When a third language complicates the translation process: A look at L3 from Tolstoy to trays.

Translation is considered as the transferral of meaning from one language to another, and the entire foundation of translation theory revolves around binary oppositions e.g. free vs literal translation, dynamic vs formal equivalence, source text and target text.

And yet there are many situations (primarily in literary and audiovisual translation) that see the introduction of a third language, which serves to complicate the translation process. Many modern French novels, for example, are rife with English words, and these are not decisions made on a whim but rather conscious decisions taken by the author to produce a specific effect, and therefore the manner in which they are translated must be considered at length.

David Bellos calls this phenomenon L3 (with the other two languages representing L1 and L2) and, while a similar process in linguistics is often called code-switching, I like L3 as code-switching tends to be a more general term which can even refer to changes in register within one language. This is an area I touched upon in a previous post (How to solve a problem like Peter) and an interesting subject that I want to further elaborate with a few examples.

One commonly cited example in the discussion of L3 (including in Bellos’ book Is that a fish in your ear?) is that of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – a literary buff’s favourite – commenting upon the use of French in the Russian original. It is estimated that 2 percent of the entire book is in French, and it is used in order to reflect the character’s personalities, as Russian aristocrats at the time would speak French at social occasions as a class marker.

In order for this act of characterisation to be recognised, however, the author is relying upon the audience’s appreciation of this cultural trait and ideally an understanding of the French language, and the fact that Tolstoy himself toyed with various methods – producing Russian translations of all French in footnotes in some versions while removing the French completely in others – is indicative of the difficulty of including another language in a text without even considering the challenges posed when translating.

The task of the French translator of this work is both impossible and easy in that there is very little they can do: translating the French sections back into Russian, for example, would be completely counter-productive and as such they must resign themselves to the bizarre reality of losing a significant element of meaning while keeping the original perfectly intact.

The English translator, on the other hand, has a little more space to work with as several courses of action are available. The familiarity of high-brow English readers with the French language, and the similar usage of French by the British aristocracy as a class marker, allows the possibility of retaining the French and, while most translators still cut the French from the English version to allow an easier read, Pevear and Volokhonsky did indeed choose to retain the French (with translations in footnotes) and their bold decision results in a stronger translation.

The next example highlighting this phenomenon is in quite stark contrast to the one above, coming from a classic British comedy which has managed to cross European borders and one that exploits the use of L3 as a source of great humour.

The series in question is ‘Fawlty Towers’ (or ‘L’Hôtel en folie’ [The Crazy Hotel] to French viewers), and the relationship between it’s owner Basil and Spanish waiter Manuel is the point of interest, with linguistic puns and misunderstandings – all built around traditional stereotypes – presenting an extremely difficult challenge for the translator.

The video above comes from the very first episode of the series and epitomises this type of humour. The confusion caused by combining Basil’s broken Spanish and Manuel’s virtually non-existent English is as funny as it is hard to translate – with the confusion between ‘on those trays’ and ‘uno, dos, tres’ providing the most obvious challenge.

The French subtitles to this scene succeed in retaining some of the misunderstanding between the characters but fail to reproduce the original joke (which would be some feat). Basil states ‘il y a trop de beurre. Ils sont à l’étroit.’ (there is too much butter. They [the trays] are cramped), Manuel then mishears this second sentence and repeats it as ‘ils sont là, les trois.’ (they are there, the three) – with the two sentences sounding similar in French – and proceeds to count them in Spanish. A decent attempt, yet one which misses the mark slightly for me. (Saying that, I can’t think of anything better… Anyone?)

It is also very interesting to note how the character of Manuel was transformed in versions across Europe in order to adhere to national stereotypes. He couldn’t very well still be Spanish in the Spanish version of the show given how poorly he is treated and as such he became the Italian Paolo (or Manuela in Basque regions) while in France and Catalonia – where the national stereotype of Spanish workers does not match the English portrayal given here – he becomes a Mexican Manuel.

So there you have it: it is hard enough to negotiate a transfer of meaning between two languages and, as these two examples show, when there is an L3 (or worse still, an L4, 5, or 6) to contend with, it complicates matters even further. Until next time.


7 responses to “When a third language complicates the translation process: A look at L3 from Tolstoy to trays.”

  1. Interesting points, as usual. The introduction of a third language is indeed a big challenge. I have to admit that in the example given the French translation is quite clever. But I also suspect that these translations and changes to the character from the Spanish Manuel to the Italian Paolo etc. can only work if the film is dubbed. If it has written subtitles, it would not – I mean, you can hear Manuel speak Spanish, so you can’t pretend he is an Italian called Paolo.
    For example, in Romania films are subtitled, not dubbed (which I prefer by far), so how would one go about it in this case?

    1. That’s a very good point. The version I have only has German, French and (I think) Swedish subtitles available – definitely no Spanish – so perhaps they decided that it was simply not going to work… It does seem like an odd array of languages. I’ll have to try to hunt down a subtitled Spanish version now to check!
      All of the foreign country releases were dubbed according to the information I found, although I couldn’t find clips anywhere.
      I’m definitely a fan of subtitling too; aside from enjoying hearing a language I can’t understand, I think I was permanently put off by the Italian version of The Simpsons which ruined my childhood memories of the programme 🙂

    2. No Spanish subtitles so far, although I have found something interesting: apparently when the series was first shown in Spain in 1981, the confusion caused by the adaptation involved in dubbing Manuel as Paolo led the broadcaster TVE to cancel the show shortly after without notice… It seems even dubbing wasn’t adequate to getting around this problem, so good luck to the subtitles 🙂

  2. Sara de Albornoz Avatar
    Sara de Albornoz

    In the dubbed Spanish version, Basil says “There are too many trays”, and then in French “un, deux, trois”. I don’t know why he speaks in French here. And then he says “not this way” (“así no”) and Paolo understands “asino” (donkey), but that does not make much sense. Here is the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8vHASPezsY

    1. Brilliant, thanks so much for sharing. I really want to see the video now but it’s blocked in my country for some reason. To have someone explain what’s going on is perfect 😀
      It’s funny how the Spanish version tries to keep the same idea of confusion – and even tries to use a joke involving a donkey (burro/mantequilla & así no/asino) – yet ends up producing something that doesn’t quite work once again.
      The counting in French sounds quite strange, I can’t understand why a Spanish man would try to explain something to an Italian in French…
      Thanks again for sharing Sara!

    2. Like Joseph said, unfortunately we cannot watch the video in the UK 😦 But your description has definitely helped, Sara. It just shows once again that translation is an art.

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