Translating the 17th of May into English and other horror stories




The 17th of May. What’s the problem? It’s the day after the 16th, and the day before the 18th, isn’t it? That is precisely the problem. Mention the term to a Norwegian and he or she will immediately think of rømmegrøt (a food that doesn’t exist in English) and speeches, of the local village brass band (slightly un-English these days), of children in national costume (very un-English) licking the first ice cream of the year (the long winter’s snow has melted this week and the spring flowers have just come out). It’s independence day (or more properly, constitution day: independence from Denmark on 17 May 1814 resulted shortly afterwards in the transfer of sovereignty to Sweden rather than full independence which arrived in 1905, but no matter). The problem is that the Norwegian reader has spent their whole life knowing that this is the most important day of the year and building up every kind of memory and association. How on earth can you put all that into three words in English? Put it another way. Try translating into Norwegian the phrase: “remember, remember, the fifth of November”. Or even the plaintive wail of the Magic Roundabout train: “Dr Beeching, where are you?” In Norway the 5th of November is the day after the 4th, and nothing whatever to do with lighting bonfires in the rain, treacle toffee, fireworks and wrapping up well on draughty winter evenings. And who the heck is Dr Beeching? Someone who makes trains feel better?

This bring us straight to the heart of the misunderstanding about translation. It is a common misconception that translation is about finding the “same” words in another language. It isn’t. It’s about re-creating the same mental processes – the same emotions, if you will – in another culture. But here lurks a dilemma. How much explanation, how much background information, is permissible before a translation becomes an interpretation or a commentary? Let’s take, for example, the very common Norwegian word seter. A seter is generally a little gathering of relatively-primitive log cabins on a mountainside. These cabins are traditionally owned by the farming families in the nearest village and formed the summer accommodation for women and children who looked after the farm animals at summer pasture in the mountains. This in turn was necessary because the grass grown down in the village was needed as feedstuff for the winter. Dairying (particularly cheese production) was carried out at the seter during the summer. Nowadays, however, most seter buildings have become weekend accommodation for villagers wanting to return to a “simple life” in the mountains (and in some cases as commercial holiday accommodation), and have lost their traditional dairying associations. We’ve just used well over 100 words to give a very basic and simplistic introduction to what that word seter means to the modern Norwegian reader. Can we do that every time the word seter is mentioned in a text? Of course not. It’s absurd to think that we can even do it once, but without doing so we are failing utterly to convey the core meaning of the text.

In short, we have to balance how much information is desirable to produce an accurate result against how much information is practicable or useful. A recent Norwegian-English translation commission included the words: “på en eldre Torshovgård” ("at an aging Torshov block of flats”). Torshov is a district of Oslo (the name derived from the famous God Tor (the one with the hammer) and “hov”, a place of worship), characterised by a particular style of architecture and urban planning. Is the English reader actually interested in the specific Oslo associations of this expression, much less in its etymological or social-planning associations? Just what is the author trying to put across here, and how can we find something that will put across the same thing to an English-speaking reader?

Of course, cultural context is not the only seemingly-insurmountable obstacle to translation. Grammatical constructs can provide unexpected problems. Take, for instance, the following sentence in a recent Norwegian-English translation: "Her er det jo grunn til å oppfordre til en klargjøring av det konseptuelle som ligger i kompetansebegrepet". A literal, word-for-word translation would read: “Here there are, yes, grounds to challenge to a clarification of the conceptual that lies in the term competence”. What? Firstly, Norwegian (unlike English) likes abstract or open-ended statements. “Here” (where?, we ask), “to challenge” (whom?); “the conceptual” (the conceptual what?). In order to supply a reasonable translation we have to fill out all the missing concepts: “Within this context, there are grounds…”; “to challenge the common understanding …”; “of the conceptual issues …” and so on. Then there’s that stray “yes” that forms quite an important marker in Norwegian but is quite out of place in English – unless we used the term “of course”. Then there is the word “competence”. The Norwegian word (though identical) doesn’t really mean the same as the English one. Its meaning lies somewhere between knowledge, technical ability, skill and qualification, though it is not exactly any of these. Then there is that final half-word “begrep” (the second half of “kompetansebegrepet"). Any dictionary will translate this as a “term” or “expression”, but in fact it’s usually used to denote “concept”. But how can you clarify the concept of a concept?

This final question takes us right out of the technical complexities of translation and into the even-more bewildering landscape of ethical questions. The job of the translator is to produce the closest-possible equivalent of a text in the specified language. It is no part of the translator’s function to disagree with or criticise what has been written. But if what has been written makes no kind of sense – is, not to put too fine a point on it, utter rubbish – is it ethical to take the customer’s money and write the same drivel in another language? In a sense it is easier when a text contains verifiable errors of fact: “Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill died in 1966”. Here it is reasonably straightforward to correct the date to 1965 and include a note to that effect. But if the text, for instance, mis-represents Churchill’s known views the translator is not entitled to challenge this. In such a case there are only two options: either translate the text as it stands or refuse to translate it at all.

Our translating workspace (desks with computers) opens into a library full of dictionaries, works of reference and every type of electronic reference tool. It’s almost unheard of that we’re stumped for a literal translation of a word, and should a thing happen we have a network of consultants to ask. The more important resource lies in the other adjoining room – the coffee machine. It is here we gather to debate tricky concepts, to moan about the general lot of translators and to help each other when we’ve ground to a halt. But complaints aside, translating is the most creative and satisfying job in the world and we wouldn’t have it any other way.