Translating Literature

Thursday, October 4, 2007 at 8:27 pm 1 comment

On the Thai 101 blog, a post came up about the old difficulty of translation. Rikker’s comment that, “there is no Perfect Translation” reminded me of a book I read recently, Translating Literature: Practice and Theory in a Comparative Literature Context, by André Lefevere. Academic and Western-focused, it is not exactly practical, but the summary plainly says it’s designed for academic courses. Still, I have to admit it was fun to read, particularly the second chapter, which contains countless examples of tough situations. I found a few quite interesting:

  • Alliteration: languages do not share all sounds. How do you translate Thai alliteration of “ง” to English?
  • Allusion: Consider a Thai allusion to Ramakien. When translating to Hindi, maybe we should allude to Ramayana. What about English? Canterbury Tales? If you are targeting the average American, you’d be smart to stick to John Grisham or Stephen King.
  • Foreign Words, the problem covered in the Thai 101 post
  • Genre (also Parody): Many stories emulate or parody common genres, immediately bringing the reader in sync with the author. Unfortunately, few genres are universal.
  • Names: Authors use names of people and places to communicate something. How do you translate “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski to Thai? One day I decided I would never again buy seedy Silom DVDs after watching it with Thai subtitles. A character’s surname, Pope, had been translated to พระสันตะปาปา.

Fortunately, the point of the book is that translation is highly contextualized and subjective, and you as a translator must set your priorities.

Another book that I’ve always wanted to read but until just now I thought it was out of print is Le Ton beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter. To my knowledge, it explores the challenge of translation, focusing exclusively on a four-line French poem. Presumably, the density and quality is very high as Hofstadter considers it his best work. If you never read GEB, just read the second paragraph of the Wikipedia article.

Incidentally, Thai 101 is a pretty interesting blog that I have only recently discovered. Rikker’s interests in the Thai language overlap my own. (But he seems to actually put effort into his studies.)

Entry filed under: Translation. Tags: .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. rikker  |  Saturday, October 13, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks for reading, and for the link. You raise some good points. Even without alliteration, ง is tricky. The province พังงา would be unreadable if it were written Phangnga, Pungnga or something like that. I think Phang-Nga is the most common English spelling. That’s still pretty unpronounceable for the uninitiated English speaker, though.

    As for names, I see it done both ways. In the first Harry Potter book there’s a giant three-headed guard dog (a la Cerberus) named Fluffy. In Thai it’s translated ปุกปุย–literally, “fluffy.” For the most part, though, proper names seem to be transcribed as is in most movies. The example of the seedy Silom DVDs is because those are usually copied from Region 1 (U.S.) DVDs, and they’ve translated the English subtitles into Thai with a computer program. Always a bad idea. The Region 3 DVDs (whether legit or copied) should have professionally translated English subtitles (if they have them at all).

    Oh, and I still haven’t responded to your latest comment on my blog–soon!

    Reply

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