The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

June 04, 2005

Translation result

There is always more than one correct translation for any given text. Here is one version that is more or less correct:

"Wie unzertrennlich wir waren - du und ich und Carter". Es war offensichtlich, dass seine Erinnerungen sich von meinen unterschieden.
"Was ist mit Carter passiert?"
"Er ist zu Cable & Wireless gegangen und gestorben."
Ich sagte: "Wenn ich aus Malakka zurückkomme..." und ging nachdenklich hinaus.

The excerpt is from a short story called "The Revenge" by Graham Greene. A couple of people who sent in translations found that out. What they did not find out, or chose to ignore, is that the story is set in 1951, which is significant in that the dialogue contains a number of elements from informal speech that would be used differently, or not at all, today.

Most frequent mistakes:

  • "old Carter" - Carter isn't any older than the two speakers; "old" is merely a way of referring to a good friend. It is therefore not translated into German at all.
  • "Cables" - is a short, informal way of referring to the company Cable & Wireless, like today people might use "BT" instead of "British Telecom" (C&W still exists by the way, although they're more into Internet connections than telephones these days). The capital C should have given this away as a proper name and thus as the name of some company, but most people chose to ignore this. Even using "Cables" as in the original would be more correct than "er geriet in ein Starkstromkabel und starb".
  • "Malacca" - can be a peninsula or a city. As the context is missing it's not clear from the excerpt alone that the city is meant, so it's "aus Malakka" rather than "von Malakka", but in German still both are spelt with -kk-.
  • "thoughtfully" - no, it's not anything like "gedankenverloren" or "in Gedanken versunken". A plain "nachdenklich" is quite sufficient.

Read pp. 173 ff. of Dieter Zimmer's RedensArten to find out what happened when Die Zeit did a translation competition based on the short story. 620 people sent in translations; the results are anything between hilarious and frightening.

Posted by Horst on June 4, 2005 10:26 PM to books & bookkeeping | Tell-a-friend

Lucid said on June 5, 2005 12:59 AM:

I remember now why I always hated school: I hated teachers reading from the mistakes someone has made like it was something funny.
Actually, I think my translation *was* kind of funny, but only because I knew it was wrong and at least tried to be creative.
I didn't know you would try to amuse your readers with my bad translation, but I dare say that the full quote would have been more amusing.

The Cartoonist said on June 5, 2005 01:52 PM:

I'm not getting the prize then? I didn't win? Damn.

nora said on June 5, 2005 04:20 PM:

time to share the entries, horst. let us join in the fun.

ibert said on June 5, 2005 06:01 PM:

I didn't participate, but...

> Even using "Cables" as in the original would be more correct...

Why replace "Cables" at all? To explain it? Does "Cable&Wireles" really explain anything for a foreign reader? I assume "Er hat bei Cables angefangen und starb" is good enough if you don't want to explain it, but if you want to explain it, it should be "Er fing bei einer Telefongesellschaft an und starb".
"Er ist zu Cable & Wireless gegangen und gestorben." sounds a bit funny, too.

The Cartoonist said on June 6, 2005 02:06 AM:

Great. Horst, there's trouble ahead.

Horst said on June 6, 2005 02:28 PM:

Um... I seem to have underestimated the consequences of my actions. I will therefore determine the winner of the prize not on the basis of correctness, but instead by simply putting all the names of the participants into a hat and letting Haldur draw the winner.

nora said on June 6, 2005 03:45 PM:

pandora's box, eh?
geeze louise, everybody seems to be getting all competitive here. doesn't anybody see the fun in being multilingual? brother ...

laura said on June 7, 2005 06:27 AM:

Haldur doesn't have opposable thumbs, so he cannot draw the winner.

dieter said on June 7, 2005 01:22 PM:

I was pondering on a translation myself. However, I already started wrong, misreading the first sentence for 'What inseparables me...' which made me end up with inseparable in a verbial sense. I was creative enough to turn it into something almost meaningful, but then came the problem of 'Cables'. I was also lead to believe that poor Carter was electrocuted, but then, Cables would not be in capitals. So, it might have been a geographical place, but that would not go with the 'into'. Curiously, I did not even remotely think of a job.
To summarize, I am glad I did not send anything in.
@ Laura: Thou who art little in faith! Haldur has opposable paws and he has a muzzle. (sorry if this bible quote is riddled with spelling mistakes. Unfortunatly I only pretend to be bi- tri- or at times even quadrilingual.

dieter said on June 7, 2005 01:25 PM:

@ Horst: Wasn't it common to say "der gute alte Carter" back in the German speaking fifties too? Or is that only an effect of bad translators already back then?

Klaus said on June 7, 2005 02:32 PM:

ibert: "Er fing bei ... an und starb" is definitely the wrong tense in this context; "Er hat bei ... angefangen und starb" is even worse.

Anyway, it also seems to me that "der (gute) alte Carter" isn't necessarily wrong. After all, calling someone "Alter" doesn't mean it's an old person.

Horst said on June 7, 2005 05:14 PM:

If you look closely at some of the Haldur photos on this weblog, you'll notice that he is very un-moose-like in that he has no hooves, but indeed _does_ have opposable thumbs.

In fact, Haldur has already drawn no fewer than _three_ winners (he found the prize draw thing so funny that he simply kept drawing), but I can't announce the winners yet because I seem to have misplaced the prizes. You will be notified as soon as I have found them again.

Horst said on June 7, 2005 05:33 PM:

In terms of what's possible in this translation and what's not possible: it is vital that you differentiate between translations and interpretations, and you should avoid the latter at all costs. For example: "er hat bei Cables angefangen" is an interpretation because it says nothing about "anfangen" in the original.

The difference between "Cables" and "Cable & Wireless" for a foreign reader is that s/he can look up the latter in an encyclopedia, but not the former.

Finally, "der gute alte Carter" implies a different level of personal relationship, emotional closeness and age difference than "old Carter".

ibert said on June 7, 2005 09:33 PM:

I'm asking the following questions because I'm curious, no harm or stubborness intended, honestly:

1: Is there any case imaginable, in which "bei der Firma C&W anfangen" doesn't mean exactly the same as "zu der Firma C&W gehen"? I couldn't come up with any, that's why I decided to take it (instead of "zu C&W wechseln", e.g.)

2: It's easy to see that in German "zu C&W gehen" has more than one meaning, even if you know that C&W is a company and nothing else. My English isn't good enough to decide whether the original text also could be understood in different ways.
"Er ist zu C&W gegangen und gestorben" can be a grotesque sentence, which becomes even clearer if you replace C&W with another company name. It's hard to imagine someone who says "Er ist zur Telekom gegangen und gestorben" or "Er ist zu Aldi gegangen und gestorben". It's hard to imagine a situation in which this wouldn't sound grotesque.
So my question is: is it the same with the original text? Does the original text create the same feeling, that the person's death is sth minor? I can't decide it for myself...

Horst said on June 7, 2005 11:35 PM:

1. Yes, there is. Like entering a C&W office in order to send somebody a telegram.

2. Yes. The original is a bit like the Aldi sentence.

nora said on June 7, 2005 11:36 PM:

has the piece actually ever been published in german? is the translation you offer a published one or the one you think is hitting the nail on the head? i like it, it gives me roughly the same pictures in my head as the original quote. isn't that what a literary translation should achieve? get the mood right? shouldn't the translator immerse into the original, know what Cables with a capital c is?

as for old carter dying at some point in time after commencing employment at Cables, it is as 'grotesque' in both languages. being viennese and therefore used to morbidness, the phrase didn't strike me as particularly odd.

@morbidness: i initially wanted to use 'morbidity', but that would have been a translatorial mistake.

Lucid said on June 7, 2005 11:54 PM:

I have learned: Like the cleaners at the Vienna General Hospital, understanding two languages doesn't mean you are a translator.
Translation is an art.

ibert said on June 8, 2005 01:10 AM:

> Translation is an art.

That's just what my machine translator said, before he went into cables and died.

Comments have been closed for this entry.

© Copyright 2002-2008 Horst Prillinger, 

Most of the stuff on this page is fiction. Everything else is my private opinion. Please read the disclaimer.

Valid XHTML 1.0! Powered by Movable Type Made with a Mac