The OF Blog: Traduttore, Traditore

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Traduttore, Traditore

While it'll be a few days before I write my full review of the English translation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's Blood of Elves, I cannot help but to recall the phrase "traduttore, traditore" in comparing two different translation (Spanish, English) of Sapkowski's books. It is amazing (and quite fascinating) to see how one can take one phrase and twist it so. Unfortunately, I don't have access (and even if I did, my knowledge of the language is non-existent) to the Polish original, but there is a passage in the final pages of Sangre de los elfos/Blood of Elves that I translated one way a few months ago and which the official translator, Danusia Stok, translated another. My translation is from the Spanish translation done by José María Faraldo, so it is possible that my translation may be made on his own choice of rendering the Polish idiom into a more recognizable one for his readers. I'll post the Spanish translation, then my translation of it, followed by Stok's English translation. Weigh in as to which one "feels right" to you:

Faraldo's translation from the Polish original:

Mi Maestra solía decir que dejar salir la fuerza debe resultar como si te tiraras un pedo en una sala de baile: delicadamente, moderadamente y bajo control. Y de tal modo que los que te rodean no se den cuenta que eres tú. ¿Entiendes?

My translation of the Faraldo:

My teacher often said that letting go of the force/power ought to result as if you farted in a dance hall: delicately, moderately, and under control. And in such a way that those around you would not realize it was you. Do you understand?

Stok's translation from the Polish original:

My Mistress used to say that emitting the force must be like blowing a raspberry in a ballroom; do it gently, sparingly, and with control. And in such a way that you don't let those around you know it was you. Understood?

Interesting shifts in meaning and emphasis, no? In particular, Stok's use of an euphemism for flatuence rather than the more direct, cruder one that Faraldo uses (and which I rendered into approximate American slang) might fit in more with a genteel setting, but when one considers the relationship between Yennefer and Ciri, not to mention between Yennefer and Geralt and how they speak to one another, it might be that Stok should have been more direct with her terminology. Unless of course it turns out that Sapkowski did not use a direct reference to farting in his original passage.

Furthermore, in my translation of the Faraldo translation, notice how I switched tenses and mood in order to render the past subjunctive (tirar, tiraras being the past subjunctive in Spanish) as best I could, as saying "as if you ripped a fart" might be too colloquial of an expression. Stok, however, uses a tense in her "must be like blowing" that leaves me uncertain if it is more of a future conditional (things will be in this condition and this condition only before X can occur) or a future imperative (things have to be such-and-such a way before X can occur). Regardless, it is not a direct one-to-one mapping with either Faraldo's Spanish translation or my rendering of his translation into English.

But my own translation has its issues. There are places where the phrasing perhaps could be tightened better (ought to result as if you farted...), but I found myself in a quandry. How could I capture the "you"ness of the passage, keep it simple and direct as possible, and make it "readable" as well as intelligible to someone who might not only understand English perfectly, but for those who may be very familiar with some of the other Sapkowski translations, if not with the Polish original itself? I took one approach towards this issue, choosing a rather non-standard bunching of verbs and verbal phrases, while Stok took another in her use of the "must be like ____ing" modal phrase.

Which is more correct? That is something I'll leave up to the readers here to decide.


Anonymous said...

The Spanish sound best to me, then yours, then the official English.

'Ought to result' sounds forced, 'emitting the force' just sounds bad, 'blowing a raspberry' sounds weird (but that's just me, since this is the first time I've heard the phrase).

Based on the Spanish, I would've said "should be like farting". Why complicate unneccesarily? I think the meaning is almost the same since it doesn't specify a time, and going that extra mile to convey the exact meaning makes the sentence sound worse. As for direct word vs. euphemism, it depends on what the author chose in Polish... which we'll never know.

Anonymous said...

I suppose Stok didn't want to lose the information pertaining to gender that gets lost with Teacher-but even accounting for the old fashioned use it doesn't sound right.
I prefer 'used to say' to 'said often'.
I'd use 'releasing' for dejar salir and 'should be like' instead of must be like (recommendation rather than imperative).
I think that the fart simile aims to throw off balance the expectations raised by words like teacher and force,which make me think of The Way of The Jedi and similar irony-challenged fantasy philosophies;
I could see the original text using a circumlocution - but probably one that sounds like a colourful expression rather than the bland euphemism we have in the translation.
Other choices are difficult to assess w/o knowing the original but while the choice of adverbs in the Spanish translation (and yours) seems to proceed from the simile Stok's translation seems to abandon it 'do it gently, sparingly, and with control' and reconnect more directly to 'emitting the force'.

Have you seen the 31 translations of the Frog Haiku ?


Wm. said...

Very interesting post, Larry. How much liberty would you say the translator should have with the prose? How malleable should the language be? I've been reading a translation of a Catalan novel, and I keep wondering if perhaps the book is written much better in the original tongue. Or, if lousy prose, rendered into English, ends up a much better work of art. Does the translator have the right to deviate from the original language in the name of Art? Does the original version forfeit all sovereignty once a translation is undertaken?


Btw--the subject matter of your translation reminded me of something I read years ago in a biography of Martin Luther. Luther, the great theologian, had written a most interesting stance on human flatulence. He posited that God, in his infinite wisdom, created farts in order for humans to withstand and repel Satan and the demons. =D

Larry Nolen said...


Yeah, that translation I did was months ago and was done in about 2 minutes, if memory serves. I probably would fool around with it quite a bit, although there is that possibility that there really isn't a great way to render that faithfully into English without it being awkward.

As for your suggestion, I hesitate only because it changes the mood from subjunctive to indicative (and yes, English has a subjunctive as well, although it is nearly moribund) and risks losing a bit of its impact (pun not intended!). Agreed on the direct word vs. euphemism observation.


Yes, "used to say" would work better, but as I said above to Jen, it is something I didn't consider when I did the original rough translation. As for a "colorful expression," I had thought when typing my post that saying "should be like ripping a fart in a dance hall/ballroom," as it would create a tension (again, no pun intended!) between the action and the setting.

And no, I haven't yet seen that, but I'll look at it shortly!


Umberto Eco wrote a great book about translation called The Mouse or Rat? that touches upon your questions. I personally believe that translations ought to betray literalness whenever it would be in service to the spirit of the text being translated.

As for that Martin Luther comment, I vaguely recall hearing something about that when I took a German history class 15-16 years ago :P

Anonymous said...

I went upstairs took my copy of „Krew elfów” and found the part.

Moja Mistrzyni zwykła była mawiać, że wydawanie mocy musi odbywać się tak, jakbyś puszczała bąka na sali balowej: delikatnie, oszczędnie i pod kontrolą. I tak by postronni nie połapali się, że to ty. Rozumiesz?

Moja Mistrzyni zwykła była mawiać: My Mistress used to say is as a direct translation of what Yennefer says as there could be (including capital M). And Mistress is old fashioned in Polish too, but it relates to an old fashioned Master-Apprentice kind relation that she used to have with her teacher and also has with Ciri.

że wydawanie mocy: that emitting the force is maybe too exact translation. Sapkowski uses “wydawać” which means “to expend, to spend” but can be understood as “to emit something” – sound for example. But maybe release would sound better in English.

musi odbywać się tak, jakbyś: must be like Sapkowski uses “musieć” wich means must “must” but sometimes (and in this case) is not as strong in Polish. So probably in this case “ought to” is closer to the meaning, while “should” would be too weak.

puszczała bąka na sali balowej: blowing a raspberry in a ballroom I don’t know that English expression so I don’t know when one would use it. In Polish “puścić bąka” is informal but not rude. It is also a way one would talk to a kid although in very direct way. “To fart” I think is more rude and would translate to “pierdzieć”, which is what dwarfs do :P. And ballroom is again a direct translation.

delikatnie, oszczędnie i pod kontrolą: delicately, moderately, and under control this is closer to original – “delikatnie” means “delicately”, “oszczędnie” means “sparingly” and “pod kontrolą” means “under (pod=under) control” although “with control” seems better in this case.

I tak by postronni nie połapali się, że to ty: And in such a way that those around you would not realize it was you. this I think is more close as “połapać się” means to “catch on” and is just less formal form of realise. “Postronni” means “other people, not involved with what you are doing, not understanding what you do, not near or not knowing you” – basically “other people” in this case.

Rozumiesz? Understood? Polish position of words means little, what matters is endings (and less often beginnings) of words, which makes automatic spell check much less effective then in English. But it also means that some meanings can be transmitted with just one word. “Rozumiesz?” means “Do you understand” but actually “Understood?” is closer in meaning. In Polish you know which conjugation one means without including the subject (I, you or we) because of the ending of the verb eg. "rozumieć” = “to understand”; “rozumiem” = “ja rozumiem” = “I understand” so “rozumiesz” = “ty rozumiesz” = “you understand” and in fact the subject is almost always dropped unless one wants to make a point.
Also in Polish when one makes general question it is not made with changing position of words – as it usually doesn’t matter – but by adding “czy” at the beggining eg. “Idziesz do kina” – “You go to the cinema” is a statement; “Czy idziesz do kina?” – “Do you go to the cinema?” is a question. However usually, especially in speech and informally, one just makes the question with intonation “Idziesz do kina?”. And to make it even more complicated second person is also sometimes used for orders so “Idziesz do kina” can be, depending on intonation, statement, question or order (in ‘don’t discuss it just do it’ tone).
The “Rozumiesz?” here is of order/question type and actually a rhetorical question. That’s why “Understood?”, I think, fits better, although the original is in present tense.

My translation – almost word for word:
My Mistress used to say that expending force ought to happen in such a way, as if you were blowing a raspberry (?) in a ballroom: delicately, sparingly, and with control. And so that the others wouldn’t notice it was you. Understood?

Larry Nolen said...

Fascinating, as it seems Faraldo took more liberties due to Spanish not having the noun declensions that Polish has (and my translation being based on his, although I would have smoothed it out if I had spent more than the five minutes I had done back in July when I had first rendered that piece). But in place of Stok's "blowing a raspberry," if a euphemism is needed, I would have said "passed gas" instead; Faraldo's "tiraras un pedo" is quite a bit more direct than the Polish original, apparently, although I don't know of a good euphemism for it in Spanish.

Thanks for giving us the original Polish to consider! And look for a review of the first novel by tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

There is more actually. See the first part Moja Mistrzyni zwykła była mawiać uses a bit outdated construction. One would normally just say Moja Mistrzyni zwykła mówić. The word “zwykła” already means “used to”, using “była” (“was”) doubles the past tense. This is rarely used in Polish and I encountered it mostly when English teachers tried to explain Past Perfect to us :P. Also “mawiać” is old version of “mówić” and it has an extra meaning that what comes next is a saying. As a whole it sounds too flowery and most people would associate it with past. Sapkowski does a lot of such small tricks to make pretend the characters live before modern times. He often uses outdated words or such elaborate constructions that people associate with the times before 18th century. It, of course, is not how Poles actually used to speak centuries ago – that would be hard to understand for modern readers. It’s how people now imagine they spoke. Pop coulture Old Polish :P. One of the reasons why Witcher is so beloved in Poland, besides plot, characters, word, humour and the history connections, is language. He really knows how to play with it. He mixes modern, scientific terminology for supernatural with outdated vocabulary for everyday stuff. The clash is part of the fun. That’s why Polish fans are always so hard on translations – we feel like you miss something vital.

“puścić bąka” literally means “to let go of bumblebee”, so it can not be translated directly. This is however the most popular term for the deed that is not a profanity. So I suppose “passing gas” would’ve been best. But maybe this is the outdated part in English?

Larry Nolen said...

It's tricky in English, since our very language is no older than around 550-600 years old and since before the 1800s there were so many Latin and French expressions used interchangeably with the English. In fact, if I wanted to be super-precise in a translation of that expression that you note, I would have placed it in something akin to French, if I wanted for it to be "antique" in feel. As it stands, "passing gas" is a newish expression that dates back likely to the time of the 19th century gas lights and their own particular odors. But "blowing a raspberry", while understood by many, is rather odd and stilted in English; might as well have used "barking spider" as a reference :P

As for Faraldo's Spanish translation, it is good in the sense that he too uses older Castilian terms of address, such as vuestra merced for polite address (today it is shortened to usted/ustedes in most of the Spanish-speaking world). In English, thou/you is possible, but it would be viewed as being affected/artificial speech and would be quite clumsy. But I do agree that there is a sense that there are still elements of wordplay that are missed in translation; fortunately, the Spanish one seems to "ring true" a bit more than the English to me, despite English being my native tongue and Spanish my second language.

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