English PEN has gathered a collection of top translation tips from established and award-winning translators. Every fortnight we publish advice from a different translator on how to improve your translation skills. This week, award-winning translator of French Sarah Ardizzone shares some tips on translating slang and dialogue, and the ecosystem that is translation…
1. For DIALOGUE, sit on the tops of buses eavesdropping. Jot down the surprising / funny things people say or the surprising / funny ways they say them. Real dialogue is always stranger and more wonderful than made-up dialogue. In a similar vein, keep your ears receptive when you’re walking down the street, on the Tube, at the market, talking to an official behind a glass screen…
2. Don’t just read your translation aloud to yourself. TRY READING IT ALOUD TO OTHER PEOPLE without telling them it’s a translation. See if it genuinely stands on its own two feet. So, if you’re translating/writing for children, gatecrash a children’s party in the park. If you’re translating for young people, you could even get THEM to read your translation aloud to YOU (so you can truly hear what it sounds like and gain some critical distance on your work). Again, don’t tell them it’s a translation and get them to comment on your “writing”.
3. Get technical. Think about CRAFT. For example, if the original author uses a lot of alliteration or assonance or soft rhymes or if they imprint a distinctive rhythm on the way they write, then you need to capture everything you can of this in the English. But remember not to get stuck by being too literal. If it doesn’t work using assonance or a rhyme or rhythm or even a joke in the same place as it occurs in the original text, maybe you’ll be able to introduce that effect somewhere else in your translation instead. Think of your translation as an ecosystem, where all sorts of different elements need to be able to co-habit. Being true to the original in your translation means re-creating that entire eco-system, not forcing a rhythm or a joke where it doesn’t want to happen in English.
4. If you’re translating SLANG, remember it has a sell-by date. So you might want to use “vintage” or “re-cycled” slang – words that come back round again, and are likely to keep doing so. Also, watch out for DOSAGE. Too much slang may mean you’re excluding too many of your readers. Make sure the context – the wording around the slang – is always clear enough for readers to be able to guess intelligently at the meaning of the slang word.
5. Think HYBRID. Are there words or ideas – or even a sense of humour – that exist in your mother tongue but not in English? How might you go about communicating that in English? Trying pushing the way you write English to the very limit so that it expresses your authentic original voice, in a way that couldn’t have been written by anyone else, and in a way that takes the English language to a new place. A great author to read for inspiration on this front is the Dominican Republic/US writer Junot Diaz.
Sarah Ardizzone is an award-winning translator from the French, who has published over forty translations. She has also developed a special interest in translating urban slang, having spent time (on a grant from the French Book Office) living in Marseille to pick up ‘Beur’ verlan. Sarah also enjoys working in the field of picture books, including with new publishers Phoenix Yard Books, for whom she has translated Marjolaine Leray’s Little Red Hood, Mr Leon’s Paris by Barroux and the Amnesty-endorsed I Have The Right To Be A Child. From 2011, Sarah has curated the Translation Nation programme in primary schools, producing fresh and original translations of stories from around the world by and for children.