Lost in Translation?

Having my books translated has been a fascinating experience. Initially, I was simply excited that Meulenhoff liked The Thief’s Gamble enough to pay me for the right to pay someone else to turn it into Dutch. Then I began to wonder how much of the flavour of the book would be filtered out by this process? I need not have worried. The designated translator, Richard Heufkens rapidly proved his commonsense and initiative by getting in touch via email and asking if I could spare the time to answer a few queries. I was delighted to say yes.

Did I realise that some of my ‘invented’ names actually mean things in Dutch? This was news to me – but I have limited French, very basic German learnt at school and fragmentary Greek. This makes me something of a polyglot among the English but linguistically challenged compared to other Europeans. Anyway, a chap with half a line of dialogue had a name that meant ‘Bucket’. In playing about with the word ‘reed’ to name a town on a lake, I had come up with ‘Wrede’, the Dutch for Cruel One. The Forest word for ‘five’ turned out to mean ‘miser’. When friends call Usara the wizard ‘Sar’ by way of being friendly, they’re either giving him the name of the wife in a series of stock jokes in Holland or calling him ‘a tease’. Agreeing modifications to those words was straightforward enough and on the other hand, some direct translations offered unexpected benefits. Describing a flirtatious woman as having ‘periwinkle eyes’ gains an extra resonance in Dutch, since the blue flower in question is called ‘maagdenpalm’, ‘maagd’ being maiden or virgin.

But there was still the issue of humour. Richard was well aware of this, so our emails soon moved on to him asking me to explain jokes, in particular, word play. Where something simply wouldn’t work in Dutch we would recast it – and where a Dutch idiom made more sense than a literal translation, Richard would suggest it. For example, a Dutch person doesn’t stick his oar in; he drops his penny in the bag. In the same vein, when wemoved onto The Swordsman’s Oath, there’s a passage where Usara says Viltred moved to the arse-end of Caladhria. Richard couldn’t use a similar dirty word and make sense, but a few sentences later when Usara says Viltred won’t have anything to contribute, he could insert the lost obscenity by saying geen reet (no arse) instead of anything.

Fundamental differences between English and Dutch as languages gave us both headaches and unexpected bonuses. I thought nothing of making the merchant Yeniya a woman – unusual in a pseudo-mediaeval context but not unheard of and of course, words rarely imply gender in English. But the Dutch for merchant is ‘koopman’, a masculine noun and thus implies a man, which made the whole episode read very oddly. Rather than inventing an entirely new word ‘koopvrouw’ we added a few lines of dialogue between Livak and Darni, where she points out this individual being a woman is something else he hasn’t told her, adding extra emphasis to the friction between them. We certainly gained from the fact that Dutch has a clear difference in familiar and polite forms of address, which English lacks. Rather than relying on nicknames and casual language to try and convey the greater friendliness between the Archmage and Usara than between Planir and Kalion, Richard could simply swap between ‘je/jij’ and ‘u’ forms – far more effective.

Given I use quite a few unusual, dialect and archaic words in my writing, we found some of our discussions going into complicated etymology and philology. Not something to everyone’s taste but we enjoyed ourselves and where this had a bearing on the text, I’m certain it’s improved the overall quality of the translation. I’ve learned some fascinating things about Dutch life and language while Richard is doubtless Holland’s leading expert on the variant of the Aunt Sally game that’s played in Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

Richard was necessarily paying far closer attention to the text than anyone else had done so far – and as well as managing to flag up the few misprints that had escaped the copy-editing and proof-reading stages, he had some useful observations on ways I use (and occasionally misuse) language. I have noted all these with gratitude and everyone should see the benefits in what I write in the future! However, this close attention did lead him down some eccentric by-ways. Drains in the middle of Elietimm bathing rooms? Where did we see one before? Where did the potter Travor get the idea? Come to think of it, was it really a fox that made him go outside so fast that particular evening? Might he turn out to be an Elietimm spy? Elietimm breed like rabbits; well, Travor and Harna have a large family. Who else came from a large family? Geris – and we know from the charade in Inglis, Geris can act a convincing lie. When exactly had Geris died? If he had completed his works, why torture him? If he had succumbed to his wounds, why would the Elietimm dress him before throwing him in the dungeon? Could Geris’ corpse be just an illusion and he one of the bad guys, more cunning than any? I was quite sorry to have to deny any such fascinating conspiracy.

Once literary alchemy had turned The Thief’s Gamble into Livaks Waagstuk, we took a breather before embarking on The Swordsman’s Oath. Then we had to decide what to do about the wizard whose name is a popular brand of coffee filter in Holland and the scholar, who, if we followed the practise we’d agreed for transliterating names, would become Mr Tuna.

A blog post from 2001

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