Lost in Translation?

Hoo-whee … I’ve got a job translating a book from French into English. It’s an interesting book about a white-hunter in Tanzania, written, I believe, by a white-hunter in Tanzania … so the technical details are correct. You wanna know anything about the kind of rifles they use? I can tell you. It’s a fascinating peek into a world that takes you back to black and white movies of the fifties … Stewart Granger, Clark Gable and so on.

But this translation lark is interesting. It makes you aware of how idiomatic all language is. You can’t simply translate word-for-word, like online translators inevitably do. There seems to be at least two stages involved, if you want to do it properly. First is getting a sense of what a paragraph is trying to say, and then translating the sentences roughly in your head – maybe even writing down an approximation of what it’s saying.

The next stage is the real fun part, though – re-writing the text so that it reads like proper English, not just translated English. It’s really easy to get this wrong, to write phrases that are indeed in English, but actually don’t mean much in context. You have constantly to take a step back and read the whole flow of a paragraph to see whether what you’ve written actually makes sense in the light of what’s gone before. I’ve only completed the prologue and first chapter, as a ‘trial’ for the author, and I found myself – just before sending the chapters for approval – re-reading for one last time … and making more changes.

So it’s going to be a long job but actually quite enjoyable. You feel like you’re actually contributing something creative to the original, which makes it challenging and fun. Sometimes you come across a phrase that is so idiomatic that not only can you make no sense of it, but it doesn’t even appear in dictionaries or the Internet. That’s when I have to take a guess but also refer it back to the author for guidance. I guess Tanzanian French is even more idiomatic than French French!

Incidentally, you may notice a new graphic on the right hand side of the blog. This is an affiliate link to Waterstones – my first attempt at such a thing. I think what happens is that if you click the link and then buy something there, I get a cut. Yay! So go hog wild, why don’t you? You know there are all those Christmas presents coming up … (Now I better shut up about it. The blog hosts don’t like it if you use your posts to do too much advertising. Oops.)

Explore posts in the same categories: The Writing Life

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