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.

Landlocked comedy and swearing with style

While many American comedies seem to have no problem making the leap onto TV screens all over the world – Family Guy or South Park being great examples of how Western ideas can be transferred successfully to other countries – it’s not always the same for their British counterparts, who often seem too tied up in their own culture to be able to cross borders.

Take for instance the classic British comedy ‘Only Fools and Horses’ (from which the previous post’s clip was taken) which, for such a hugely successful programme, has never even been aired in neighbouring France, or perhaps ‘The Royle Family’, whose depiction of typical British life is deemed too foreign for non-British audiences and which, apart from tentative releases in Holland, Finland and Portugal where a high level of understanding of British culture is assumed, has also failed to gain a wider audience.

For an example of why these comedies are so hard to translate, let’s take an example from yet another successful British comedy that has failed to provoke laughter beyond the British Isles: ‘One Foot in the Grave’. (The show was actually released in Germany as Mit einem Bein im Grab but, rather than being a simple translation, this was a complete adaptation of the programme, swapping the Meldrews for Viktor and Margret Bölkhoff.)

Listening to the intro theme (although it wouldn’t pose any real problems if the programme were to be translated as it could just be left in English) we can gain an interesting insight into one of the reasons that these programmes fail to cross over with nearly every line containing highly idiomatic uses of language relating to aging which don’t have ready equivalents in a foreign tongue: ‘too long in the tooth’, ‘OAP’, ‘clapped out’, ‘run down’ etc.

It is this close proximity to the English language and a cultural boundness caused by obscure references and linguistic games that prove too hard to break down. One extreme example of the importance of the use of language in the series can be found in the episode ‘The Dawn of Man’ where the crux of the entire story revolves around the similarity between ‘popcorn’ and ‘cop porn’!

It’s not all doom and gloom though as some series do manage to achieve success on foreign soil. One famous example is ‘Father Ted’, which has accumulated many French fans thanks to its appearance on heavily Westernised channel  ‘Jimmy’ (named after James Dean and Jimi Hendrix), which is known for helping Anglophone series make their way onto French screens, and due to the fact that the premise of Catholic priests in an isolated community is one that is relatively easily transferrable.

Father Ted S01E01 with French subtitles

Indeed, the nature of the situation comedy and the relatively few obscure cultural references which are integral to the plot allow a fairly simple subtitling process. In the first episode, only a few alterations are made for the French audience and most references are simply left unchanged e.g. ‘Toffos’ at 16:05 or ‘Top of the Pops’ at 7:20.

The only alterations of note are seen when Ted’s reference to nuclear waste as ‘the old glow in the dark’ is simplified to ‘déchets’ (waste) and when the reference to Terry Wogan and another TV presenter is creatively subtitled as ‘PPDA et Pernaut’, referring to two equally famous French presenters – Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and Jean-Pierre Pernaut – and these changes are often made due to the nature of subtitling, where constraints of time and space limit opportunities for explanation or the use of long-winded phrases.

Probably the most significant challenge of translating Ted is replicating the various swear words that the programme has to offer. Interestingly, the general tendency in the French subtitles is to soften the swearing: ‘gobshite’ becomes ‘demeuré’ or ‘crétin’ (half-wit, cretin), ‘feck off’ is changed to ‘dégage’ (clear off), while ‘feck’ is rather cleverly reproduced as ‘fier’ which is not actually a swear word but plays on its similarity to ‘ficher’ (to not give a fuck about) in a similar way to ‘feck’ and ‘fuck’.

So there you have it, once all the swearing is dealt with it seems that some comedy can make the leap while others remain just too British to amuse our foreign neighbours.