Margaret Marks of Transblawg has a post about a German translation of a Grauniad article whacking Tony Blair about the head and shoulders with the usual heavy doses of British ironizing (“Doesn’t it all impregnate you with confidence and pride?”). Margaret quotes a paragraph of the original followed by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung translation, and says “the irony didn’t come across… it may be that so much irony would not be acceptable in the German press.” I had never thought about this, but how do you go about translating a piece that depends almost entirely on heavy irony for its effect into a language in which that’s not an acceptable strategy? It would seem you’d have to either translate it straight, making its meaning into the opposite of what the author intended, or rewrite it entirely, making it into a different piece altogether. If any translators are reading this, I’d welcome your thoughts.


  1. My approach is highly interpretive. Sometimes it’s possible to capture the irony in the target language; sometimes it isn’t. In the former case, Hurrah! A small victory. In the latter case, I focus on the point being made and its surrounding context, and try to be as true to the feeling of the source text as I can. Occasionally a parallel irony is possible. A Swedish text might, for instance, make an ironic reference to Snoddas, the singing bandy player who had a weird one-off hit about rural love way back when. Capture that if you can, Bubba! You have to think about why it’s funny (or sly, or whatever function the irony is serving) in the source. Does the irony rest in the ruralness, in some element of the song itself, in the silliness of Snoddas’ name? You have to consider your audience. British investment bankers? American teenagers? Polyglot travelers reading an in-flight magazine? In the latter case, the effort is probably doomed. But if the target audience is narrow enough (and it doesn’t have to be all that narrow – “the sort of Brit who might read this article” will do) and you know that audience well enough, you may just be able to come up with a parallel culture signifier that works. A satisfying example from years ago was my translation of “en friidrottens Gossen Ruda” (Gossen Ruda being a young delinquent in a satirical magazine) as “the Peck’s Bad Boy of track and field”. I didn’t use it in the end, since the target audience was international and you probably have to be an American of a certain age to get the reference.

  2. I’m not a translator, but… heavy irony unacceptable in German? First I’ve heard of it.
    Anyway — in general I like translations that don’t necessarily cater to my cultural prejudices, ones that leave the rough edges and discomforts intact. Of course in the jostle of the marketplace, competing for space in the smooth and comfortable (slick and complacent?) media world, that is less and less of an option, I guess.

  3. “Peck’s Bad Boy” is an example of a cliche allusion that is quite functional even after the original work is forgotten. I see it now and then and know what it means, but I have literally no idea where it came from.
    Sportwriting is full of that kind of dead allusion. When I was in Taiwan I tried to find my students some reading a little more interesting than the canned stuff we were using. I thought of using something from the sports page, but that was impossible, and not just because my students had very little interest in sports.
    Quite beyond the specifics of understanding the rules of the sport involved, a lot of sportswriting is done in a highly stylized language with all kinds of dead allusions — e.g. “Feets, do your stuff!” from a Stepin Fetchit movie ca. 1930. From the point of view of an English teacher, reading a sports page requires a sophisticated command of a specialized language.
    What finally worked was recipes. Even very ordinary Chinese tend to be foodies.

  4. Peck’s Bad Boy dates from the beginning of the twentieth century, which I didn’t know until I was thinking about using it and looked it up. But indeed, it’s comprehensible enough, and the sports pages are exactly where I remember seeing it as a kid. In re the quest for easy reading material, I remember finding a celebrity gossip magazine at a laundromat when I was first learning German. I flipped through it and found a small item about some actress I’d never heard of. It was the first full article I had ever got through without consulting a dictionary. At last I’d found my level.

  5. I am studying German (reading) right now and my best luck has been with a.) books I just love which are worth reading at two pages an hour (Rilke, Kafka, Nietzsche) and b.) genre fiction, especially translations of American crime novels, which is so stereotyped that you can usually guess what’s happening and whiz right through it. But reading a regular newspaper is not really worth it.
    I even tried reading a Mickey Spillane novel in Norwegian, which I am not studying and never have. You can guess a surprising amount.

  6. I couldn’t agree less with the analysis of the German translation. While it’s not a literal translation and a lot of the zing of the English original has been lost, the translated text is very clearly still extremely sarcastic. Translating “average out” as “ansetzen” does not seem like the first choice, but it conveys the same disregard for details and is just as indicative of the underlying disregard for human life and human suffering. I’d say any remaining shortcomings (of which there are plenty) are due to this being a poor or mediocre translation at best, not due to any inherent bias against sarcasm or irony in the German press. If you read any editorials in the major German newspapers, there’s plenty of biting sarcasm in those, for example.

  7. Thanks for the independent analysis; I don’t read the German press, so I had no way of knowing.

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