Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m a big fan of looking at the creative methods translators have used to tackle specific problems in popular culture and today’s post is certainly along those same lines. Today’s example comes from the globally-adored series The Simpsons and provides a particularly curious example emerging from the use of (my take on) nonstandard language. Nonstandard language is often described as being characterized by idiom or vocabulary that is not regarded as correct and acceptable by educated native speakers of a language and Peter Trudgill’s Introducing Language and Society states that nonstandard dialects in English are considered as differing “most importantly at the level of grammar”. While I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on definitions here, it is worth noting that I prefer to use a more general, neutral understanding of the term than the prejudiced, sociological view put forward by most scholars. In Linguistics for Non-Linguists, F. Parker and K. Riley define “a standard dialect as one that draws no negative attention to itself” while “a nonstandard dialect does draw negative attention to itself; that is, educated people might judge the speaker of such a dialect as socially inferior, lacking education, and so on” and this characterises nonstandard language in terms of a sociological judgement rather than a linguistic one. Rather than using a “negative effect” as the defining attribute of nonstandard language, however, I want to look at it as a deviation from our expectations that produces a specific effect. What is nonstandard to me will be perfectly standard to other individuals while the illusory, mythical ‘standard’ is an ethical nightmare as the very claim that there exists a ‘standard’ form of language asserts an ideology of what is and isn’t acceptable. Ultimately, what is certain is that language alters our reading experience in particular ways and it is these effects that must be appreciated by the translator. Contentious definitions aside, the focus of this post lies in the language of Ned Flanders, a well-known and much-loved character from The Simpsons whose verbal tics have gained a great degree of fame across the globe without ever being discussed in the context of translation (to my knowledge). The closest thing I’ve seen is speculation over what would happen if Google Translate offered ‘Flanders’ as a language. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Flanders verbal tics in English, Ned has the odd habit of attaching “diddly”, “doodly” and other nonsensical phrases to his sentences. This is the result of sublimated anger caused by his upbringing that has no other outlet. He also has the habit of saying “Okally-Dokally” when replying to someone – representing a distorted form of “Okey-dokey” and similarly meaning OK. In terms of the definition discussed above, when Flanders adds “diddly” to a word, he deviates from our linguistic expectations in such a way to produce a unique, comical effect and this is what needs to be replicated in the translation. When assimilating these tics to their respective linguistic systems, several European translators opted to use variations of typical expressions (“salut”, “salve” and “hola” in FR, IT and ES for “hi-diddly-ho”) distorted in such a way as to retain the rhyme, alliteration and assonance that characterises the odd, yet distinctive, effect created in the English. Furthermore, these variations are often developed (similarly to the English) by using suffixes that were themselves initially derived from Romance languages and this aids the translators in producing a natural-sounding yet equally nonsensical end product.
FR: Salit salut, cher voisinou
IT: Salve salvino, vicino
ES: Hola holita vecinito
IT: Certo certosino!
What adds more interest to the situation, however, is the humorous – if ridiculous – fact that Ned’s relatives from around the globe also share his verbal tics. When Ned introduces Homer Simpson to José Flanders – a relative from Latin America – and Lord Thistlewick Flanders – a snobbish English Flanders – in the episode Lisa the Vegetarian, José uses a Spanish idiom inflected by the English version of the tics and Thistlewick (pressured by Ned) replicates the tics in his exaggerated English accent.
Here is the section in question in English: (the most interesting phrases are highlighted)
Homer: Ned! You’re having a family reunion and you didn’t invite me!?
Ned: Oh, gosh Homer. This is strictly a Flanders affair. I’ve got family here from around the globe. [Points out one relative.] Here’s José Flanders.
José: Buenos ding dong diddly días señor.
Ned: And this is Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Thistlewick: Charmed. [Ned nudges him in the back.] Eh, a googily… doogily.
While José replies here in an English-based, Flandersian Spanish by saying “Buenos ding dong diddly días señor” – incorporating the English tics into a Spanish phrase – other languages must incorporate their own interpretation of the tics outlined above into the translations:
Jose Flanders: Buenos dindinondandasdias senor!
Ned Flanders: E questo è Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Lord Thistlewick Flanders: Incantato. [Ned gli da una gomitata] Ehm… can… tatino, cantatino.
José Flanders: Buenos dius dios dias senior.
Ned: Et voici Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Lord Thistlewick: Charmé. [Ned lui donne un petit coup de coude] Heu… How di yi di, how do you do ?
As you can see, the nonstandard Spanish used in the English version cannot simply be retained in the French or Italian as, while the audience is considered to be sufficiently familiar with Spanish to make the inclusion of a basic phrase unproblematic, the joke has to be reframed in the context of the pre-existing translation of Ned Flanders’ vocal tics for it to work.
Interestingly, the existence of a third language in the Italian and French versions (the English of Thistlewick to add to the main language and the Spanish of José) allows Thistlewick’s language to be capitalised upon in a manner similar to José’s in the English. While the Italian audience will undoubtedly be familiar with a simple phrase in English (‘How do you do’ is used in the French) this is an opportunity that the Italian version oddly didn’t take.
(Here’s a link to the Latin American version of the episode in question for anyone who fancies checking out another extremely interesting version… The key scene is at about 3:45)
For me, this treatment of nonstandard language usage provides an extreme example of what translators have to do so often in their work. While dialogue is an area where these kinds of verbal deviations are very prominent as it provides “a powerful tool to reveal character traits or social and regional differences” (Taavitsainen et al in Writing in Nonstandard English), a more subtle version of this phenomenon is always present in a text in the form of a particular ‘tone of voice’.
This is particularly important in marketing translations, for example, where a company may want to ensure that their audience receives a certain impression of their values, standing or professionalism. In order to give this impression, their texts must employ a brand of language that adheres to, and deviates from, our expectations in such a way as to create that particular effect and it is down to the translator to replicate it in the target language.
Ultimately, while Flanders’ speech isn’t simply a tone of voice, his language usage nevertheless serves to demonstrate the amazing effects that slight deviations can produce and points to an oft-overlooked level of awareness required on the part of translators.