A correspondent sent me a link to a language blog I’d somehow missed, The Chocolate Interrobang (“where we savor discussions about language & grammar & syntax, and sometimes reminisce about diagramming sentences…”). There’s a fair amount of tedious pop-grammatical blather (like a post ranting about “very unique”), but the latest post, by Jeff W (it’s a group blog, with half a dozen authors), is a nice discussion of translation. He starts with the Fourth Casio Cup Translation Contest:
Organized by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, the goal of the contest is to translate a given English source text into Chinese. The text this time is “Reservoir Frogs (Or Places Called Mama’s),” a 1996 New Yorker piece by Salman Rushdie, on what Rushdie calls “the fine art of meaningless naming.”
This leads him to translation of Harry Potter books:
In Book One, Chapter 5, Harry asks Hagrid the eternal question: “What’s the difference between a stalagmite and a stalactite?” Hagrid, not feeling up to geological exegesis (as Sir Salman might say), replies: “Stalagmite’s got an “m” in it. An’ don’ ask me questions just now, I think I’m gonna be sick.”
In Chinese, stalactite is zhōng-rǔ-shí (“hanging-bell milk rock”) and stalagmite is shí-sǔn (”rock bamboo-shoot”). No “M” in sight. What do you do?
If you’re the Mainland Chinese translator, well, there’s no problem: Hagrid says: “There’s an “M” in the middle of zhōng-rǔ-shí.” Well, true enough as a translation but that answer must leave Chinese readers scratching their heads.
If you’re the Taiwanese Chinese translator, Hagrid says “zhōng-rǔ-shí is made up of three characters” (the word shí-sǔn , after all, has two), effectively getting at the irritated non-answer of Hagrid’s reply.
Another example: one character, Fleur Delacour, is referred to by the contemptuous nickname, “Phlegm.” So how do you come up with a nickname that sounds like “Fleur” but with the disgusting properties of “phlegm”?
This time the Taiwanese Chinese translator comes up with a true masterpiece: Fleur in the Taiwanese version is named Huār meaning ‘flower’; the contemptuous nickname for her is Wār meaning “frog” which might be considered a suitably slimy substitute for “phlegm” and, as a bonus, mocks the French accent of the character (who drops her “h’s”).
Great stuff. (Thanks for the link, Bathrobe!)