General: reference to foreign languages in literary translation
Thread poster: Holger Laux

Holger Laux  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 19:16
Member (2011)
English to German
+ ...
Jan 27, 2013

I am currently translating a book but am not seeking specific advice on my project. This is rather a general topic for discussion:

In Germany, many films and tv series are dubbed, using German actors' voices. To a large extend, this hides foreign language issues from from the consumer. Of course, you'll have authentic place names and it is always "Mr. Sherlock Holmes" never "Herr", but otherwise the German language appears to be quite natural, especially to someone who does not speak any other languages.

For instance, as a child I loved watching the series "Magnum P.I." and did not have a problem accepting that every person in Hawaii apparently spoke German. In fact, I had quite a shock when I heard Tom Selleck's voice for the first time, because his dubbing actor sounded so much funnier than the original.

So far so good, but what if the use of a foreign language becomes relevant to the storyline? In films, you can let the character speak the foreign language and subtitle him (Does anyone remember East Germany's answer to James Bond? It was called "For Eyes Only" and the evil CIA operatives all spoke English.)

But how do you deal with such a problem in a book?

Imagine the following situation:

You have a German book and halfway through the storyline, characters A and B are having a conversation in German.

English speaking character C tries to join them but does not speak the language very well.

A few misunderstandings ensue until A and B decide to continue in English.

- At least this is what the text says. All conversations that follow are still written in German, because it is a German book.

How do you translate the situation? If you stick too close to the original, you end up with an English person not understanding English - a paradox!

Are there any rules or guidelines? Can you point me to any publications dealing with the issue, please?

[Edited at 2013-01-27 08:48 GMT]

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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:16
Russian to English
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Hi, Holger. This is a very interesting scenario. Jan 27, 2013

I do translate literature, but I personally never encountered such a context, in which I would have to use a language within another language quotation which would be in the same language as the main text. There are some ways around it. You could just describe it: leave the words that were originally in German also in German -- exactly the way they appeared in the original, even if there were some grammatical, or other, mistakes there. Then you could add: Michael said in broken German, or something similar.


[Edited at 2013-01-27 13:29 GMT]

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Holger Laux  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 19:16
Member (2011)
English to German
+ ...
Workarounds possible, but challenging Jan 27, 2013

Hi Lillian,

Yes, this is a solution. When it comes to misused terms and idioms, I just make them up in English. Example:

**** literal translation ****

"Did he want to give me a hint with a lamp post?"

"A fence post, you mean ..."

**** my version ****

"Did he want to give me a wide hint?"

"A broad hint, you mean ..."

**** end ****

I once had a German contract that used German and English terms next to each other that actually meant exactly he same. I can't remember what the example was, but I had to leave one out or it would have sounded silly in English. - Promptly my client asked why I only listed 5 options instead of 6.

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