Thursday, April 23, 2015

Thoughts on Translating Novels: Idioms and Pop-Culture Refrences

I was looking a book up on Goodreads the other day, and noticed how the book had different covers for the versions that were printed in different languages. This got me thinking about translating my books into other languages. I’ve never had any of my novels translated before, but this is something I’d love to do. However, every time I think about doing it, I worry that something will get lost in translation. 
For example, below is a quote from one of my new favorite book series, Shatter Me.
"Sticks and stones keep breaking my bones but these words, these words will kill me."
Tahereh Mafi (Unravel Me (Shatter Me, #2))
It's a twist on a phrase, and idiom, most American's know well. But, how well would that idiom translate into another language. Now, "Sticks and Stones" is a fairly literal idiom, which may not cause too much trouble in translation, but there are other's that aren't so straight forward.

For example, I was watching an episode of Archer the other day, where Archer is marooned on an island full of pirates who don’t speak any English. Archer is trying to talk to a group of pirates via a translator, but his translator keeps getting frustrated with him because Archer keeps using idioms.


“That won’t translate. That’s like last week when you said ‘lend me your ears.”

Most English-speaking people would understand the phrase “lend me your ears,” as meaning “listen,” but taken literally it doesn’t make any sense. (Can you just picture people going all Van-Gogh and throwing their ears at you?)

Idioms have a way of creeping into our conversations, and you might use them more than you think. Have you ever offered someone a penny for their thoughts, ever felt under the weather, or had someone pull the wool over your eyes? These strange little saying have become a part of our everyday conversations. If I were to ever have any of my books translated it would have to be by someone who understood both English and whatever language I was translating my book into well enough to get the meaning of any idioms I was using across, and not just the literal words.

Idioms aren’t my only concern when I think about translating my books into other languages. I wonder about things like Pop-culture references. If one of my characters make a pop-culture reference of a popular movie or a particular pop-star, will people reading my book in another country even know what I'm talking about, or even if they do would there be something or someone else from their country who’d be a better fit for the statement my character is making?
For example, check out this quote from Jennifer Armentrout's Obsidian.
"My palms itched to have a close encounter of the bitch-slap kind with his face."
Jennifer L. Armentrout (Obsidian (Lux, #1))
Now, I know this book has been translated into a number of other languages including Spanish and Italian, and I'm curious if it still has that teen-speak sound to it. Is the "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," reference lost?

Things like idioms and pop-culture references are important in a story. Having a character, or narrator, use an idiom or pop-culture reference helps define that person’s voice. It adds to the story’s style and overall feel.

At the end of the day I wouldn’t care if one of my pop-culture references or idioms got switched out for something more culturally relevant to the language it’s being translated into. It’s not the exact words that are important, it’s the meaning they convey. What would be awful is if a pop-culture reference was removed completely because it didn’t translate well.

What do you think? Have you read any books that were originally written in another language? Did you feel like something was missing?

Thinking about having something translated, check out Smartling:

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