Monday, 11 April 2016

A Traveller and Time - Catherine Butler

My day job is a lot of fun, sometimes. Recently I was delighted to hear that a PhD student of mine had passed her viva, having written on the subject of Spanish translations of Captain Underpants. This July, she’ll be formally given her doctorate in the echoing environs of Bristol Cathedral, where an abstract of her findings will be read aloud to the assembled congregation. I’m very proud of her.

Now, one or two of you may be thinking, “They give degrees for that?” Perhaps you are already searching for the address of the Telegraph letters page and setting your green fountain pen to caps lock. But hold on a moment! The subject isn’t as straightforward as it may first appear. Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books were written by an American, and owe a lot to such distinctively American features as their elementary school setting, comic book format, celebration of gross-out comedy, and so on. Translating them into Spanish isn’t just a matter of changing the individual words, it’s a complex negotiation between cultures. What makes perfect sense in the USA may make very little in Spain. For example, in the Captain Underpants books there are plenty of jokes about how awful the school cafeteria lunches are (something that transfers well to the UK, where comics like The Beano mined a similar vein for many decades); but in Spain, where they take food seriously from a young age, the school lunches are excellent, and jokes at their expense are likely to fall flat.

What should translators do in such a situation? Should they attempt to change the text to make it more understandable to its readership – for example by changing specifically American references to equivalent Spanish ones? Or is it better to preserve the original’s American-ness, which may indeed be part of its attraction in the first place? What about puns and wordplay that don’t transfer easily to the new language? And illustrations, which may be too expensive to change? What if the Spanish simply don’t find fart jokes intrinsically hilarious? Perhaps their attitude to what children’s books are for is different, too. It’s not a simple matter.

I’ve just returned from Japan, where amongst many other pleasures I was able (through a mutual friend) to have supper with Mihoko Tanaka, the author of a book on the way that the Japanese adopted and adapted British children’s fantasy after the Second World War. I’d long since been intrigued by the presence of British children’s books in Japanese culture, from Alice on. They crop up regularly in the films of Studio Ghibli, which adapted not only Mary Norton’s classic The Borrowers (1952) as Arrietty (2010), but Joan Robinson’s rather more obscure When Marnie Was There (1967) for the studio's final film in 2014. Being an admirer of Robinson’s book I was delighted by that choice, but having encountered few people who’d even heard of it in the UK was surprised by it, too.

Tanaka’s book unravelled that mystery for me, and told me a lot more besides about the importation of the British timeslip fantasy into Japan from the 1960s onwards. The charge was led by Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), a book that had a huge influence in the country. Tanaka traces both the way that it established a cultural niche for time slip fantasy in Japan, and how it was inevitably changed in the process of negotiating the culture, mental categories and of course the language of that country.

There were numerous problems. Despite being an ancient culture Japan has relatively few old buildings, and this is especially true of those in domestic use. Their habitual construction in temporary materials such as wood, along with the depredations of earthquakes and war, meant that they tended not to last as long as the stone and brick constructions of the West. The idea of slipping back through the centuries to the same old house, as so often happens in British time slips, was therefore less easy to put into practice. Besides, after the War the past was for many in Japan a painful place rather than one ripe for nostalgic exploration. The drive to modernise was at least as strong there as it was in the era of brutalist concrete architecture in the UK. Not only that, but the very different tense system of Japanese made some of the temporal transitions in the British originals hard to render effectively, while the language's tendency to shy away from congregations of abstract nouns made discussion of time theory relatively difficult to effect in a readable and elegant way.

I could go on: I find this kind of thing fascinating, personally. But for those of you who are bilingual (or even polyglottal), or who have been involved in the translation of children's books - your own or other people's - I'd be interested to hear your stories and perspectives on the difficulties that can arise when one tries to take a story out of one culture and implant it in another.


catdownunder said...

Fascinating. There's a marvellous book on the subject of "translation as negotiation" by Umberto Eco - "Mouse or Rat?". It is well worth a read and I imagine you and your student know it well.
My day job, writing communication boards for complex humanitarian emergencies, is often seen as "direct" translation by many people. A body, building or vehicle part should, they think, have the same meaning in all languages - but there are languages which say things quite differently from the way we do in English - and that's before you even start to consider the cultural differences!

Penny Dolan said...

What an excellent post, Cathy!

Sue Bursztynski said...

This is fascinating! And so true. I've always admired whoever translated the Asterix books into English - how do you go from a French pun to an English one? And I have no doubt that there are French in-jokes that just don't translate.

Some of my books have been translated, but I can't read Chinese or Korean, so I have no idea what the translators did. The real oddity are those "translated" for the U.S. market. It's not just the spelling. I remember meeting my American translator at a publisher party and being - well, patronised! And hearing her comment about the quaintness of metric measurement!

My book Your Cat Could Be A Spy was renamed This Book Is Bugged for the U.S. market, not sure why. It did mean a new cover. ;-)

Susan Price said...

Yes, working with translators is always fun. I've had to explain myself for Scandinavians - what is a 'house-wife'? And the Americans don't like me putting a man in a jumper, because a jumper is a dress. They don't like trainers on feet either.

Lynne Benton said...

What a fascinating post, Cathy. Plenty of food for thought...

Sue Bursztynski said...

Agreed, Susan, there are a lot of differences in word meanings. I've shared houses with Americans, one of whom was surprised when I laughed at her saying she was pissed. Another U.S. friend commented about the reactions a Brit gets when asking on the street for a fag. He also mentioned the American girl who introduced herself to a Brit: "Hi, I'm Randy!"