Monday, January 31, 2011

Interlocutor: Donkey's Piss

The best translation work I have seen was Neil Gaiman's adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke.

Granted, it was not a translation, but more of an adaptation of Studio Ghibli's work.

What struck me was Gaiman's approach to the whole thing. He didn't even know Japanese! WHat he did was to understand the whole thing inside out.

In order for you to translate, you cannot simply go about with a word-for-word replacement. This is why Google Translator - or any other automated construct - will never achieve the level of idea transfer and decoding that a great human translator can do.

If, say for example, you want to translate a Sherlock Holmes short story from English to Bahasa Malaysia. You need to know and realise the time period, sensibilities and language trends of the time when the piece was written. Why certain things were worded in such a way by the author.

You need to know the work, find out what it wanted to achieve, the state of mind of the author of the work, etc. Was (Sherlock Holmes creator) Arthur Conan Doyle a Protestant, a Catholic? When did he live? For whom was he writing? Which audience was his?

So, something like, "Lord Ridgemont brought the little negro from America as a riding instructor, and it was a most scandalous affair," would read differently then as it would now.

If that was written in the Daily Mail today, I would expect some sort of illicit sexual affair. A scandal!

However, scandals used to mean many things instead of just sex, back in the day. Also, the word 'negro' is no longer accepted in respectable publications, and sometimes even in disrespectable ones.

It could certainly offend a lot of Blacks in America.

As a translator, you need to choose how to preserve the message.

I would translate that sentence as such: "Lord Ridgemont membawa pulang seorang budak kulit hitam dari Amerika, dan diberikan tugas sebagai pelatih menunggang kuda*. Tindakannya itu menjadi buah mulut orang."

See, you also need to know the current trneds and mentality of the language it is being translated to.

Gaiman wrote that he found a rather peculiar remark by one of the characters in Princess Mononoke.

"This soup tastes like water," the character's dialogue went.

Gaiman asked what does that mean, and was told that it was an insult.

"How insulting was this?" he asked.

"Very insulting."

However, that line, read to a Western audience, would not convey the same message, the same level of degradation.

So what Gaiman did was this: he rewrote it.

"This soup tastes like donkey piss," the Western voice actor said.

Simple, effective, and demonstrates as well as encapsulates the very essence of Gaiman's translation work and shows why he is indeed one of the Greats, and why he was given the job.

* EDIT: My translation was inaccurate.