Lost in translation – reading values between the lines

I went to see a Swedish film recently. I enjoy watching films in my mother tongue, not just because I learn (or remember) things about Swedish culture, but also because I have fun reading the subtitles.

Subtitling is a difficult job. The translator has to fit everything that’s said, ideally with nuances and not just the literal words, into one or two lines of text. It’s like tweeting film dialogue: A lot is lost. When the translator is good, you don’t mind,this is how it works. When the translator’s not so good, well, it can be annoying. I have tales. But I’m not telling one of them today. This film was well translated. It did, however, tell me something about British culture*.

Two women are talking together. One of them doesn’t understand the other one’s relationship choices. She says something along the lines of: ‘You meet someone, build a relationship, have kids and get married‘, neatly spelling out a Swedish relationship narrative. The translation laid out the British version: ‘You meet someone, build a relationship, get married and have kids.’

As my fellow lady scientist Jessica Johannesson Gaitán said when I attended a poetry translation workshop she ran, ‘translation is about choices‘. I imagine that when you translate a film, the aim is to help the viewer understand the dialogue, to ensure that there’s as little as possible between them and their enjoyment of the film.

I can’t stop wondering why the translator decided that the idea of having children before marriage would shock the viewer out of their engagement with the film. Were they they concerned that the original order would mean the film wouldn’t work in English-speaking countries with strong religious leanings? Where they themselves taken aback and wanted to save the viewer the same shock? Or was it a not a decision at all: Did they miss-hear, or assume, the order?

It’s not the choice I would have made, but the reasons for it will continue to intrigue me.

* Assuming that the translator was British.

(If you get a chance to watch Force Majeure – do. It is frustrating and sad and full of family drama, but it is also very funny and sweet.)


The History of English in 10 Minutes – OU animation

I’m pleased to have found this amusing summary of the history of English, re-tweeted by The Book Bench, on twitter. It is 11:20 long, so get a cup of tea and settle in for a bit of an educational session from the OU.

(And if you want a much longer version, in book form, there’s alway Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English.)

The mostly silent story telling of Shaun Tan

A few years ago I worked off Broughton Street in Edinburgh. My closest decent café was Artisan Roast, which roasts and serves the very best coffee that Edinburgh has to offer. (Too bad I prefer tea.) One day, I found this book there, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. It was a tale of emigration and immigration, 128 pages long, all illustrations.

It was amazing.

In The Arrival, a man leaves his family to go abroad and start a new life. Eventually, they will join him, but before they can he has to find somewhere to live, a job and learn to understand the new place he’s in. The beautiful pencil drawings show a world similar but also very different from ours. I recognized the emotions and fears of anyone that has to go somewhere new, be it a new school, job or country. Learning the ropes, making friends, finding a place in a new context takes time and courage.

I have since acquired most of Shaun’s back catalog. His illustrations are beautiful and his words, when he uses them, open new worlds and new perspectives.

Shaun Tan spoke about The Arrival and his other works at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. He told a story – Eric, a lovely tale inspired by an exchange student – and explained that he writes with a very particular audience in mind. Shaun writes tales that his brother will find acceptable. The story doesn’t have to be simple, but the language must be. This straightforward voice works very well with the other-worldly illustrations.

I’m trying to emulate two aspects of Shaun’s story-telling: the simplicity of his language and the other-worldliness of the world he draws. My writing lacks the lyricism of Shaun’s drawings but I want my stories to take place in a world similar to his. A world very close to ours but different enough that anything can happen. And I try to tell them simply.

Recently, I sent the first story I wrote with the principles of simplicity and other-worldliness in mind to my mother. She really likes it. She likes it so much she thinks I should illustrate it.

Pet hate: prewarning and preplanning

One of the wonderful things about language is that it isn’t static. We understand English written hundred of years ago but we express the same sentiments differently. Even formal language changes over time. The flexibility of language to adjust to the times and circumstances of its users is something we should celebrate.

Still. Some uses annoy me.

It started some five years ago. I noticed that my boyfriend was using the terms “preplan” and “prewarn” to mean “plan” and “warn”. It annoyed me. I’m irritating that way: I allow linguistic quirks will get to me. My problem with preplan and prewarn is that they are tautological. The prefix is unnecessary. It adds nothing to the meaning of the word. In fact, prewarn to me suggests warning someone that you’re about to warn them, which seems outright dumb. Preplanning I understand better: sometimes you have to plan your plan, especially if there are other people involved in the planning process.

Both words are, of course, in the dictionary. Prewarn is in the OED and preplan in Merriam-Webster. Prewarn means forewarn which means, sigh, warn. Preplan means to plan beforehand. (Can you plan after the fact?) They are perfectly good words. I just don’t like them.

They’re insidious little words too. Their use seems to be spreading. (Although it is possible that I just hear them more because I don’t like them. The brain works that way.) I’ve heard people prewarn and preplan on television and radio so it wasn’t just my partner who liked the sound of them. I wonder if they are more frequently used in American English and have come in through television? Preplan certainly looks American, if only because it’s in an American English dictionary but not in the OED.

Why they became popular, or why started hearing them, doesn’t really matter. There are words or usages that just sit wrong in my ear. I’m sure you have some words you don’t like too. I probably use them. Daily.