Trapped in Toyland: Effective non-translation in Toy Story

A far cry from last time’s outing, which listed some of the best online resources out there to help you get better acquainted with translation studies as a discipline, today’s post is perhaps a bit more fun.

As one of the defining films of my childhood, Toy Story has always had a special place in my heart and I wanted to look at some of the interesting tidbits that have emerged from its global success – the trials and tribulations of translating such a tale for toy lovers around the world… if you will.

While I’ve tackled the translation of film titles on several occasions in the past and regard it as an extremely interesting topic, the fact that Toy Story has retained its English title quite consistently around the globe seems to suggest that this line of enquiry is one of little merit.

There is the obligatory French translation (Histoire de Jouets) in Quebec, and in Italian the subtitles added to each film seem to follow the formula of dumbing down titles in translation that I discussed in my other posts on the topic (the first becomes Toy Story – Il mondo dei giocattoli [The world of toys], the second adds Woody e Buzz alla riscossa [Woody and Buzz to the rescue] and the third adds La Grande Fuga [The great escape]), but there is little else of note. However, it is precisely this non-translation that counter-intuitively offers some interesting insights that I will look at in more detail later in the post.

Of course, there’s the usual mix of tricky translations to deal with within the film’s narrative. The riddle of Al’s Toy Barn in the second film is one great example that sees the toys struggling with the meaning of the car licence plate LZTYBRN (Al’s Toy Barn with the vowels removed). In French, the translators completely ignored the significance of the licence plate, having selected a fairly literal translation of the shop’s name (La Ferme aux Jouets d’Al) that was impossible to link to the letters available. I’d certainly be interested to know if there are any more creative versions in other languages that manage to incorporate the licence plate.

Furthermore, one interesting point is that the film’s iconic theme tune – Randy Newman’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend in me’ – is actually translated into French (Je suis ton ami – below) and Spanish (Hay un amigo en mi). While the Spanish version is used in conjunction with the ‘Spanish Buzz’ gag in the third film and adopts a flamenco-based orchestration, the French version is something of an oddity as the song’s lyrics have just been translated and played over the existing music, something that is quite rare. Indeed, the entire French soundtrack received this same treatment in a move that is perhaps due to the slightly more Anglo-skeptic nature of French audiences (something to be discussed below) or is perhaps just a challenge that the movie’s producers set themselves…. Either way, it is well worth a listen for the clever transposition of the lyrics.

However, the most interesting insights come from outside of the main storyline and the title of the second film in Italian mentioned above hints at this point of interest – the clue lies in the fact that Woody and Buzz remain untranslated. While Woody’s name, coming from the African-American Western actor Woody Strode, could easily be translated to reflect a similar cultural reference, Woody, Buzz and several of the more minor characters’ names are consistently left unchanged or, if altered, are translated simply to reflect to real-life toy that they depict (e.g. M. Patate / Señor Patata – Mr. Potato Head). This retention of the same names is particularly true of cultures that are more accepting of English – such as Italian, where all of the characters’ names remain untranslated – and it is a clear indication of the powerful marketing strategies operating on a wider scale.

In the case of France, meanwhile, where there is more pride associated with the native language and a less favourable opinion towards Anglicisms, there has been more of an effort to rebrand the names (Buzz Lightyear becomes Buzz l’Eclair, for example, and Wheezy is renamed Siffli in an attempt to match the pun – an opportunity that is not taken in Italian or Spanish) but ultimately the importance afforded to the core marketing terms (Woody, Buzz, Toy Story etc.) overrides this cultural trait.

Furthermore, the names that are translated in French are themselves equally concerned with positive marketing as they are always well thought-out, catchy and in-keeping with general naming trends among toys: Slinky becomes Zigzag, Stinky Pete becomes Papi Pépite [Grandpa Nugget – using the mining reference], Bullseye becomes Pile-Poil [spot-on, exactly] and Hamm becomes Bayonne (a famous ham-making region in France).

The memorable nature of these names and the repeated use of rhyme and alliteration mark these out as something beyond the ordinary translation. Indeed, the translation of names in France was not only a tool to provide a small touch of humour to viewers but also a means of marketing the toys to the general public, a clever opportunity that was perhaps slightly ignored by the Italian translators (although the merchandise still undoubtedly sold well in Italy under the English branding). Ultimately, it’s not surprising that all of the toys were successfully marketed in France (anyone want a Pile-Poil doll?).

So what can Toy Story tell us about translation? Above all, both the translation and non-translation of various elements within and surrounding the films demonstrate that the power of global marketing consistency can be more influential than linguistic considerations when mediating between cultures, particularly when the source language enjoys the kind of global hegemony that English does. Toy Story is quite unique in its marketing potential (how many children could resist the lure of wanting a Woody or Buzz of their own after watching the film?) but this is a choice that is reflected in many translations these days, where a brand must choose between comprehension and consistency in their branding.

In this particular case, even the decision to leave the title as untouched as possible is a strategic one (rather than being the result of laziness). The film’s logo and distinctive colour scheme are now instantly recognisable and this greater consistency has ensured unrivalled brand value on a global scale rather than fragmenting international markets.

Ultimately, aside from the lovable characters, enjoyable storylines and clever marketing, it seems that the strategic translation choices (or the lack of translation all together) made along the way have been one of the key factors in the series’ continuing success that saw the first film alone make $361 million worldwide.

To infinity and beyond / Vers l’infini et au-delà / Verso l’infinito…e oltre! / Hasta el infinito… ¡y más allá!

– Buzz Lightyear

Metaphors for Translation from Ferrymen to Omelettes

Throughout history translators have demonstrated an overwhelming desire to label their task with an endless stream of metaphors, each giving a slightly different reflection of the translation process as well as reflecting a particular author’s views or prevailing attitudes at the time.

Indeed, this need for metaphor is perhaps buried in the very etymology of the term ‘translation’ which comes from the Latin translatus, the past participle of the verb transferre – meaning ‘to carry across’ – which is itself a translation from the Greek metapherein (meta- (over,across) + pherein (to carry,bear)) from which we get the term metaphor. This demonstrates the inextricable link between the two and uncovers why both translation and metaphor imply the notion of carrying over or transferring meaning from one word or phrase to another.

Translator as ferryman

Starting from this etymological source, we find the metaphor of the translator as a ferryman, carrying meaning from one language to another, from one culture to another, with the translator representing a mediator or bridge between the two.

Interestingly, the Italian, Spanish and French equivalents (traduzionetraducción and traduction respectively) come from the Latin transducere (to lead across), assigning a more animate role to meaning.

Yet while the idea of transferring meaning is a fairly simple one that can be easily pinned to translation, there are many more complex metaphors to explore.

Translator as Conqueror

One conception of translation developed during Roman times due to their many translations used as appropriations of ideas with no real regard for stylistic and linguistic features of the original is the idea of the translator as a conqueror (and the text as prisoner) in a manifestation of cultural and linguistic imperialism. This conception also sees translation as a contest, with the original text there to be surpassed in order to enrich expression in one’s own language.

Translation as a woman

This next metaphor is closely tied to its archaic roots which saw it emerge in the 17th Century following the coining of the term les belles infidèles to describe aesthetically-pleasing yet unfaithfully rendered texts in suggesting that translation – like a woman – can either be faithful or beautiful, yet not both, while simultaneously relegating translation to a historically secondary position, something which developments in both terms of equality and translation theory have sought to address in more recent history.

Clothing

Another common metaphor for translation is that of translation as clothing: translating is like changing a text’s clothes, replacing those of the author with those of the translator. In relation to this metaphor, a much-cited quote comes from Henry Rider:

‘Translations of Authors from one language to another, are like old garments turn’d into new fashions; in which though the stuffe be still the same, yet the die and trimming are altered, and in the making, here something added, there something cut away’

This seems to allow permission for the translator to adapt a text to their own style and allows for different interpretations in different time periods – modernising texts into ‘new fashions’ – a process and a liberty which has been debated in translation scholarship.

Fragments of a vessel

This metaphor for translation was first suggested by Walter Benjamin in his 1923 essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ in which he explores challenges the translation act poses while rethinking the nature of meaning. He sees the text as a living entity for which translation provides an afterlife and his ideas are still widely cited today. As he vividly puts it:

‘Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.’

In this way, Benjamin emphasises the difficulty and the different ways of capturing meaning between languages,  while highlighting the importance of culture and context in rebuilding this meaning.

A pane of glass

While the idea of translation as a woman is linked with ideas of fidelity, this conception looks at the idea of transparency – which has also been greatly debated – as Lawrence Venuti in particular decries translation methods which see the text appear to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language as he seeks to preserve the ‘foreignness’ of the text.

The idea of a pane of glass or window is meant to highlight the way in which clarity and transparency are privileged in the assessment of translations while the visibility of supposed imperfections or obscurity – which serve to signal what you are really looking at – are widely criticised and this metaphor works in a similar way to the more humorous idea of translation as contraception – the less it is noticed, the better it seems.

Powdered Egg

Although I had not come across this metaphor before today, it is quite an interesting example from the Brave New Words blog. English poet and translator Alistair Elliot suggests that translating is like having powdered egg and trying to reconstitute it with water to make it resemble something like the original egg. However, as Epstein suggests in his blog (in turning powdered eggs into omelettes), this metaphor conforms to traditional conceptions of translation as an inferior product – an imitation, never equalling the original – something which contemporary scholarship seeks to avoid in assigning equal status and rights to translations with metaphors such as translation as cannibalism or reincarnation which place the translation alongside or even beyond the source text (although not in the same imperialistic way mentioned earlier) building upon Benjamin’s concept of an afterlife.

.

Overall, despite only dealing with a few of the many metaphors out there, it is clear to see the key role metaphor plays in regulating and updating commonly held notions about translation. It is also interesting to follow how they develop with the passage of time to reflect society around them. If there are any more good ones out there that need to be shared then please leave me a comment below. Until next time.

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.

The Terminology of the Beautiful Game

Partially inspired by this great BBC article entitled ”In the six’ and football’s other strange Americanisms’ which looks at the interesting terminological differences which exist between soccer and football, and partially due to that fact that it is a great passion of mine, I thought I would dedicate this post to introducing footballing terminology, as well as looking at a few interesting terms and tracking down their roots.

Ok, I know, the football season is more or less over and perhaps I should leave the subject alone, dust off my cricket whites and wait for the rain to stop, but hopefully you’ll grant me just this one post before the summer hibernation.

First of all, it is of course worth mentioning that, due to the universal nature of the game, there are ready equivalents for the vast majority of terms in the game. It is often said that football is a universal language and it’s very easy to pick up a few things in the midst of a foreign crowd with the familiar chants, the same colourful language that is best left untranslated and ultimately, the same game unfolding before you.

However, beyond this initial level of terms used to describe basic physical phenomena, there is a rich terminology that enjoys its own personal history in each culture. How about the English term ‘nutmeg’, for intance, meaning to put the ball through a player’s legs? The origin of this term in English is hotly contested; some say it comes from cockney rhyming slang for leg while others claim it is an extension of ‘nuts’, referring to the testicles of the players through whose legs the ball has been passed. In French, meanwhile, it becomes ‘un petit pont’ (‘a little bridge’ – although French commentators will also use the English term), while in Italian it is ‘un tunnel’ (a tunnel). Lastly, one of my favourite terms in French football (albeit one that is fairly rarely used) has to be ‘un caviar’ meaning a great pass (we could maybe say ‘a gem’ or ‘a peach’ in English).

One interesting collection of terms which demontrates the relationship between European languages well is that used when describing goals scored. In English, two goals can be called ‘a brace’ (meaning a pair), while a set of three is a ‘hat-trick’, coming from the same term as used in cricket which was adopted after HH Stephenson took three consecutive wickets and was subsequently presented with a hat. The French uses a (non-)translation of this term (coup du chapeau’), and this is indicative of much footballing terminology in Europe which attests to the English roots of the game with many terms calqued to their new language (‘gol’ in Italian, for example, taken from the English ‘goal’).

Italian, on the other hand, deals with multiple goals in quite a different way: two goals becomes ‘una doppietta’ (a double), three is ‘una tripletta’ (triple) and while four and five can be called a ‘quaterna’ and a ‘cinquina’ respectively, there exist three much more interesting terms.

A set of four is often referred to as ‘un poker’, meaning ‘four of a kind’ and developing from the card game of the same name, while five goals can be simply called a ‘pokerissimo’ or a ‘manita’ (‘a little hand’ – referring to the five fingers).

This use of calques and various synonyms is indicative of the dual-layered vocabulary that exists in (perhaps all) European footballing terminology; in Italian, for example, we regularly find words borrowed or translated from the English alongside synonymous native terms (e.g. ‘un corner/un calcio d’angolo’ for the English ‘corner’).

This feature of the terminology finds a practical application in sports journalism where elegant variation (using synonyms or near-synonyms to avoid the use of repetition) is one of the most widely-used stylistic techniques. In a typical article you could find one player referred to by three or four different names as the journalist goes to extreme lengths to avoid repetition, while the amount of assumed contextual knowledge on the part of the reader is huge. For example, a player such as Mario Balotelli is often referred to as ‘Mario’, ‘Balotelli’, ‘SuperMario’, ‘il centravanti’ (the centre-forward), ‘l’attaccante italiano’ (the Italian attacker) among others…

This feature is also common in English and French journalism, and it is very interesting to see how the nature of the terminology available shapes our ability to communicate.

Of course, this post has only been able to scratch the surface of what footballing terminology has to offer and I haven’t been able to even comment on the vast array of idioms and expressions that exist. However, if you are interested in delving a bit deeper, this French football phrasebook has loads of phrases on offer alongside English translations, while this ‘Learn Italian’ article from The Guardian provides a good starting point for calcio fans.

The Delicate Art of Subtitling: Capturing the language of the banlieues.

I thought that today I would try to deal with a subject that is slightly alien to me, yet one which I find extremely interesting and something that everyone will have come across: the art of subtitling.

First of all, I have to admit that I am not an expert in subtitling, far from it. I have read up on the subject and done some work involving subtitling in the past and I just wanted to share and contextualise some of the unique challenges that it poses.

From a monolingual point of view alone subtitling is an extremely difficult task to get right and, as subtitling relies on the suspension of disbelief, the importance of the text extends beyond a simple communication aid to a piece of the drama in its own right where textual breaks can completely ruin the illusion.

When you look at the list of pre-requisites and constraints for a single piece of subtitling, the skill involved in the task of the subtitler is brought into much sharper focus. Take, for example, the fact that a subtitle can contain a maximum of 35 characters per line (including spaces and punctuation) up to a maximum of two lines – not even half a tweet to get across everything being rapidly churned out on screen. Then combine that with the facts that the average viewer can read a two-line subtitle of 70 characters in 6 seconds while the subtitle cannot run over a cut or change of scene, and your work is really cut out.

Furthermore, each subtitle has to be a coherent, logical unit in its own right, with line breaks appearing as if they are naturally-occuring. Take the example below: the first rendering of the line break is unnacceptable while the second makes the message more readable and coherent as well as adoping a pyramid shape (rather than the inverted pyramid of the first) which is always preferred by the human eye. Phew!

Why did you do it? Kevin

will not be happy.

should be

Why did you do it?

Kevin will not be happy.

This is not to mention the fairly obvious facts that the subtitle should also aim to synchronise as much as possible with the audio track all while ensuring instant comprehension without obstructing the importance and effect of the image on the screen, which serves to further complicate the task.

Although translation may seem like just a small addition given these strict constraints, it adds a great number of additional challenges – cultural, practical and linguistic in nature – such as the languages using differing amounts of characters or being spoken at different speeds, or even concepts being introduced that would normally require lengthy explanations for the target audience.

Next – as an example of some tricky subtitling – I want to look at a scene from the French film La Haine which, while it remains a favourite of French teachers here in England as the complexity of the language – with its copious amounts of slang – and the subject matter addressed make it an extremely interesting project for students, seems to have bypassed many French audiences. The film follows three friends in their early twenties from different immigrant backgrounds living in a ZUP – zone d’urbanisation prioritaire – (an impoverished multi-ethnic housing project) in the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris and chronicles their various struggles over a roughly 19 hour period.

The scene in question (click the image for the video) directly addresses their disconnect with the rest of Parisian society as the three friends attend a modern art exhibition in Paris. Linguistically, this disconnect is clearly demonstrated in the French through the colloquial nature of their speech and this is an extremely challenging issue for the subtitler to capture precisely, as they aim to express this fluctuating formality while battling the constraints listed above.

Here, the subtitler attempts to lower the register in English by using colloquial contractions such as ‘outta my way’ (0:13) or ‘Awwright’ (0:50) in Hubert’s speech before contrasting this with the more standard language employed when he is speaking with the two women. Another method used in an attempt to demonstrate this different dialect/idiolect is the substitution of their urban Parisian slang with a semi-African American dialect as the American translators were clearly of the opinion that this would resonate better with their target audience, only to be widely criticised for this ambitious and contradictory leap which only serves to complicate matters. In the clip above, for example, Hubert’s ‘mothafuckas’ (3:12) or Said’s reference to the black woman as ‘sister’ (0:37) which contrasts with the UK-version subtitle of ‘the black one’ – a slightly closer rendering of the French dialogue which avoids the confusion of adding another ethnic background into the dialogue – are both examples of this interesting, yet flawed, method of capturing the language of the banlieues.

These struggles to accurately capture the exact register of speech continue throughout the entire film and the role of subtitler in this case is an unenviable task! While this post only scratches the very surface of what is involved, I hope it has proven to be an interesting insight into the challenges that the role of subtitler offers up.

Gather ’round for a story: the Haitian folktale

First of all: apologies for the lack of posts in the last couple of weeks, it’s been a busy period for me. As it is, I’m still snowed under and so this post is just a relatively quick entry based on an interesting translation project I completed a while back.

The text was a French translation of a folktale from Haiti which was itself a translation from the Creole version: the official language of Haiti along with French and the chosen language of communication with its oral nature.

One of the greatest traditions in Haitian culture, and the one that is central to this translation, is that of storytelling which, in rural areas of Haiti, is an integral part of the cultural heritage of a country where families must create their own entertainment in the evenings.

This tale shows many of the typical qualities of a Haitian folk tale: there is a use of humour that often transfers surprisingly well to English, certain fantastical elements (accounts of magic, wild beasts and even encounters with God are common, and this tale is no exception with the inclusion of a tiger: a somewhat mythical beast in Haiti as no tigers have ever been known to inhabit the country), dramatic changes in narrative linked with the improvisation of a storyteller, and finally examples of the storyteller addressing his audience directly.

Many of these features will undoubtedly seem unusual to a reader unfamiliar with the underlying context but the insight that they offer into a completely different culture is fascinating.

In the translation, I tried to embrace this sense of strangeness by using unfamiliar syntactical formations that often mirror Creole word order and phraseology as well as using ideas from Appiah’s article ‘Thick Translation’ (well worth a read!), which suggests using annotations and glosses to locate the text in a rich cultural and linguistic context. Well, enough already, here it is: the story of the riddle solver and the child. Enjoy!

The Riddle Solver and the Child.

There was once a man who had three sacks of money. He walked, posing riddles, searching for somebody capable of posing him a riddle that he couldn’t solve and to whom he would hand over the money. He went everywhere.

One day he heard about a woman who had a child very good at posing riddles; that is why the child saw a man approaching who had three bags on his back. Upon arriving, the man said hello to the child; the child replied and the man immediately asked,

“My child, can you get me a little ‘kras’[1] of water?”

“A little ‘kras’ of water, my uncle[2]?”

“Yes, my child.”

When he said yes, the child went into the house. There were two buckets full of water; he decanted all of the water in the containers and, when he had finished, he took the ‘kras’ and carried it to the man.

“Oh! My child! I asked you for a little ‘drop’ of water and that is ‘kras’ that you bring me isn’t it?”

“No, my uncle, you didn’t ask me for water, you asked me for some ‘kras’ of water, I gave you some ‘kras’ of water.”

“Well, ok! I asked you for a little bit of water.”

“Ok. Now you’ve asked me for water my uncle.”

The child left. He took another glass and gave him good water. When the man finished drinking, he said,

“My child, let me tell you what brings me here. I am travelling the world (at this point he puts the bags on the ground and shows them to the child). These bags, that you see, are full of money. This money could be yours, as, if I find somebody capable of posing me some riddles that I cannot solve, I will give him the money.”

The child then said to him,

“My uncle, if you have come seeking riddles, mama isn’t here, papa isn’t here, but I can pose you some.”

The man agreed and added,

“My child, let’s start. So, where is your mother?”

“Mama? My uncle! Mama has gone to seek what she didn’t sow.”

The man remained quiet. Then he said,

“Ok! And your father?”

“Papa left before day break. He has gone to dig a hole, to fill a hole, but the hole is still gaping.”

“Ok! Did I not see that you have a big brother too? Where has he gone?”

“Oh, this morning, papa sent my brother out hunting. All the game that he finds, he must leave; and all the game that he doesn’t find, he must bring back.”

They remained still.

The man didn’t know how to reply to the child. He said,

“Well, my child, I can’t see a single response to give you, I’m going to give you the bags of money.”

The child agreed. The man took the three bags of money and gave them to the child, who said to him,

“You can sit down; when I come back, I’ll tell you the answers.”

The child took the money. The man saw him go back into the bedroom (the child had the time to go further than Fanise’s house, in the distance over there, to hide his money). A moment passed before he came back through the door by which he had left. Upon his return, he sat down and said,

“Uncle, you don’t know the answers; let me give them to you.

You asked me where mama was? I told you that mama had gone to fetch what she didn’t sow! You have to know that mama is a midwife, you understand? When someone has their first labour pains, they send for mama, but mama is never there when the people make a child.”

The man took a paper from his pocket, noted the riddle and then said,

“And your father?”

“Papa? This morning, since papa owed somebody money, he went to borrow some money from another person to be able to pay it back; but in actual fact, papa is still in debt, no matter what he does.”

“Ah! It’s true! Good, and your brother?”

“My Brother? My brother had lots of jiggers[3] on his feet. Therefore, papa sent him to the river to wash his feet and remove all of the jiggers that he found. But all the jiggers that he didn’t see, he would bring back, and all of those that he saw, he would leave in the water.”

“Well. My child, you are very skilled.”

After a pause, he added,

“My child, it’s finished, I’ve exhausted the subject. I’ll go.”

The child let him leave.

But what do you think he was doing? He went to look for a tiger and said to himself,

“When the child sees the tiger, he will be afraid and he will give my money back to me.”

But the child’s father had quite a long piece of chain in the house. The child, meanwhile, was sitting beside the fire that was burning near to the house[4].

When the child looked up, he saw the man arriving with an enormous tiger[5] (a beast so large that he could eat the child in one bite). The child didn’t move, he looked and said,

“Ah! Uncle! Papa will be angry with you, you know.”

Then he pretended to think for a second and added,

“Papa will have words with you, for I think it’s about ten months since he gave you money to bring him a beast…” (The tiger, who was approaching at top speed, stopped).

The child added,

“Of course, I know that Papa won’t take this little[6] tiger that you have brought him.” (The tiger stays still).

The child continued,

“Anyway, papa is a big person, me, I’m just a child. Also, I don’t know if, when he arrives, he will be happy or annoyed. So I’ll give you the bit of chain and you will attach the tiger.”

When the tiger saw the child approach with the bit of chain, he started to run.

The man stayed still. When the child realised that the man had remained motionless, he said to him,

“Oh! Uncle! Look! Now you have let the tiger take to the road, where will you go to?”

“Oh my stars!”

The man took to his heels. When the tiger saw the man running behind him, he believed that it was in order to catch him and he ran even faster.

The man quickened his pace as well. They ran, one chasing the other.

And that is how the tiger, followed by the man, fell into a chasm where they were both killed.

The child, meanwhile, was rich. When his father and mother came back, he said to them,

“Mama! Papa! We are rich.”

The father, surprised, asked him how and the child told him,

“A man came here with three bags of money. He came to ask me for stories, I told him some and I won his money. I’ll take you to the money.”

When the parents arrived to the place he had hidden the money, they stood speechless.


[1] In rural areas, water from ponds and rivers is put to settle with the cacti when it is too muddy. A little bit of mud is always left at the bottom of the container, called ‘kras’ in Creole. As ‘kras’ can also mean ‘a small amount’, you never ask for a ‘kras of water’ but rather a ‘drop of water’. The word ‘kras’ is reserved solely to refer to food, as it can also mean a few “crumbs”, just enough to dirty a plate.

[2] In rural areas, the child calls all men ‘uncle’ and all women ‘mother’. Children themselves are always named ‘pitit’, meaning ‘child’.

[3] ‘Jiggers’ is the nickname given to ‘chigoe fleas’. These are a type of parasite causing disease in tropical areas by burrowing into people’s feet when walking barefoot and they must be removed daily.

[4] In rural areas, especially in mountainous regions where it is quite cool, a fire permanently burns close to the house and the children warm themselves by it.

[5] There are no tigers in Haiti. In fact, ‘tiger’ is a generic term used in Haiti meaning a wild, ferocious animal of the cat family.

[6] The term ‘little’ employed here is very important. To deny the appearance of a being, whatever it may be, is to demonstrate a transcendental strength.

Translating music: just jokes and gibberish?

After a busy few weeks, it’s finally time for another blog. I was trying to think of a topic covering a large area that I have completely overlooked so far and the one that came to mind was music.

In some ways it’s an obvious choice, it’s a passion of mine and a topic that fits in well with the other hugely general areas I’ve covered so far. (TV, film, books…) Yet, as I’ve chosen to look at music in popular culture in this post, problems arise in even finding a link to translation.

Unlike poetry, which is considered by many academics as the pinnacle of translation, the elite task of the translator, with the need to convey meaning alongside replicating rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, etc. (a topic for another day) or opera, where translation also plays a key role, there is obviously no real demand for the translation of lyrics in pop music aside from a curiosity on the part of the listener to discover what the lyrics mean. But there must be more to it than just being a good way to learn foreign languages?

Music clearly has a huge impact on cultures, indeed there are few better examples of the ideological power of music than the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a 70s folk singer from Detroit who, at least partially due to the prejudices against Latin American culture at the time, failed to sell any records in his homeland while unknowingly becoming the hero of the entire South African nation, selling over half a million copies of his album as his lyrics gave hope of change to a nation under Apartheid. An impressive link between music and culture, no doubt, but there is still a common language here and therefore no suggestion of music’s role across linguistic borders.

Here in England there is relatively little demand for non-anglophone music. With the amount of music available, the global domination of the English language and the lack of enthusiasm for learning foreign languages, the expected norm is that the English listener will have no knowledge or desire to work out the meaning of lyrics. This is demonstrated by the advertising technique used by Specsavers a few years ago where they took one of the few foreign tracks recognisable to an English audience – Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ – and by playing upon the viewer’s lack of linguistic knowledge, probably understanding the meaning of the title and no more, changed the meaning of the lyrics to advertise their brand and add a little humour.

(The song’s status as one of the only recognisable non-English tracks in England is further exemplified by its usage in this 90s advert for Heineken with a very young-looking Stephen Fry)

And it is these games that seem to be the extent of language’s influence when it comes to popular music. In Italy, where there is more of a desire to listen to English music but still a relatively low understanding of the language, the potential for play is high and one well-known example in particular is well worth sharing. (Skip to about 1:40 if you just want the song and not a little test of your Italian)

In 1972 Adriano Celetano released the single ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’, a track made up of pure gibberish (except the words ‘all right’) but which, by copying phonetic patterns of American English, is made to sound to an Italian audience like meaningful English sung with an accent. It’s fascinating to listen to for an English speaker and shows the full extent to which language can be manipulated.

Furthermore, it once again shows that it is a kind of non-translation or false translation – rather than the genuine transference of meaning – that is commonplace when popular music tackles the issue of language, with comprehension not important or even preferred.

All in all, these examples serve to demonstrate that when music crosses linguistic borders, language can often become little more than a tool to be manipulated.