Making decisions in literary translation: translating dialects

Translating is a lot like solving an enigma or a riddle, or even reading a crime book with a pencil and a pad of paper at hand, trying to guess who did it. Though one might argue that there are no right or wrong answers for an experienced translator, only an enlightened decision, making the right choice of word, or finding the best solution to the original clue, if you want, can be of capital importance to the success of the book.

On the topic of historical novels or dialects

“Aye, pray thee, bonnie lassie, dinna ye ken wot that mon is sayin’?” Errr, probably no more than a translator who has not lived in Scotland, no. And what about those historical novels that take you to the Southern States before the Civil War? Or take one of my translations, featuring a main character that could barely speak English when she moved to America, prompting the novelist to write all her dialogues in a broken mix of English and Spanish that I was, for a moment, at a loss to translate.

There are several choices translators can make to allow their readers to grasp the feeling that, let’s say, a dialect or an archaic language is being spoken, without it being too strenuous on the eyes nor obtrusive.

Though not a favourite amongst translators of fiction, as it slows down the reading process, is the option of inserting a translator’s note at the bottom of the page. It could be used to explain a foreign word that cannot be translated without losing a huge part of its meaning (referring for example to a plant, an animal, or even a custom that is present only in this specific region of the globe, and that the narrator has chosen not to elucidate elsewhere in the text).

Having to deal with a Scottish romance, for example, I would chose to keep exclamations like “Ach”, or “Och” in French, as well as Scottish Gaelic phrases, provided that I juxtapose a French translation of the word. Meeting the words uisge beatha in a narrative, I would probably keep it in italics, followed by “du whiskey” or “de l’eau de vie” (or something in the vein of “that famous Scottish water of life”), depending on the century the action is set in.

As far as Southern or foreign variations of the language that are represented in phonetics to underline the fact that the speaker does not master the language fluently, I have always had problems working on those. I would certainly not have managed to produce a faithful rendering of Gone with the Wind or To Kill a Mocking Bird into French, as I would probably have chosen to have the characters use poor or mangled grammar, and that’s it, and not to make them use what I consider child speech, which would only serve, in my eyes, to belittle them. Don’t ask me, I’m certainly wrong, but it tickles my moral bone, though I am well aware that some communities are proud to have developed their own lingo. You is kind, you is strong.

How to make an enlightened decision?

  • Read other books (or samples) of the same genre that were written directly into your target language or translated into it.
  • Wait… Isn’t that plagiarism? Nope, it is drawing inspiration from what other translators have done to solve the same riddle you are facing, while creating the right mood for their narratives.
  • Work closely with your proofreader, or have a sample of your text (with the permission of the author/publisher) be submitted to a panel of readers in your target language. In the end, all linguistic considerations put aside, these people will be the ones to please; they will be the ones who should forget that the book they have in hand was written in a foreign language in the first place.

I hope you enjoyed these few considerations. These are good examples of the decisions a literary translator has to make on a daily basis. Next time, we will be covering the process of finding the right title and the importance of marketing considerations in that respect.

Feel free to share your experience!

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