TRANSLATING UNDER CONSTRAINT.

I’m not talking about the kinds of constraints translators, and writers in general, impose on themselves to make the product better or the process more stimulating; I’m talking about external constraints so absurd they boggle the mind. I was reading Robert Paquin’s piece “(Bleep), You (Bleeping) (Bleep): Dubbing American Films into Canadian French (whither I was sent by wood s lot), enjoying the description of how translators for dubbed films try to make “the lip movements of the actor on the screen … match the sounds you hear,” when I got to this passage:

So, how do you translate street talk? With street talk, of course. Well, in France, yes, but not if you’re a film translator/adaptor in Canada working in French. The French have no qualms about using their “argot” (slang), but we film adaptors working in Canada are not allowed to use the French slang expressions used in the Montreal streets, nor are we allowed to use the slang expressions used in France. We’re supposed to write dialogues in international French. Film distributors even supply us with a list of banned words and expressions. On that list are not only typical French Canadian swear words and curses, but also French “argot” curses and swear words, because distributors don’t want their films to seem as if they had been translated in France, fearing Canadian audiences would complain that the film sounds too “Frenchy” and not Canadian enough. At the same time, the distributors forbid the use of Canadian street talk, because they secretly hope the French version they will get here can be exported to Europe somehow. Except that France has adopted protectionist laws and regulations governing TV stations and movie theaters to forbid screening of audiovisual productions dubbed outside Europe—which in actual fact means Canada.
And how does one swear in international French, i.e. standard French, French spoken and understood in all French-speaking countries? Ah, well, there’s “bordel,” “merde” and “zut,” but that’s pretty weak, something like “shucks.” I was going to add “putain,” but that’s also on the list of forbidden words, though we sometimes manage to slip it in unnoticed. Luckily “foutu” is allowed, as are “con” and “connard” and “connasse,” “enfoiré,” “enculé,” though the latter might earn a (bleep) on television. But “Criss de tabarnak d’ostie” is out of the question, even though that is what you hear when a carpenter hits his or her thumb with a hammer in French Canada.
“(Bleep), you (bleep) (bleep), I’m ‘onna (bleep) kick your (bleep) (bleep) to (bleep) kingdom come!” would therefore be translated along the lines of “Merde, espèce de connard d’enfoiré, je vais te foutre un bordel de coup de pied au cul.” But you know what? It doesn’t sound natural in any dialect. While “Mon ostie de niaiseux, je vais te kâlicer mon pied dans le cul, tu vas voir” would sound perfectly normal. Such language is readily used in plays and in films produced here, though not in television because of young viewers. Yet translators are mysteriously forbidden to use those expressions.

I could understand banning French-French slang in Canadian films out of local pride; I wouldn’t be in favor of it, but I would understand it. But this… this is just stupid.

Comments

  1. GeorgeW says:

    Is this a matter of prudishness or language purity?

  2. Neither, apparently; it’s a matter of greed, and foolish greed at that, since France, the desired market, won’t let these efforts in anyway (having “adopted protectionist laws and regulations governing TV stations and movie theaters to forbid screening of audiovisual productions dubbed outside Europe”).

  3. dearieme says:

    Sacred blue!

  4. I can’t help thinking of the temperamental French cook Anatole in Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves stories. In one scene when he was upset by something
    Words like “marmiton de Domange,” “pignouf,” “hurluberlu” and “roustisseur” were fluttering from him like bats out of a barn.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    Since “Standard French” is supposed to be a neutral variety, used mostly in writing, by definition slang words would not be part of Standard French. “International French” would have only a few more or less generic taboo words. Hence the catch-22 problem for the translators.
    I once saw an American police drama on French TV. The policemen were speaking very characteristic Parisian slang, with the “Parisien” (= low-class Parisian) pronunciation and intonation, which sounded ludicrous to me in the mouths of New York cops and would have sounded even more inappropriate in French Canada.
    Ø: those words are not exactly slang, let alone taboo. They are almost on a par with the “swearwords” used by le capitaine Haddock.

  6. Bob Violence says:
  7. All this fuss about dubbing? Let them eat subtitles!

  8. Bathrobe says:

    protectionist laws and regulations governing TV stations and movie theaters to forbid screening of audiovisual productions dubbed outside Europe
    Just love it when people put barriers in the way of international linguistic exchange. I guess Canadian French is doomed to be a little understood, backwoods variety of the language.

  9. michael farris says:

    marie_lucie: “I once saw an American police drama on French TV. The policemen were speaking very characteristic Parisian slang …sounded ludicrous to me”
    Is there any solution that would not have sounded ludicrous to you? (that’s not meant as snark, it’s a serious question).
    The big restraint on localization in Poland (though lessening) is the culture wide hang up for ‘correct’ usage. I read a column by someone complaining about ‘vulgar’ words appearing in translations of movies (apparently the translator is supposed to clean up the message and “I’ll bash your f*ing head in!” should become “I’ll hit you in the head”.
    In class once I discussed the (inadequate I thought) subtitles for a scene in the Sopranos that did not capture the difference in accent between Carmela and her neighbors that I thought was important. The unfortunate conclusion was that any attempt to replicate the difference would be interpreted by the audience as a lack of mastery of standard Polish by the translator…

  10. GeorgeW says:

    It is interesting that the American hang-up about ‘correct’ English does not extend into the arts. It seems to be limited to formal and journalistic writing. a film about gangsters would be considered absurd if the characters spoke Standard English.
    In reading this post and comments, I am feeling better about American language attitudes.

  11. Roger Depledge says:

    Content distributors imposing arbitrary rules on their paid staff? Who’d a thunk it?

  12. I think there must be similar problems with translators for Latin American Spanish. The variety of slang language is enormous, but there’s something horrible called “español neutro”. I don’t know if this sounds local and familiar to any Latin American country (perhaps Venezuela or Mexico), for us in Argentina is always foreign and strange. All the kids here play to talk like tv (they use “tú” instead of our “vos”, they change the intonation and pronunciation and they use many, many, many “foreign” terms like “carro”, “nevera”, “trasero”)

  13. It’s sad, because the wonderful regional variety is one of the most striking things about Spanish. Why would you want to sweep that under the rug for a neutered “international” version?

  14. “Why would you want to sweep that under the rug for a neutered “international” version?”
    For money, of course. The TV dubbed series are sold in all Latin American.
    Although now the most common thing is to have them subtitled. But the language there is still a neutral thing. The funny thing is we’re accustomed to this neutral language for the TV (translated TV, of course), it sounds strange to me when they use very regional language: in recent years some Disney or Pixar films came with the option of “neutral Spanish dubbing”, “Mexican dubbing” and “Argentinian dubbing”… I can only watch them in neutral Spanish (I can’t stand the other options!)
    I think is the necessary ostranenie that marks this object as a foreign cultural artefact.

  15. @Bob Violence: I’ve got a single grudge to the article you quoted — they should’ve transliterated the Mandarin and Cantonese examples alike in Cantonese pronunciation, just as how normal people in Hong Kong read Modern Literary Chinese in the head.

  16. Bathrobe says:

    I notice that he romanises 脏/髒 as zan when it should be zang (or zāng actually). A mere quibble, but as minus273 said, Hong Kongers are obviously used to reading Modern Literary Chinese in Cantonese rather than Mandarin.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    MF: “I once saw an American police drama on French TV. The policemen were speaking very characteristic Parisian slang …sounded ludicrous to me” – Is there any solution that would not have sounded ludicrous to you?
    Probably not, and a monolingual French person (at least a Parisian) would probably find this dubbing natural. But NY cops speaking Parisian slang would sound ridiculous in francophone Canada.

  18. Two anecdotes about localization-as-the-wrong-thing:
    In Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (only slightly connected with the recent movie) there are two characters named Powell and Donovan. No nationality is given for them. When the book was translated into German, the characters remained Powell and Donovan. When Asimov asked why the names weren’t changed to typical German names, the translator replied that unless the characters had American-style names, it wouldn’t feel to German readers like science fiction.
    (There’s a lovely piece of slash telling about their first assignment together; the slash is mostly played for laughs. I mention it because I like it and because it establishes the fanon that Powell is Irish, Donovan Irish-American.)
    The second anecdote is about the Chinese translation of Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, specifically the phrase “Speak of the devil”. The first draft of the translation rendered this phrase literally. Hofstadter put his finger on it and said “Is that the real Chinese equivalent?” “Well, no,” said the translators. You’d really say 說曹操,曹操到 Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào ‘Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao appears’.”
    “Well, why not use that?” said Hofstadter.
    “The Chinese reader knows this is an American book. What would an American know about Cao Cao?”
    But the translators were eventually converted to Hofstadter’s point of view, and everything American in the book was Chinesified, right down to the title 集异璧 Jí Yì Bì ‘collection of exotic jades’, pronounced like GEB and semantically suggestive of the subtitle An Eternal Golden Braid.

  19. Does Hofstader speak Chinese? Or was he just sort of looking through at points of interest (to him) and asking how the translator had handled them?
    (Or did he perhaps feed the translation through a slot into a room in which a man who could not speak Chinese was nevertheless able to follow the directions he had been given to produce a literal English translation, which of course he could not understand either?)

  20. When Asimov asked why the names weren’t changed to typical German names, the translator replied that unless the characters had American-style names, it wouldn’t feel to German readers like science fiction.
    From the little I’ve read, this seems to be true of Central and Eastern European science fiction even when produced locally. Stanislaw Lem’s heroes never seem to be explicitly Polish and often have vaguely or explicitly Western names (Kelvin, Hogarth). The Strugatskys often use English or even German sounding names.

  21. Alex Chamberlain says:

    @Matt:
    Yes, Hofstadter speaks Chinese proficiently, and a number of other languages more or less so. See his Le Ton Beau de Marot for an extensive discussion of the problems of translation, with many examples from his own books.
    (Bwa ha ha!)

  22. A more extreme example of localization comes from the new translation of Daniel Pennac’s book Comme un roman, Better Than Life (the previous translation, titled Reads Like a Novel, may not have been as altered, I don’t think). Comme un roman is essentially about how young people read and how the school system fails readers; naturally it talks about practices of French schools and uses lots of examples drawn from books familiar in France. So, the American publishers decided to create a localized version where the references to books were changed to things that Americans would have read, and use terminology from American education, and pop culture references, and so forth. But it seemed to me, in glancing through the translation, that in that way they got something neither fish nor fowl — they simply couldn’t erase everything French about the book. They created an impression of “very odd Americans” rather than “slightly unfamiliar foreigners”. And Pennac’s central example of a book schools use badly, Madame Bovary, occurs all through, and they couldn’t change all the references to it, so the scheme of localization falls down automatically there.

  23. Hofstadter has studied Chinese but doesn’t speak it fluently: his fluent languages are English, Italian, and French. So I don’t remember exactly how he picked up on this point; presumably Le Ton Beau de Marot (in English, not French) explains.
    In the same book he talks about how his Italian is “founded on French” (which he learned first) and contains such persistent errors as *mucca for proper Italian mosca ‘fly’. This is a result of his internalizing the “primitive and arbitrary sound-law” (Tolkien’s phrase for such things) that French /-ʃ/ is Italian /-ka/, so just as vacca is Italian for vache ‘cow’, so *mucca is Italian for mouche! In Tolkien’s early conlang Nevbosh, English cow was reversed to become woc, and then -ow > -oc was inferred from this example to give hoc ‘how’ and gyroc ‘row (fuss, disturbance)’.
    As a generic example of over-translation, Hofstadter mentions a (hypothetical) history of France which when translated into German becomes a history of Germany (presumably both versions start by talking about Charlemagne/Karl der Grosse and diverge from there), and as a specific example, the phrase from the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail from Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which becomes from taps to reveille in one translation.

  24. Just curious: Does anyone know if products sold in the US with French directions or French on the labels use Canadian French?
    In Spanish, an internationalized variety seems to be used. Lightbulbs are sold here, for instance, as bombillos, not focos. Though, even in México I seem to recall an internationalized variety used on many (most?) products made by multinational corporations.

  25. Sorry, just to be clear, I meant: Lightbulbs are sold here, for instance, as “bombillos,” and not using, say, a Mexican term like “focos.”
    Didn’t mean to suggest that Mexican Spanish would be the expected usage. But I do expect Canadian French to be used.

  26. Bob Violence says:

    I’ve got a single grudge to the article you quoted — they should’ve transliterated the Mandarin and Cantonese examples alike in Cantonese pronunciation, just as how normal people in Hong Kong read Modern Literary Chinese in the head.
    Unfortunately, this is consistent with most writing I’ve seen on Hong Kong cinema topics, which favors pinyin for most purposes and reserves romanized Cantonese for specifically Cantonese words/phrases and sometimes personal names. This is true even in academic contexts and in publications written and produced in Hong Kong itself (for example, most of what I’ve read from the Hong Kong Film Archive uses Mandarin for film titles and such, even books like Cantonese Opera Film Retrospective).

  27. as a specific example, the phrase from the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail from Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which becomes from taps to reveille in one translation.

    How ridiculous! What was the translator thinking? Did he go on to have the zeks getting K rations and joking with Sarge about women? “Look lively, Private Dennison, in this man’s army we don’t tolerate slacking!” (I presume, by the way, it was actually “from reveille to taps.”)

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Does anyone know if products sold in the US with French directions or French on the labels use Canadian French?
    I think these would have to be products sold in specialty shops, perhaps, and they would probably come from France. In Canada, all products made in the country, and a lot of those imported from other countries, are labelled in both French and English. Most of the time, what that means is that the original wording is in English, with a French translation which often looks like it is done by anglophones not very familiar with French at all (although the situation has improved since I first came to Canada). It is obvious that many manufacturers don’t bother to hire a qualified translator for short instructions such as how to make soup from a can. Even if the words are appropriate, it is very rare that the translation sounds natural. As for the lists of ingredients, there is not that much difference in the vocabulary, and where there is one, the usage is usually (but not always) Canadian.
    I also think that many translations are done by people who might be competent but are given a text without the pictures or other clear context, so that the wording can be misunderstood and mistranslated.

  29. Yes, of course from reveille to taps. I was so busy getting the spelling of reveille right, I lost track of what I was saying. ~~ headdesk ~~
    I do see U.S.-made products with instructions in French as well as English and Spanish, presumably so they can be sold throughout the North American Free Trade Area. I don’t know anything about the competence of these translations, but I bet it’s fairly low.

  30. Thanks Marie-Lucie and John.
    Here in the US, many everyday products like lightbulbs, toilet paper, shampoo, etc, come with labels or instructions in from 1 to 3 languages. Usually it is two, sometimes English and French, sometimes English and Spanish. As for the quality of the translations, in Spanish I haven’t seen anything strange yet.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    In Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (only slightly connected with the recent movie) there are two characters named Powell and Donovan. No nationality is given for them. When the book was translated into German, the characters remained Powell and Donovan. When Asimov asked why the names weren’t changed to typical German names, the translator replied that unless the characters had American-style names, it wouldn’t feel to German readers like science fiction.

    Let me just second this sentiment.

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