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.

Reading up on translation: 5 mini reviews

There’s something a little different in store for my post today with an attempt to give a little something back: over the course of the last few years, I’ve spent many long hours poring over books of all shapes and sizes to satisfy my need for all things translation and I thought a few mini-reviews of what I consider to be the best introductory texts would be a great way to try to provoke a little bit of interest in the field.

Personally, I find translation theory fascinating and have read much of what translation studies as a discipline has to offer, even to the extent of reading Palumbo’s ‘Key Terms in Translation Studies’ (essentially a glossary of the key terms in the discipline) from cover to cover. If it sounds like a far-fetched claim, it is important to consider that, as a fairly young discipline, the amount of literature on the subject isn’t actually that big and can be covered in a few months of intensive study.

Of course, the list is not comprehensive by any means; despite my constant scouring of the market for new literature, there remain texts that I maybe should have come across and if you can recommend anything I may have overlooked, or anything that you think will be of interest, then please leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.

The reviews only scratch the surface of what each of these great books has to offer, but hopefully it is enough to whet the appetite:


Found in Translation – Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

I thought I would start with one of the more recent additions to my bookshelf, and a book that is currently making waves in translation circles following its release last year and many positive reviews. ‘Found in Translation’ is a collection of anecdotes on the subject which are both accessible and hugely entertaining. Anyone with even a passing interest in languages or translation will find it fascinating and it is the perfect place to start if you want to indulge a potential interest in the area. While the bold claim in the blurb describing it as ‘by far the most meaningful book on the subject of translation that I have ever seen’ may be going a bit far, this book takes steps to put translation on the map and that is exactly what the profession and the discipline need.

Is that a fish in your ear – David Bellos

This book pre-dates ‘Found in Translation’ by a year or two and is written to largely the same end goal: another collection of anecdotes which aim to inspire interest in the field, and it is one that really delivers. Written with a sense of humour that makes it a joy to read, Bellos provides an insight into how translation has shaped the world we live in and how it affects our daily lives. Criticised as being slightly inaccessible for the uninitiated while also lacking adequate substance for more academic tastes, it may not be as suited to testing a tentative curiosity as the previous book, but the author’s style and the content actually make this my (marginal) pick of the two.

In Other Words – Mona Baker

Rather than a collection of anecdotes on the subject, this book is more scholarly in nature and stands as an invaluable companion to the budding translator getting to grips with the subject. There are other introductions to the discipline out there (Susan Bassnett’s ‘Translation Studies’ is the go-to book for many people looking to get into the field and has an excellent, detailed history of the discipline) and other introductory textbooks (Peter Newmark’s ‘Textbook of Translation’ and Jeremy Munday’s ‘Introduction to Translation Studies’ among the best known) out there, but Baker’s coursebook is an amalgamation of the best aspects of each of these and provides a substantial guide to the challenges that translation offers, all coupled with practical examples which serve to help the new student orientate themselves in an alien discipline full of terms and ideas that can otherwise seem overwhelming.

The Scandals of Translation – Lawrence Venuti

The name of Lawrence Venuti has become one that goes hand in hand with translation studies as a discipline, and it is his work that forms the core of the canon. While Baker’s book ventures into more scholarly territory, Venuti’s goes far beyond the outskirts and represents the heart of scholarship. This can make it heavy-going for readers looking for something more accessible but with that said, there are very few authors who have managed to show the extents of translation’s power in the globalised world, and this book is absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in the humanities. ‘The Translator’s Invisibility’ is a similarly absorbing read which further develops his theoretical ideas, but I feel that ‘Scandals’ provides just a little more accessibility to merit its inclusion here.

Can Theory Help Translators? – Chesterman and Wagner

The last of the books on the list is a bit of a departure from the others as it doesn’t represent an introduction to the area at all. However, it addresses a question that causes ongoing debate in the field, and a question which I personally have tried to find answers to. There is a clear vacuum between translation theory and practice; many (maybe even most) freelance translators have very little or no knowledge of theory and still manage to do their job to exceptionally high standards, calling into question the necessity of theory. As such, this book throws a theorist and a professional together in an attempt to ascertain whether or not one can help the other and, while ultimately posing more questions than it answers, it is a must read for anyone curious of the link between the two and the benefits of theoretical knowledge.

As mentioned before, please get in touch with suggestions for books that I may have overlooked or books you have enjoyed, I’m always looking for new reads in the area!