As part of the launch for Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan Van Mersbergen the ladies at Peirene Press asked me to take part in an interview tour with Jan and the translator Laura Watkinson, and I agreed without a second thought. In a twist to the normal interview tours where many interviewers ask the same questions the ladies have decided that the interviewers could submit one question each to either Jan or Laura or both. If you want to read the rest of the answers check out the tour page at Peirene Press
My question for Laura was: “Translations can be tricky because of the many different meanings that words have in different languages. How did you solve these issues in your translations?”
I translate from European languages, so perhaps I’m less exposed to such issues than translators who deal with cultures that are very different from the English-speaking world. Generally, I feel that European cultures have far more similarities than differences and that our literary and linguistic expressions reflect this similarity. Perhaps this makes life easier for someone who translates from Dutch, for example.
However, I have come across a few tricky expressions during my time as a translator: words or expressions that you can translate into English literally, but which just don’t sound right, or words that can be rendered in more than one way in English. Usually, the context makes the meaning clear, so it’s not a problem, but occasionally you just have to make a decision or, of course, ask the author. I can’t think of any examples from Tomorrow Pamplona, but another piece I worked on included the Dutch word ‘bank’, which can mean ‘bench’ or ‘sofa’ (or, indeed, ‘bank’, as in Lloyds and TSB). Given the context, I’d pictured a sofa, but when the author read the translation, he explained why this particular ‘bank’ was actually a bench.
One famous example of an ‘untranslatable’ Dutch word is ‘gezellig’, which can be used to talk about all sorts of situations and people when you’re together and having fun. The Van Dale Dutch-English dictionary suggests: enjoyable, pleasant, entertaining, sociable, companionable, convivial... So there are plenty of options, but sometimes it’s tricky to find the right one. If the word were actually untranslatable, however, that would imply that we’re unable to describe such situations in English, which clearly isn’t the case. It’s not untranslatable – it just has many, many different translations, all depending on the context and the translator.
Thank you Laura for visiting Notes from the North! I found your answer to be very interesting, especially regarding the issue with words with several meanings, and the issues regarding similar cultures making it easier to translate.
If you haven’t already make sure you check out Iris on Books’ Month of Dutch Literature.