Posts filed under 'Translating humor'

Flowing Speech: On the Complexities of Audiovisual Translation

It’s really beautiful to get carried away by your emotions while translating.

Over the course of its four-season run, U.S. television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend won acclaim and awards for its groundbreaking musical format, treatment of mental illness, and reinvention of romantic comedy tropes. Plus, it’s funny—really funny. Every episode contains jokes, quick banter, songs, and a slew of puns and double-entendres. Audiovisual translator Alicia González-Camino, who translated the scripts for Spanish dubbing, knew she’d have her work cut out for her. I spoke with González-Camino via email. Her responses to my questions, compiled below, illustrate her translation process and relationship to this project. Here she is, in her own words, discussing the show’s challenges and whether audiovisual translation counts as a literary art.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and translated from Spanish.

—Allison Braden, Editor-at-Large for Argentina

As a translator, I started out doing any translation that fell into my hands, mostly technical, and it was so boring. I didn’t enjoy translating at all. Audiovisual translation, on the other hand, allows me to be more creative. I have fun translating, and I can feel proud of the result when I successfully make a scene or especially complicated speech flow well and sound natural. It’s a kind of translation where, on the same day, you can have animated drawings with rhymes and little made-up names, something with mafiosos, full of cursing, and something funny and comedic. And in my case, since I translate from five languages, you can also change from one language to another in one day. The result is that you can have really engaging days thanks to the variety.

Plus, in the case of dubbing, the translation comes to life in the voice of the actors. And if you’re lucky, a translation of yours can become part of the whole country’s vocabulary when a show or movie is really well-known and some phrase takes hold in the popular lexicon for posterity. That hasn’t happened to me yet with my translations, but leaving my footprint through language seems incredibly fun to me, in addition to being an honor.

I guess audiovisual translation is somewhat literary, because we’re all tied to a style we have to respect. We approach works that have existing souls and, in some sense, we create works with new souls that our respective audiences can understand, provoking the same emotions and reactions as the original.

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Translating Contemporary Tibet: In Conversation with Christopher Peacock

We could say that there isn’t a demand to undermine or challenge our preconceptions of Tibet.

Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock. 

Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.

Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?

Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.

I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.

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Translating Humor: Jessica Cohen Gets Jokes to Land in Second Language

“If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it isn’t.”

In his latest novel, the Israeli author David Grossman sets himself a near impossible task—to write a tale of tragedy set at a comedy club, all in the course of single stand-up set. As Gary Shteyngart warns in The New York Times Book Review, it’s a work that “only a true master—a Lenny Bruce, a Franz Kafka—could dream of replicating. Don’t try this at home, folks. I know I won’t.” A Horse Walks into a Bar, translated by Jessica Cohen and just longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, is a 194-page tour de force and, again citing Shteyngart, “there is nothing extraneous, not one comma, not one word, not one drop of comic’s sweat . . . Its technical proficiency is astounding.” Of course he’s referring here to the English-language edition, not to the original Hebrew, which makes this is in large part a compliment to Jessica Cohen, who somehow gets the jokes into English. This despite the translator’s three greatest obstacles: puns, idioms, and foreign context. Even the setting of the novel, Netanya—an apparently dumpy Israeli city—is the butt of countless jokes. Won’t the American reader, unfamiliar with the place or references, yawn through this all? Not this American reader, who read the novel in a single sitting, laughing and crying, at first in turns and, by the end, simultaneously. Figuring out how Cohen managed to “[turn] the performance into fluent, America-style patter, bad-a-bing bad-a-boom,” as Ken Kalfus writes for The Washington Post, is precisely why I’m talking to her now.

Here’s a quick run-down of the plot: Dov Greenstein (stage name: Dovaleh G) is an aging comedian with a tragic past. In one night of stand-up—to which he invites an old friend, Avishai Lazar, a witness to the defining event of this tragic past—Dov takes the crowd on something of a haunted hay ride. He cracks them up, taunts them, taunts (and hits) himself, bores them, entertains them again, loses their respect, and sheds his dignity openly, meanwhile sharply critiquing his native country and opening up important discussions about historical atrocities (his mother was a Holocaust survivor) and personal grief. The tale’s central event, recounted between barbs, potshots, and one-liners, takes place at a junior Israeli Army camp, when Dovaleh was 14—but that’s all I’ll say.

Todd (T): Here you have a book set in Netanya, a city that no American—and maybe no Israeli?—has ever heard of, and, as in most stand-up sets, the comedian breaks the ice by slamming the host city. Again and again. How did you approach this dilemma? Did you find yourself having to add context here and there, to let foreign readers in on the joke?

Jessica (J): Every translator knows she will run into something maddening in the course of a translation—a colloquialism with no equivalent in English, a culturally-specific term that can’t be neatly translated, etc. But I don’t usually expect to hit this brick wall in the very first sentence of a book, and that’s what happened with A Horse Walks into a Bar. The novel begins with the protagonist, a stand-up comedian named Dovaleh G, yelling from offstage (translated literally): “Good evening, good evening, good evening Ceasariyaaaah!!!” So right off the bat we have the set-up for a joke (which, as you mentioned, is always a challenge to translate), a city that most readers will never have heard of, and to make it worse, this is a line of dialogue, which means there’s little room for explication or “stealth glossing” (to borrow a term coined by Susan Bernofsky). Two paragraphs later, the joke unfolds: “Oh, wait a minute… this isn’t Caesarea, is it?” Dovaleh G then spends several lines building up (and hamming up) the realization that he is in fact not in Caesarea but in Netanya. At this point, if I’d just left things as is, most readers would probably have figured out that there is some sort of dichotomy here: Caesarea is not like Netanya; the speaker is disappointed with his actual location. But that’s not enough to make it funny, and so I needed to somehow get across the conflicting images of these two cities, which every Israeli reader is familiar with. I decided the only way was to add a touch of characterization at the beginning, which is why the final English translation reads: “Good evening! Good evening! Good evening to the majestic city of Ceasariyaaaah!” (the addition is underlined). My hope is that not only does this give an indication of what type of city Caesarea is (an exclusive seaside town populated by the rich and famous) but also gets across some of Dovaleh’s hallmark cynicism.

As for Netanya, it is the butt of many jokes in this book, and not completely without reason. It’s not a “dump” in the traditional sense—Netanya sits on the coast of the Mediterranean, only 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, and has some beautiful beaches. But that’s probably the best thing it has going for it. Roughly a third of its 200,000 residents are immigrants, many of whom are unemployed, and it has a long-standing association with organized crime, which is the main basis for the book’s Netanya-related jokes. I remember Grossman mentioning that among the many letters he received from readers after the book came out, quite a few were from Netanya residents who were outraged at his perpetuation of the stereotypes about their city! But back to the translation: once I had done what I could to establish the general schema of Caesarea vs. Netanya, I had to trust that the nuances of Netanya’s image would come through in the other jokes and put-downs that Dovaleh strews throughout his performance.

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Translating Iranian Poetry: A Conversation with Siavash Saadlou

As human beings, we need to truly acknowledge that we all are different hues of the same spectrum—that is the human spectrum.

Siavash Saadlou was born in Tehran, Iran. He started learning English at the age of 17, and has since worked as a sports journalist, translator, simultaneous interpreter, editor, and college professor. His English translations of the minimalist Iranian poet, Rasool Yoonan, have appeared in Washington Square Review, Blue Lyra Review, Visions International, The Writing Disorder, Indian Review, and in Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue. He was also a finalist for Slice Magazine’s 2015 Bridging the Gap writing contest for his creative non-fiction piece I Didn’t Mean It. Saadlou is currently a second-year MFA creative writing student and a teaching fellow at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Shortly before and after the US election, Asymptote’s Ryan Mihaly spoke with Saadlou about translating Persian, meeting Yoonan, and the importance of literature in breaking down barriers and transporting culturenow more than ever. 

Ryan Mihaly (RM): Yoonan’s humor seems to translate well into English. You’ve captured the dark humor of reassuring a friend that his corpse will be buried, and the silliness of a ‘Don Quixote’ who ‘wears a saucepan on his head’. Were these literal translations? How did you capture them in English?

Siavash Saadlou (SS): When it comes to translating Yoonan, I try to maintain a balance between literal and figurative language, although in the cases you mentioned, I have translated the text verbatim. I should mention that in the first example, the word ‘friend’ has been used sarcastically. There’s a lot of witty sarcasm in the Persian language and literature, and in this poem Yoonan is using a wry tone to describe tyranny by using the word ‘friend’. I have also tried to maintain Yoonan’s diction. For that purpose, I first read all of his poems over and over again and took note of his word choice. For example, the word mozhek could be translated as ‘absurd’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘inane’, or ‘preposterous’, but since I happened to have a holistic cognizance of Yoonan’s plain and unadorned tone, I chose the word ‘absurd’.

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