Traduttore, Traditore: translations, languages and cultures

As someone who writes in one language (English), lives in another (French) on a day-to-day basis, and has some knowledge of a few others (fairly good Spanish, and notions of Vietnamese and Mandarin), I’m always interested in the matter of translating from one language to another.

Translation can seem a bit of a dry exercise better left to interprets and specialists–but in fantasy or science fiction, we are always translating the language of our imagined societies. The inhabitants of Middle Earth did not speak English; and while some of the people in SF novels might speak a form of English, it’s highly unlikely that it would still be the English that we know: languages evolve and mutate, and the English of Shakepeare’s plays, which dates back only five centuries, is already not quite the one we speak today. Language is always deeply linked to culture, and its features can reveal much about the way a society functions.

Take, for instance, the following piece of dialogue [1]:

“Where is everybody?” Bosch asked.

“Having breakfast. I forgot. They told me last week that the routine is that on Monday mornings everybody meets early for breakfast. They usually go over to the Pacific. I didn’t remember until I got in here this morning and found the place dead, but they should be back here soon.”

Bosch knew the Pacific Dining Car was a longtime favorite with LAPD brass and the Robbery-Homicide Division. He also knew something else.”Twelve bucks for a plate of eggs. I guess that means this is an overtime approved squad.”

Rider smiled in confirmation.”You got that right. But you wouldn’t have been able to finish your fancy eggs anyway, once you got the forthwith from the chief.”

“You heard about that, huh?”

“I still have an ear out on six. Did you get your badge?”

“Yeah, he gave it to me.”

“I told him what number you’d want. Did you get it?”

“Yeah, Kiz, thanks. Thanks for everything.”

“You already told me that, partner. You don’t need to keep saying that.”

Even if you changed the specific place and time references, you can’t imagine this would ever take place in 1st-Century Rome or Imperial China. It feels too modern, with prominent use of idiomatic expressions–and what’s more, expressions specific to modern-day US. If you want to write fiction set in another place or another time period, and if you’re going for a realistic feel, you’re going to have to tweak the language in order to have a better rendering.[2]

So, how do we go about translation? There’s a well-known Italian saying that goes something like “traduttore, traditore”, ie, “to translate is to betray”, and it’s probably all true. Languages have characteristic structures, and it’s not easy to find equivalents between both.

My personal approach to this is that there are three degrees of difficulty in translation: the straightforward, the non-translatable, and the translatable but at a cost.

First things first: let’s start with the straightforward. Those are words or notions which have easy equivalents in the target language: for instance, “freedom” in English stands for pretty much the same as “liberté” in French or “libertad” in Spanish. A sentence such as “I went to the hospital to see a friend” has an easy, straightforward mapping from English into French or Spanish, using pretty much a word-for-word translation (this isn’t a given when we move to German, where the words are going to have declensions, or to Vietnamese, where the sentence is going to require the use of an idiomatic expressions).

Then there’s the non-translatable. Those are notions for which the cost of faithful translation would be prohibitive and completely inhibit the flow of the text. For instance, in French and in many Romance languages such as Spanish, all words have a gender: “table” is feminine, “desk” is “masculine”. I could conceivably translate the following French sentence: “J’ai mis mon déjeuner sur la table” by “I’ve put my (masculine) lunch on the (feminine) table”, but you can see that this complicates matters: just imagine reading an entire novel with every word prefixed or followed by its gender. Similarly, the declensions in languages such as Russian or German do not have equivalents in, say, French or Spanish, and to translate them would require a tremendous effort.

The area where the betrayals and the hard choices occur is, of course, that murkey grey area where things can be translated, but at a cost. In Vietnamese, “to have a meal” is literally “to eat rice”. “French cuisine” is “French rice”, and so on for English cuisine or Japanese. This says a lot about the way the culture works, and could be used to inject a little “flavour” in the dialogue, but you can see that this would also create problems because it’s not a natural construction.

Similarly, in many Asian languages, the pronoun “I” changes depending on whom the speaker is addressing and what he considers to be his position with regard to them: there are considerations of hierarchy (are you the equal of the speaker, in a position of inferiority, in a position of superiority), and of context (are you being formal or not, are you addressing a member of your family or a colleague). This could be rendered in a variety of ways: “I, humbly”, “I, this humble person”, “I, your daughter”… Notice, though, that they’re all ways that will make the dialogue slightly heavier and less “natural” to an English speaker. Anglophones often perceive this rendering as stilted, formal and somewhat unnatural [3], whereas in, say, Vietnamese or Japanese, it’s perfectly natural to adapt your choice of pronouns to your interlocutor–and terribly impolite and unconsiderate to always use the same form of “I”.

We can opt not to translate this, and to rely, for instance, on word choice to convey formality. But we do end up losing a fundamental characteristic, not only of the language, but of the culture’s mindset, the way it functions and thinks on a day-to-day basis. Translating it into natural English, you run the risk of making everyone in Asia or Ancient Rome sound as if they walked out of an American movie.

So on the one hand, you can have a perfectly natural, seamless translation, but which risks losing the specificity of the language and therefore of the culture; and on the other, you have a text which is a better translation, but which might seem less natural, and a bit stilted, or with the wrong connotations for your audience.

I don’t have an easy answer; and I don’t think there is one. But those are considerations to have when dealing with another culture and another language–how much of the specificity you want to retain, and how much “flavour” do you want to put in your dialogue and internal monologues?

What do you think?(as an aside, I do welcome comments, but I might be a few days responding, since this first blog post also coincides with the date of my wedding)

[1]I stole this from the nearest book lying around, which happened to be Michael Connelly’s The Closers

[2]This is a somewhat debatable point: people like Mary Gentle, for instance, have adopted the strategy of rendering medieval speech through colloquial English (in works such as Ash or Ilario). It’s a controversial choice, and you’ll find many people who are very much put off by this.

[3]I’ve chosen a particularly troublesome example here: English is a very bad target language for operations like this, since it’s one of the few languages that has lost the pronouns distinguishing between formal and unformal modes of address, relying instead on other cues such as word use (whereas languages such as French or Spanish still have those pronouns “tu” and “vous” in French, “tu” and “usted” in Spanish).

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  1. 1. katyusha

    I write a lot of semi-historical fiction–as in, bronze age Greece historical fiction. Here’s my thought on the matter: Whatever they may seem like to speakers of another tongue, the patterns of a language are completely natural to the people who speak it natively. What I try to do is put it in what is natural for me (English, though I avoid at all costs obviously modern phrasing) and add a touch of archaicness through word choice and the like. I try to show cultural influence through action, rather than dialogue, although it does influence word choice. I would rather sacrifice complete translational accuracy than bias my readers based on stilted language–better that my characters should create their own reactions in readers. I think that would be a greater betrayal than translating.

  2. 2. JS Bangs

    This is a very interesting topic, but I find some of your examples to be a mite peculiar. For example, I find it odd to say that gender is “untranslatable”, given that gender doesn’t usually contribute to the semantics of the sentence in most European languages. No information is lost in the translation from “la masa” to “the table”, even though the English sentence lacks grammatical gender, because the gender doesn’t mean anything in Spanish. There are exceptions, where a change in gender can actually change the meaning of the sentence, but those are rare.

    In the same vein, the presence or absence of inflections doesn’t seem like a significant translation challenge, since an inflected form can be translated into a prepositional phrase or other equivalent construction, usually without change of meaning. The form in the target language won’t be morphologically parallel to the source, but again that’s a semantically empty distinction.

    Your discussion of first person address in East Asian languages is spot-on, though, and is an excellent example of a real translation problem.

    (Background: I have a BA in linguistics, am bilingual in Romanian and English, and have studied bits of a lot of other languages.)

  3. 3. Aliette de Bodard

    I see what you’re coming from, and I think we actually both have the same opinion on things but not quite the same approach.

    For me, “untranslatable” is precisely what you describe: you cannot think of a reasonable way to translate the notion from the source language to the target language. For me, it doesn’t quite mean “semantically empty”, but so pervasive it’s become hard to parse and hard to pinpoint. Yup, in ordinary everyday translation, that’s usually not a problem. Problems usually start when something relies on those constructions for an effect.

    Take gender, for instance (I’m not familiar enough with declensions to comment on that, sadly). It might seem semantically empty, but that’s until you start screwing up with it (and in SF, screwing with languages is kind of a pastime for authors).
    The most obvious way to see that kind of effect is the shift in the way we refer to people in French. “un artiste” was until recently used in French to refer to both male and female artists (whereas it’s really a male word). Same for “un ministre” (a minister in the political sense”), which had no female equivalent until pretty recently Now there’s “une ministre”, “la ministre”, the use of which is pretty symptomatic of the way society evolved in the meantime. (and using “le ministre” to refer to someone instead of “la ministre” is usually a good indicator of several things ranging from class to age. But you can’t translate that).

    There was an excellent French Canadian SF book a few years ago, Elizabeth Vonarburg”s Chroniques du Pays des Mères, which took as a postulate a female-dominated society, and explored the changes in the language this would entail: you had lots of previously male-gendered words shifting gender to female: it was quite unsettling for a modern French speaker, but brilliantly done, and the combined uses of all those words contributed to making the shift of paradigms of this imagined society completely real for you. For me, this kind of linguistic shift is typical of the stuff you couldn’t translate to a non-gendered language. (it was actually translated in English as the Maerlande Chronicles, but I imagine that not only did the translator have to jump through quite a few hoops, but also that the effect was nowhere as potent or as unsettling as the original).

    Not sure if that was clear…

  4. 4. Mary

    Off on a tangent — there are actually Asian languages that have imported English pronouns on top of their already complex system. Because a neutral “I” and “you” are very useful concepts.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    I’m working on a story right now that takes place in Japan, and the ways in which Japanese signals formality/familiarity (and English doesn’t) are a major topic of thought for me. I’ve got a slight advantage in that the pov character is Japanese-American, and her first language is English (though she’s fluent in both), so it doesn’t feel hideously frame-breaking to have the narration surrounding the dialogue mention she was using the politest grammar she knew, etc. But still, there’s all kinds of nuance that just can’t be worked into the text, not if I want it to flow anything like readably.

    I’ve had a bit of fun with this in some of my Driftwood stories, though. “Remembering Light” has Noirin complaining that the pidgin she uses to communicate in her travels can’t communicate any of the subtleties of her native language, and Qoress’s society in “A Heretic by Degrees” had all kinds of elaborate gestures used to sort of footnote their speech. Since I’m not representing anything real-world, I get to make up whatever I want, and then it’s just fun. :-)

  6. 6. Megs - Scattered Bits

    I wondered if this was you! (or Juliette Wade, you both do so well on this kind of topic)

    This is actually the bit I hate most about writing out dialogue from my worlds—the “at what cost?”

    I can translate the general idea behind most statements, but the thinking behind it, the way it’s normally presented, how formality and informality is conveyed—all of that has a tendency to get lost because of the radically different structure of the language I’m working with. I’m glad somebody addressed this point, if only to let us lingophiles know we’re not alone. (To hear my sister describe me, I’d think I was the only one in the world agonizing over the fact that the self-referential way Jamar gave his name could not be translated. At all. :sighs: )

  7. 7. Sam

    English quite happily supports first-person pronouns that convey relative status…

    Joe said, “I greet you.”
    Joe said, “This one greets you.”
    Joe said, “We greet you.”

    Now while the second two aren’t exactly normal usage, it’s fairly clear to tell that “this one” is a humble form of address, while the royal we conveys a belief of superiority (providing it’s clear it’s royal-we not multiple-we anyway…)

    Obviously it’s not as nuanced, but then you can convey a host of additional meaning just by adding a noun after the you:

    Joe said, “I greet you, sister.”

    Now it’s unnatural in that it’s not something someone is likely to actually say, but it’s barely a step removed, and it’s the closest English equivilent, and dialogue in books had very little similarity to a real conversation anyway, because most people’s conversational English would send any decent editor into spasms.

    I agree with your points in general that there’s stuff that’s hard to translate, but that particular example has been handled pretty well before, either by substituting unusual pronouns (which preserves flavour), or by expressing the same conceptual information in the way that an English-speaker would convey it (which preserves semantics).

  8. 8. Aliette de Bodard

    katyusha (sorry, your comment didn’t show up in my automatic email notices until later): yeah, definitely. You don’t want to sound too artificial, which is always a problem. I do find it very delicate to sound idiomatic without sounding modern, though. Some words immediately convey modernism, and some don’t–and it would be nice if the words in question were actually modern, but some of them are actually quite old.
    (one thing that still trips me up is the sheer number of English phrases derived from Christian mindset–Bible expressions and the like–which creep up in my writing, and are totally inappropriate for, say, Aztecs or Chinese who’ve never heard of the Bible…)

    Mary: ooh, I didn’t know that. This is full of juicy (though it must make things horribly complicated for the speakers of the languages in question). Do you remember which languages those were?

    Marie: yup, I sympathise. It always drives me crazy whenever I write Chinese characters (and, as you point out, it’s much easier when you can have your non-native character consciously refer to the process).

    Sam: I agree, English does support that kind of pronouns–that’s what I mean by the fact that you can translate the notion (compare with gender of words, which you just can’t translate). But, as you say, they don’t feel idiomatic, and that’s the problem I was trying to pinpoint. For me, the problem of translation is that it has:
    a. to be faithful to the original text
    b. to flow naturally and not call attention to itself.
    a. and b. are of course mutually incompatible.
    The thing is, when translation gets non-idiomatic and/or stilted, people’s first assumption isn’t that it’s because there is a need for unusual word. Their first reflex is usually to doubt that the translator is doing a good job. In the cuisine example above, I can translate “let’s have a French meal” as “let’s have some French rice”, but it’s bordering on the ridiculous–same as translating “are you well?” (addressed to Mr. Ba, who is the same generation as me) as “is elder brother well?” (possible, but awkward).
    There’s a very fine boundary between translating, say, an Asian pronoun system correctly, and speaking pidgin English. And I do agree you can convey some of the meaning through word choice; but I don’t think that it’s possible to render the concept idiomatically in English, even with nuances–simply because the concept itself isn’t natural for English-speakers. You might get something that approaches the feel of it; but not an equivalent that would also feel natural. But then again, it’s perfectly possible to stay with a near-natural equivalent if your main goal isn’t to be accurate. I’m not saying it’s not possible to translate it; just pointing out there is a cost. In a lot of cases, you just can’t have a. and b. at the same time.

  9. 9. Wolf Lahti

    “Nothing can be translated. What we do is imitate.”
    –Tullio Dobner

  10. 10. katyusha

    Aliette: I have a friend who is excellent as a first-draft editor, and being from England, she notices off the bat all of my blatant Americanisms. Quite useful. :)

    Also, I wish that I spoke French, because that series sounds very interesting. I can see how an English translation could achieve a similar effect, but it would take a lot more work for a lot less impact. For example, some professions (lawyer, doctor, pilot, etc.) are habitually referred to as “he,” while more auxiliary professions (nurse, flight attendant) are thought of as female; also, the English “gender-neutral” pronoun is “he.” The only way I can think of to imitate the gender-shift would be to switch that up. And, now that I think of it, I have a story in mind that would require that…

    Speaking of gender, I think that the effect would be even more pronounced in Latin, which has several would-be feminine nouns (poeta “poet” and agricola “farmer” leap to mind) which are declined like most feminine nouns, but are stubbornly masculine; similarly, most abstracts speaking of (shall we say) weaker morals are feminine nouns. Latin is a very sexist language. But I wonder, to achieve that effect in Latin, would one go ahead and change the declensions of nouns (i.e. 2nd-declension “gladius,” sword, to 1st-declension “gladia”) or keep the endings and just treat them like a noun of another gender? (Hope that all made sense like it did in my head.)

  11. 11. Mary

    ‘fraid I don’t remember which languages they were

  12. 12. katyusha

    Not trying to hijack your comments, I promise…

    By strange and fortuitous coincidence, I happened across an article that discusses similar language differences, in this case the different thought processes between speakers of different languages. It’s an article referencing a Stanford study (which I haven’t read yet, but there’s a link at the bottom.)

    Anyway, it was an interesting read.

  13. 13. Aliette de Bodard

    Wolf: sadly oh so true…
    katyusha: hijack away! :=) It’s always interesting to have new links (especially this one–fascinating stuff. Not sure I agree with all of it, but there’s tons of juiciness there).
    Playing with Latin sounds awesome (if only we could get away with it…). I’m not surprised by the feminine nouns being negative, given the views of Romans on women…
    Mary: ack.

  14. 14. Amy McLane

    As a reader, I’d rather feel strange, and have to labor for comprehension, than have things Americanized for me. If the characters and world are strong enough, the struggle becomes rewarding.

    OT, but Aliette, I enjoy the writing here at SF Novelists so much that I gave it a blog award. It can be picked up here

    And, congratulations on your wedding!

  15. 15. Aliette de Bodard

    Amy, I agree–I wish publishers all agreed, though, because I heard some pretty disheartening things on panels…
    Mary, if you’re still around: one of the languages that added a neutral “I” pronoun is actually Vietnamese…


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Author Information

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the upcoming Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot. Her short fiction garnered her a nomination for the Campbell Award. She lives in Paris, France. Visit site.



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