant noted that Neil Gaiman’s subtle plays on words posed a problem. This sparked mock-indignation from Pratchett: ““Oh, so when Neil Gaiman does it, it is a subtle play on words, but when I do it, it is just a pun!” ;)

Pratchett noted that his Polish translator once had summed up the problem with his language and humour as “You can’t think like this in Polish”; apparently the guy got a special award for the translation. Another funny moment was when John-Henri Holmberg noted why dialects can be so disastrous: the original Swedish translation of Gone with the Wind apparently replaced the Southern dialect of the slaves with .... småländska. You have to be Swedish to realize the insanity, I think. On a related matter, transposing cultural elements, Didi Chanoch noted (sparked by a comment from another Israeli in the audience, I believe) that it is very hard to translate books set in Medieval Europe (or equivalent, like with GRRM) into Hebrew, as Hebrew was a dead language during the Middle Ages and they have very few terms for things like armour. Naval terminology was another problem, so Pratchett commented that he didn’t imagine they had translated Patrick O’Brien then.

Throughout the panel, various pieces of good advice for how to tackle the problems one faces were given. Frank Borsch suggested that if you can’t translate a particular piece of humour in a section, just insert something else. Of course, this depends on which school of thought (outlined by Alain Nevant) one follows: should it be a word-by-word translation that keeps the translated text as close to the original as possible, or should you try to make the translated text into what the writer could be assumed to have written, had he been writing in the target language. Personally, I lean towards the former, as I see the latter as more of an adaptation than a translation. There seemed to be a general agreement that if you can translate SF & F, you can translate mainstream, but that the reverse isn’t true. Although, someone (I forget who) did note that they felt that SF & F was easier because you don’t need to be so up-to-date on slang, cultural references, other books, etc. Still, the feeling did seem to be that fans of the genres do the best jobs.

I also managed to get a question in about this, asking whether publishers in smaller countries, where you generally do not have pure genre publishers, try to put people who know the genres on the job of translating genre books. John-Henri Holmberg seemed to feel that there were enough fans in the industry in Sweden at least, many of them who started writing for fanzines but moved into translating as there’s virtually no native market for SF & F. So, I guess I might have to try my hand at that, if there’s already that much competition to contend with.

On the whole, I found this to be a very informative and entertaining panel. Much of what was said, I knew from the class I took at Gothenburg University, but it was interesting to get to hear people with recent experience of translating speaking on the topic.

After this panel, I met up with Elio again, and we went off to catch the first of two presentations on the A Song of Ice and Fire miniatures.

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