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Style of language in historical quotes.
Thread poster: Tim Drayton

Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 15:16
Turkish to English
+ ...
May 27, 2007

Recently I have been translating academic texts for publication purposes. These texts frequently include quotes from several centuries ago, and this has heightened my awareness of an issue that is arises when dealing with these. This is the extent to which the translation should reflect the style of language of the period in which the quote was originally spoken or written.
For example, if we are relaying the words of a detective speaking in the 19th Century, to my ears it sounds strange to have him say, "We are working 24/7 on this case". The expression "24/7" so clearly belongs to the modern era that it sounds incongrous when put into the mouth of a person speaking two centuries ago. I think, in the case of the 19th Century, it is perfectly plausible to aim for the language of Dickens, which will have a genuine ring to it and also be perfectly comprehensible to a modern audience.
However, the further we travel back in time, the more this approach takes us into the realms of the absurd. Should we aim for the language of Shakespeare when dealing with a quote from the 16th Century, using archaic forms such as "thou" and "thee". Should a medieval quote be in the language of Chaucer? What about Anglo Saxon for pre-1066 statements? I don't think so.
It seems to me that we need to strike a compromise once we move back past the 19th Century. For example, it would sound very strange to use, "It strains me past the compass of my wits" (to pick a line at random from Romeo and Juliet) when translating a quote from the time of the Elizabethan era, yet it sounds too "modern" to use something like, "I can't get my head around it." I think we have to aim for something that sounds a little "old-fashioned" without actually being authentic contemporary language - perhaps, "It stretches my powers of comprehension to the limit" would do.
I don't imagine that there is a definitve answer to this question, but I would be interested in knowing what other people think.


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Amy Duncan  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 11:16
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Middle-of-the-road is good. May 27, 2007

At the moment I'm translating some books from the 19th century, and the writing style is somewhat quaint. What I do is try to make it sound somewhat old-fashioned, without trying to be perfectly historical about it (it would take way too much time to do the research in any case.)

However, there are some quotes from the Bible in these works, and I have been using the King James Version to translate them.

Amy


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:16
Spanish to English
+ ...
reflecting the language of the period May 27, 2007

Tim Drayton wrote:

Recently I have been translating academic texts for publication purposes. These texts frequently include quotes from several centuries ago, and this has heightened my awareness of an issue that is arises when dealing with these. This is the extent to which the translation should reflect the style of language of the period in which the quote was originally spoken or written.
For example, if we are relaying the words of a detective speaking in the 19th Century, to my ears it sounds strange to have him say, "We are working 24/7 on this case". The expression "24/7" so clearly belongs to the modern era that it sounds incongrous when put into the mouth of a person speaking two centuries ago. I think, in the case of the 19th Century, it is perfectly plausible to aim for the language of Dickens, which will have a genuine ring to it and also be perfectly comprehensible to a modern audience.
However, the further we travel back in time, the more this approach takes us into the realms of the absurd. Should we aim for the language of Shakespeare when dealing with a quote from the 16th Century, using archaic forms such as "thou" and "thee". Should a medieval quote be in the language of Chaucer? What about Anglo Saxon for pre-1066 statements? I don't think so.
It seems to me that we need to strike a compromise once we move back past the 19th Century. For example, it would sound very strange to use, "It strains me past the compass of my wits" (to pick a line at random from Romeo and Juliet) when translating a quote from the time of the Elizabethan era, yet it sounds too "modern" to use something like, "I can't get my head around it." I think we have to aim for something that sounds a little "old-fashioned" without actually being authentic contemporary language - perhaps, "It stretches my powers of comprehension to the limit" would do.
I don't imagine that there is a definitve answer to this question, but I would be interested in knowing what other people think.


Hi Tim

Interesting:-)

I personally think you need to reflect the language of the period in translating quotes. You also need to use words that existed then and not words coined after the period. And you need to check for official translations.

If the author is using an ancient variety of his language, I think this should be reflected.

I had to do a lot of quotes from Machiavelli, and found them on the Internet. The Gutenberg Project has a huge corpus of books out of copyright.

Remember also that your readership will be learned. I personally - and I'm not a language academic or linguist or literature specialist - have few problems following Shakespeare or maybe even Chaucer, give or take a few words.


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:16
Spanish to English
+ ...
you need a corpus:-) May 27, 2007

Amy Duncan wrote:

At the moment I'm translating some books from the 19th century, and the writing style is somewhat quaint. What I do is try to make it sound somewhat old-fashioned, without trying to be perfectly historical about it (it would take way too much time to do the research in any case.)

However, there are some quotes from the Bible in these works, and I have been using the King James Version to translate them.

Amy


A corpus is very useful when trying to decide how to mimic or to what extent to mimic older writing styles. You create it on the basis of similar texts but from the 19th century, and you use software like AntConc to search in it.


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lexical  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:16
Portuguese to English
Interesting question May 27, 2007

It's an interesting question and I'm glad you started this thread, Tim. It's an issue that has surfaced for me a number of times, particularly where texts include quotes from original sources. I'm thinking, for example, of extracts from letters or reports written in 16th century Portuguese, cited in the middle of a modern text on botany.

My rule of thumb in dealing with these is:
a) to signal, by choice of vocabulary and syntax, that this is 'historical' prose;
b) to ensure that it is still accessible to the modern reader.

Where English is concerned, I think one can safely go back further than the 19th century before becoming unintelligible. 18th century Augustan prose, with its ponderous cadences and Latinate usages (such as the English ablative absolute) is perfectly accessible to the educated reader. And the language of the King James Bible poses few problems. I think the problem arises if you try to go further back - to Chaucer's language, for example - because accessibility is seriously compromised.

Generally, I regard this as something that needs discussion with the author. Normally, it only arises in literary or academic texts, and their authors are thoughtful people who will have a view about the matter.

I do hope others will contribute their thoughts.


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Ken Cox  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:16
German to English
+ ...
it depends... May 27, 2007

...on the purpose of the document, the target audience, the nature of the source document, etc.

You could get into a long discussion on this. There are doubtless legitimate reasons for trying to reproduce the 'quaintness' of an old style of language in certain situations, but I don't think you can make a rule of it.

If the quaintness of the language only arises from the fact that it is no longer current, and the text was written using a style and vocabulary commonly used at the time it was written, you should bear in mind that the text would not have been regarded as quaint by the contemporaries of the author. In such case, particularly if the purpose of the translation is simply to convey the meaning of the text, it seems appropriate to me to use language that is regarded as common by modern-day readers, and to use a register consistent with the register of the original text (which may well mean using a relatively formal register in terms of current usage, since texts written in vernacular are not so common if you go back far enough).

Other considerations may apply if you are doing literary translation, particularly if the text is written in dialect, slang, or a particular sociolect.


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