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Translating Style

According to Katie Wale’s 2011 Dictionary of Stylistics, ‘style’ refers to a “perceived distinctive manner of expression in writing or speaking”.

For Roger Fowler writing in 1977, literary style was more about ‘mind’ style, reflecting the thought processes and patterns of the author or translator.

Of course, understanding style is crucial for all those involved in the text: whether it’s the translator, copy editor or critic down the line. On the MALT course at UEA, we were lucky enough to get a masterclass this week from one of the great minds of contemporary translation, Jean Boase-Beier.

It’s easy to confuse stylistics with poetics, and honestly, until this week, I wasn’t sure of the difference myself. But whereas stylistics is the study of how we read texts, how the stylistic features of a text have the effect that they do and how we interpret those effects, poetics constitutes more of a ‘step back’, referring to the system of beliefs and attitudes about how to put things into words.

Acclaimed linguist, philosopher and translator Roman Jakobson once stated “the poetic function projects equivalence from selection to combination”- but what the hell does that even mean?

It’s to do with the choices we make as translators. Our selection of a word, for example ‘kitten’ instead of ‘cat’, will affect the combination of words we can choose or use in that sentence. That’s what Jakobson means by equivalence, it’s equivalence across the text, not equivalence with the source text (the text being translated). It’s kind of like the butterfly effect. If we choose to translate Katze as ‘kitten’ at the start of a chapter, it may still be affecting the word choices we can feasibly make pages down the line, and has an overall impact on the way the words in a sentence, paragraph or book ‘hang together’.

Stylistic Features

There are an almost infinite number of stylistic features a text can have, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll only go into those which I didn’t fully understand until this week.

Foregrounding can be repetition, but it can also have a lot more to do with repeated patterning. It could be a repeated word, but it could also be a repeated image, prefix or suffix. It could the same letter occurring frequently across a poem or piece of prose, or it could be using many different words belonging to the same semantic field (e.g ice, snow, frost etc.)

Ambiguity is fairly clear to understand, but devilishly difficult to translate. Ambiguity with words and meaning rarely matches across languages. The ambiguity of ‘Absatz’ in German (paragraph, heel, section, sales, distribution, passage, terrace, indent, step….) is almost legendary.

Iconicity is where a word or image represents the way in which it functions in the world. It’s similar to a metaphor or a concrete poem, and one of the most basic examples of this would be writing loud in capital letters (LOUD). Because then it becomes loud, right?

Next time I have to translate a poem or piece of prose, I’m going to highlight the different foregrounded elements in different colours and have some fun with it.

Some Examples

In Kältere Schichten der Luft, Antje Ravic Strubel uses the word ‘blauschwarz’. Now, compounding is so common to German that it’s difficult to find a sentence without a compound noun or adjective. There are two immediately obvious ways to translate blauschwarz, ‘blue-black’ and ‘black and blue’. Which one works better? Well it depends what kind of mood you’re trying to evoke. ‘Blue-black’ is more neutral, and could be used to describe clothes and jewellery. ‘Black and blue’ is usually only used when someone has been beaten: ‘he beat her black and blue, your Honor’. It’s a small difference, but it could make a significant difference in combination with other translation choices, say in a scene with the undercurrent or threat of violence. The translator needs to ask themselves: what is being foregrounded? Before taking any decisions.

In the same section, we come across the German word trügerisch. This is an ambiguous word, it could mean either ‘deceptive’ or ‘treacherous’, depending on the context. The main difference between deceptive and treacherous is the level of intent denoted: something or someone can be unintentionally deceptive, but a person is never unintentionally treacherous. Similarly, ‘deceptive’ can be used to describe people, things or situations, whereas ‘treacherous’ only really describes people, or people’s plots.

In Sarah Kirsch’s poem März, we see an extremely difficult translation problem which highlights the priority of equivalence within the text rather than equivalence with the source text. There’s an image of snowdrop bulbs looking like white teeth in the Earth where a child is digging, and the child becomes disturbed thinking about ordinary words backwards:

Oh weh sagt mein Kind wenn es das Wort Gras rückwärts liest oder Leben.

Oh dear says my child when it the word grass backwards reads or life.

Read Gras backwards in German, and you get Sarg, or coffin.

Read Leben backwards in German, and you get Nebel, or fog.

So we see here that the poem is operating on many different levels simultaneously. The imagery is natural imagery, grass and life, reversed into sinister, more morbid imagery: fog and coffin. The child is digging in the garden, so the words chosen in English have to have some connection to nature or the garden. How do we solve this problem? I would propose finding two garden-related nouns in English with an innocent meaning one way around, and a sinister meaning when read backwards, ‘forgetting’ the German words altogether for the time being. Getting this layer of meaning is far more important than the words ‘grass’ or ‘life’.

However, a published translation apparently ignored all of this entirely:

“oh Christ says my child when he reads the word

Grass or life the wrong way round” (Wendy Mulford and Anthony Vis)

I don’t have any genius suggestions for words to put in this space just yet, but I wouldn’t have called this poem ‘finished’. It reads nicely, but misses the internal equivalence and therefore the stylistic effect of the poem – foregrounding the living and natural underlined by the dead and sinister. I love translation for this reason and many others: it’s like a complex word equation plus creativity plus context.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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