The Babble-Fish Dilemma

I’m learning a new-to-me language—Czech. The good thing is that the writing is Latin and the unusual characters are pretty logical, especially if I keep in mind the German influence. The grammar basics are sort of making sense, in that I can pick up the pattern even though I don’t quite understand the “why.” However, it makes me think of what I call the “Babble-Fish Problem.” What do you translate and what do you elide?

The babble fish was a wonderful, near miraculous discovery in the universe of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When places in your ear, you instantly understood everything said in every other language. According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, this caused more wars than any other cause in galactic history. Douglas Adams must have worked with a professional interpreter.

I learned the problem, albeit not formulated that way, from a professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University, where I took a class on translating across cultures. The class was to help us learn to look for cultural problems that might affect how we translated or interpreted certain things. His example is that he was interpreting for the Foreign Ministry, at a state dinner with the King of Spain. The prof went to his senior interpreter and asked how to translate “Guten appetit,” which is commonly said to people at the beginning of a meal. It can be either formal or informal depending on the context, which is why he needed to know the proper Spanish phrase. His associate said, “Oh, use ‘Buen’ provecho,’ because it means the same thing.” My prof knew that “Buen provecho” is colloquial, and would cause great offense if he translated the Chancellor’s statement to the King with that phrase. He thanked his associate and then tracked down a Spanish interpreter and got the correct answer from him. (No, I don’t recall what the formal phrasing was.)

Czech, like German and Spanish, has formal and informal forms. Happily for me, the language course I’m leaning on is purely formal. It is for business travelers more than for tourists, and formal is better.  As it happens, the part of the Czech Republic where I’ll be spending most of my time inclines toward formality and distance (rural, small towns), so I will be safest if I don’t try to be colloquial. Since I’ll have a very definite accent and mispronunciations, no one will be surprised that I’m not up to speed on dialect and have a limited vocabulary. Slow and formal—therein lies safety.

Where the trick comes is museum and document translation. How literal do I need to be? Because Czech’s word order is far more fluid than German or English, and some of their literal terms ring very oddly to an English-speaker’s ear. There are a few German technical terms like that, and in those cases I tend to give a literal, then “general sense” meaning. I’m not that comfortable in Czech. I’m crossing my fingers that some places will have brief English or German guides, but I’ve also been warned that German is not a popular language in the Czech Republic. [Chorus of Sarcasm: Gee, I wonder why?]

There’s a time and place for literal translation. There’s a time and place for “sense” translation, and even one for very free translation. Knowing the difference? That’s why true professionals get paid $$$ per hour and I don’t. (No kidding. Some of the highest per-hour wages go to simultaneous interpreters, the people who interpret in real time as someone else is speaking. I’m a translator, not interpreter, and simul-interp gives me screaming-banshee headaches when I have to do it.)


30 thoughts on “The Babble-Fish Dilemma

  1. Best phrase I learned in reading science fiction was “Traduttore tradditore”, or how it’s translated into English, “The translator is a traitor”.

      • Trunk Monkey to Trunk Lemur is devolution in many ways. But, would rather have Tay or Smiley pop out?

        • Oh, while we’re thinking of surprises, Rosie would be interesting, especially if the reaction were rather abrupt by Rosie’s standards.

  2. Good luck with the language lessons, and I hope you enjoy the trip.
    Slavic languages tip – the key to escaping from a grammatical cul-de-sac is “that, which/what/that”. The “which/what/that” resets back to nominative. Russian example: “до того, что …”

  3. Thank you for you diligence and skill in your language skills, it make your blogs and stories more interesting and more authentic. Two years of Spanish in High School, and not having to use it on a daily basis, means that the best I can usually do is order dinner in a Mexican restaurant. Although on one memorable occasion I had flippantly replied to a phrase in my best High School Spanish and I was asked if I had spent time in Cuba. I replied no, but my H.S teacher WAS from Cuba. So apparently, I had picked up enough Cuban influence to be identified even on top of my horrific Ameicano accent.

  4. “There’s a time and place for literal translation”

    My reading of translated texts is almost entirely limited to ancient Greek and Roman historians and I really appreciate it when the translator actually gives a transliteration of technical terms – particularly regarding weapons and armour – rather than picking on an English word which never quite means the same. A simply glossary can be included to help the uninitiated, When I owned a lot of the Loeb titles I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time poring over the parallel text trying to find out what had actually been translated as shield, spear, pike or sabre, etc (not the easiest thing for someone who has never quite managed to remember the whole Greek alphabet).

    I recall one translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars which kept talking about Roman battalions because the translator presumably thought the reader would not be able to face references to cohorts. It just made the whole thing sound unreal to me, more like a battle account from the 7 years War.

    And Babble-Fish are a wonderful idea but I never understood how they coped when there wasn’t an English equivalent (and can’t now remember if Douglas Adams ever explained).

    • The Big 5 publisher guy who translated some Russian D&D style fantasy books was very put out when we all wanted “guisarme” translated as “guisarme” and not something generic. But then, he also translated “Desert Eagle” as “handgun,” and cut the whole weapons discussion, in an urban fantasy book. (Twit. Highly skilled twit, but not down with his readership.)

  5. Thinking back, the least flowery way to phrase that in Castilian is probably something like “Se pueda gusto major”, may you have great enjoyment. At this level it’s a two minute phrase, because of the social ranks involved. It will use the lithp.

    I pull out dictionary and thesaurus for sticking points like described above, and try to assess meaning based on the 3-4 closest analogs. However, translating idiom requires some insider or historical knowledge of why it’s phrased that way because of what can be obscure connotations. Consider the multiple translations possible for those of us on the wrong side of the line of the simple phrase, “Well, bless your little heart.”

  6. And I honor you for what you are doing… Me? I can get by in a few languages, mainly where is the beer, and the bathroom… LOL

    • Czechs joke that Americans never get more than four beers, because at that point the noun ending changes and they get lost. (2-4 use one ending, 1, then 5 and up use a different ending, depending on the gender of the noun.)

      • My brother claimed you only need “ein bier, bitte”. So I guess you only need one beer at a time.

        What is it? Pivo? Or do you just order a Budweiser?

        • Pivo, or you ask for the local brew. And the pilsner from Czesky Budwar (AKA Budweis) is rather different from the stuff that the horses bring to football games.

            • As long as the US company didn’t try to sell in Europe, all was well. But no, they had to try to inflict US mass-brand beer on Central Europe…

          • “The stuff the horses bring to football games.” Would that be in the barrels or their bladders?

            • I cringed seeing American Budweiser on a drinks menu in Scotland. I asked, to be sure. With Belhaven’s Best and other real ales, and real lagers, WHY?

              The local horses and cattle would hurt you, should you try pouring it into them.

      • Sir Pterry subtly spoofed this grammatical phenomenon with the Troll “One, few, many”.
        Oh, how we sweated learning this by rote, until the teachers finally explained it to us. “One thing, a few of thing, many of things.”

      • And Japanese, with different number-words for differently-shaped things. Amaterasu forbid you should call a group of round flat things with the number for short fat things…….

  7. “I’m learning a new-to-me language—Czech.”

    You say that so casually…

    Language-wise, I’m your basic provincial American: I don’t speak or read anything but English. Actually I’m even worse than that: I don’t speak or read anything but ‘Murrican-English. I think all my language-learning skills have been directed toward computer languages for most of my life. Well, that and the various jargons associated with the life sciences.

    “Where the trick comes is museum and document translation. How literal do I need to be?”

    How literal _can_ you be? I have found that there are times when it’s simply impossible to get an accurate translation from one language to another — like trying to explain evolutionary theory in plain English. I’ve heard that the same applies to translating between languages in different language-families, such as English to Dineh or Hebrew to almost anything else.

  8. Nabokov like to quote the Italian phrase, “traduttore, traditore” (‘the translator is a traitor’). He tried to translate the Russian “Eugene Onegin” into English. Russian was his 2nd language (though he was pretty goo at at it……). He did a perfectly literal, word-for-word translation, and most critics agreed that it was awful.
    Dorothy Sayers did a fine translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
    For poetry – forget it. Poetry depends on the subtleties and imageries, of the language it’s written in.

    PS: “Babelfish” has been renamed “Google translate”.

    “Where the trick comes is museum and document translation. ” That’s why they put cameras in phones. some say they still make cameras that do nothing but take pictures…

  9. ” but I’ve also been warned that German is not a popular language in the Czech Republic. [Chorus of Sarcasm: Gee, I wonder why?]”

    When I was stationed in Germany, I found pretty much all their neighbors felt this way. 🙂

    Being a single guy stationed right on the border with the Netherlands I spent a fair amount of time in Dutch restaurants and pubs ogling the…er, expanding my cultural knowledge by chatting with the waitresses. They told me that although they understood German perfectly well, having learned English and German starting in elementary school, they refused to speak German to customers. If a customer spoke to them in German, they replied in English.

    I took one young lady to dinner one evening and the conversation took an interesting turn. Strikingly attractive, mostly wanted to talk about popular stuff, clothes, TV programs, music. Even her friends told me she was a bit of an airhead. But strikingly attractive. Anyway, among all the chit chat somehow the topic of the drawdown of US forces in Europe came up (this was not long after the East Bloc threw in the towel). She suddenly got very serious, leaned forward and very solemnly said “You Americans must not leave.” When I asked her why, she said “You are the only ones that can control the Germans.” I suggested to her that maybe the Netherlands and its neighbors should beef up their militaries instead. “No, we’ve tried that, twice. It didn’t work. You guys are the only ones that can control them.”

    These were young adults, born 25, 30 years after WWII, but they did not trust the Germans at all.

    • My dad fought in the Netherlands during WWII. He said that natives did not appreciate being called “Dutch” they rather vociferously insisted that they were Hollanders. Dutch was too much like Deutsch (spit, spit). And yes the Hollanders have long memories. There is an active WWII re-enactment group, in the area dads uint fought, that has adopted his old infantry division as their unit to portray.

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