A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, April 7, 2013

On the Exigencies of Translation

Cover art for the Wreck
prior to composition
While browsing through that well-known, though not well-sold, SF classic, The Wreck of "The River of Stars," TOF ran across the following line.
Beneath Grubb’s singlet she could mark the contours of his affection and so knew not only his longing, but how long it was. 

A bit of archly lascivious punning.  Impelled by curiosity, TOF consulted Der Fluss der Sterne, where he found the line rendered thusly:
An Grubbs leichter Hose zeichneten sich die Konturen seiner Zuneigung ab - sie konnte nicht nur sein Verlangen erkennen, sondern wusste auch, wie groß es war. 
At iGoogle, this back-translates as 
At Grubbs lighter pants loomed the contours of his affection - she could not only recognize his desire, but also knew how big it was.
And then El Naufragio de "El Rio de las Estrellas," where it ran as follows:
Bajo la camiseta de Grubb podía apreciar los contornos de su afecto y por tanto sabía no sólo de sus ansias sino también que eran antiguas. 
This back translates from iGoogle translations as
Under Grubb's shirt [she] could see the outlines of his affection and therefore know not only their anxieties but they were old.
The intriguing thing is that neither translation preserves the pun between longing and long.  Both translate the crude physical reality: that the Lotus Jewel could see Grubb's erection outlined in his coveralls. 

The German Verlangen does have the quality of English "longing": ver-langen.  But "long" has been grossly rendered as groß, which can be translated: big, great, tall, high, wide, long, grand, full, etc., though there is a perfectly good adjective lange, which would have preserved the pun:
...sie konnte nicht nur sein Verlangen erkennen, sondern wusste auch, wie lang es war. 
It's also noteworthy that while English gets by with a single "knew" ("...knew not only his longing, but how long it was."), the German wants two verbs.  The longing was erkennten but the length was wusste.  I'm reasonably certain that this is because the latter is known by direct sensing but the former is known by intuition or inference. 

The Spanish translation is odder, at least do far as TOF can tell, which is admittedly not very far.  Ansia includes "longing" among its meanings, but also anxiety, anguish, and worry, which is not strictly denoted by either longing or Verlangen.  If antiguas was an attempt to pun -- perhaps the ansias/antiguas pronunciations are similar? -- it produced a strange meaning.  Old?  I admit I don't get it. 
Digression: English needed 23 words to say this and German needed 24.  (TOF counted "zeichneten ... ab" as a single word: "abzeichnen" but the reflexive form "sich abzeichnen" as two words.)  The Spanish needed 26 words.  TOF understands that Spanish generally needs more words, mostly perhaps because where German can add -s or English can add -'s, without increasing word-count, Spanish adds de or de los or something of the sort, one or two extra words.  Also the German ability multiwordcombines to create and the English word-trove that lets us shade a meaning by word choice rather than by adding an adjective or adverb.  
 So the thought for the day is that you can't always depend on a translation to capture every nuance of the original.  In German, "the cow is on the ice" is not a scientific assessment of bovines on frozen water.  It is an idiom that means one is confronted with a difficult problem.  (Think: how do you get a cow off the ice?)  There will be turns of phrase, shades of meaning that will be lost from one language to another.  St. Augustine noted that "in some languages there are words that cannot be translated into the idiom of another language."  And he gives multiple examples of faulty translation of Hebrew and Greek into Latin.  
But hasty and careless readers are led astray by many and manifold obscurities and ambiguities, substituting one meaning for another; and in some places they cannot hit upon even a fair interpretation. Some of the expressions are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness.
-- Augustine of Hippo, On Christian doctrine, II:6


  1. It seems plausible to me that the Spanish translation was trying to preserve the first-syllable pun. My Spanish is very rusty, but 'ansia' seems to me to be a good translation, having as its primary meaning something like 'restlessness'; an 'ansia de aventuras' is a Wanderlust, for instance. But unless the 'antigua' is some sort of bawdy idiom (there are a lot of them in Spanish), perhaps it was just a plain misreading of 'long' as if it were suggesting a long time? As if the original pun had been 'not only his longing, but how longstanding it was'. That's the only thing I can think of.

    1. I think you're right. In Castellano, that is, Iberian Spanish, 'antigua' could mean 'longstanding'. Also, 'anciano' can imply something old, wise, and longstanding. Obviously the word sounds similar to 'ansia'. But the way the pun is worded would likely fly over the heads of a native Chilean or Mexican or Venezuelan, et cetera. I have a couple Portuguese friends who tell me how crude and vulgar Brazilian puns and idioms are to them, while Brazilians find those of the Portuguese to be long-winded and prudish.

  2. Although "Verlangen" seemingly indeed shares a root with "lange", as a German native speaker, I would never associate the two, so the proposed "Verlangen ... lang" strikes me as profoundly odd. "Grosses Verlangen" is a standing chliché in German, so the translation is actually spot-on, even though there seems to be no way to preserve the original pun.
    I was wondering how "longing ... long" works for English natives - it certainly does for me, although it probably shouldn't, for the same reasons the proposed German version would not.

    Also note that while the male genital can successfully be described as both "lang" and "groß" (encompassing both longitudinal extension and girth), a German erection can only ever be "groß", possibly owing to the fact that the size increase encompasses more than one dimension for the average German. Admittedly, I have not encountered an English "long erection" to date, neither figuratively nor in the flesh.

  3. Excellent comments. I agree that no one would typically use "long" in English, neither would its use be rejected in context. Its appearance in company with "longing" was strictly for the pun. Verlangen, as I understand it, does not actually derive from lang, but from -ling-. If grosses Verlangen is an idiom, as you say, the translator made an heroic effort to preserve the pun-ishment of the original. Wordplay is a difficult thing to translate.

  4. As a native Spanish speaker, I can tell you that the translator completely messed up the pun. Which makes me glad I read the English version. The way it was translated doesn't make much sense - the pronunciations of "ansias" and "antiguas" are not similar, so the translator cannot possibly have attempted a pun there.

    My impression is that the translator may have interpreted "long" as a duration, not a length... And so translated thinking the longings came from "long ago", therefore "antiguas". But how on Earth (or on space) can you possibly tell the duration of a man's longing by looking at his erection, I cannot imagine!

    I can't see how to translate the original into Spanish and preserve the intended pun (which does not mean it is impossible, of course). A translation that does not keep the pun but at least makes sense would be something like this:

    Bajo la camiseta de Grubb podía apreciar los contornos de su afecto, y por tanto sabía no sólo de sus ansias sino también cuán grandes eran.

  5. I was told in Costa Rica that a "fresca" was a lemon-lime drink, but my client once got in trouble when he ordered a fresca in a bar in Guatemala or Honduras (I've forgotten) only to learn that in that part of Central America a "fresca" is a male prostitute.