Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lost in Translation

My British friends and I talk about the common language that divides us. We consult each other for translations when we read. For example, when I read Joanna Harris’s Gentlemen and Players, I called up my friend Glenys. “What’s a conker?” I asked. Later when she was reading To Kill a Mockingbird, she had to know, “What are druthers?”
My first encounter with the disparity came many years ago during an early trip to England. I was staying with some people in Sussex and we were having a domestic discussion of some kind. The woman spoke about a paraffin heater. I was quite alarmed. “Isn’t that dangerous?” I said. She replied that it was normal. I persisted in voicing my concern until someone else explained to both of us that paraffin in the U.S. is wax while paraffin in Britain is kerosene.
I’ve been enjoying this diversity ever since. In teaching English as a second language, I often have to do three-way translations. Again, I first encountered this anomaly some years ago while teaching a class in Washington, D.C. At that school, American English ruled. A European student was shocked at a sentence in the lesson. “Isn’t it a ten dollar note?”  “No, dear. It’s a ten pound note, but it’s a ten dollar bill.”
Now, all my students are European, but many want to visit the U.S. The textbooks I use are British, so when the word queue comes up and someone asks what it means, I translate into Italian, but explain that it means line in America. I try to limit myself to practical words that may cause trouble for the tourist, like elevator vs. lift and such like. Even this gets confusing. Italians use the word lifting to mean face lift, or general firming up of the body. It can be a bit complicated to get into how that all fits together.
To me the most shocking discovery has been that publishers translate from English to English on either side of the Atlantic. I first learned this while doing a lesson with a thirteen-year-old Italian girl. She loved Harry Potter. We each had a copy of HP and the Philosopher’s Stone, my copy published in the U.S., hers in Britain. In the scene where we first meet Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, he offers her something. My young student read lemon sherbet and I stopped her. “That’s lemon drop.” We compared texts. Lemon sherbet in the U.S. is not a hard lemon sweet, er, candy.
 And while I can understand the need to do this kind of translations for books marketed to children, I don’t think it’s necessary for adults. I’m not especially happy to see Faulkner’s practice changed to practise, but I can accept it since editors usually seek consistency. But it’s egregious when translation weakens the prose. 

I reread Capote’s In Cold Blood a couple of years ago. When I got to page 87 of the British-printed edition I was reading, I stopped cold. In the passage describing how neighbors and the hired man cleaned up after the murders, I read:
They unloaded the truck and made a pyramid of Nancy’s pillows, the bedclothes, the mattresses, the playroom couch; Stoeklein sprinkled it with paraffin and struck a match.
I didn’t need to check the text to know that that last phrase should have read kerosene. The poetry of Capote’s prose with that interplay of s’s and k’s had been destroyed by a sloppy editor who, exactly 100 pages later, left in the phrase “scalding water and kerosene lamps.”
 Would a British reader have been confused? Maybe. Maybe not. But a careful reader who takes joy in words would have delighted in the poetry and looked up the meaning.


Heidi Noroozy said...

It's a travesty to change the words of a great writer when there's no need! I'm sure that most British readers could have figured out that paraffin is something flammable from the context. One of the principles of translation is to preserve the style and tone of the original if at all possible and not just convey the meaning. So putting British expressions in American characters' mouths and vice versa would violate that, I think. Even the different spelling and grammar can change how a piece of writing feels.

Patricia Winton said...

Heidi, you are quite right. After reading that version of In Cold Blood, I've looked carefully at everything. Since most English language books I buy now come from England, I find lots of suspicious changes. And the spelling, always. I was especially angry with the editor I wrote about because s/he let kerosene stand in a place where the prose was less elegant.