Saturday, 9 October 2010

10:10:10: Translating by Numbers

In honour of the date that's in it, I have been thinking about the translation of numbers. We tend to think of numbers as invariant in a way which words aren't. In About Translation, Peter Newmark omits numbers from the set of phenomena which are culturally contingent, observing that 'figures, standard units, parts of the body, general features of nature, are universal', although 'many ecological features, as well as objects of common use, are culturally modified' (1991, p.115). Newmark is not alone; it even happens that agencies or clients ask for numbers to be deducted from the word count of a text on the basis that they don't need translation and therefore shouldn't be paid for. But are numbers really as easily transferable as all that? (Yes, that would be a rhetorical question).

Scales are certainly culturally bound, whether temperature (Fahrenheit, Centigrade/Celsius, Kelvin); weights (imperial and metric, tons and tonnes, ounces and grammes), measures (miles, kilometres, metres, furlongs, poles, perches, fathoms, yards, feet, inches, hands), areas (hectares, acres), currencies (guineas, pounds, shillings, groats, pence), volumes (pints, litres, gills, fluid ounces, gallons, quarts). Does one translate the numbers exactly or round them up or down? Well, it depends on what the number is doing. Here in Bon cop, bad cop a Québécois lab technician translates from metric, with due irony, for his colleague from Ontario, played by Colm Feore (click on the image to enlarge):

Some numbers have different cultural weight – compare 'sweet sixteen' and 'quinceañera'. Someone who is 'dressed up to the nines' in English could be 'tiré à quatre épingles' in French, or even 'sur son trente-et-un'. 'Otto giorni' and 'quindici giorni' in Italian are conventionally translated in English by 'a week' and 'a fortnight'. Even within a language, numbers may need translating – the first floor of a building in the UK is the second storey in the US. Some quarts are more equal than others. Sometimes it depends what end you count from: somebody who is in their twentieth year is in fact nineteen. An easy slip to make working from Italian to English is with centuries: the 'ottocento' [short for milleottocento] is the nineteenth century, not the eighteenth.

Numbers are formatted in different ways. The point which separates whole integers from fractions of an integer in English is a comma in languages such as Italian or Russian. The comma which separates thousands from hundreds in English is a point in Italian. Telephone numbers may be formatted in groups of two, three or more letters. Telephone numbers may need localising for a new environment, e.g. by adding or removing international dialling codes. For more on the translation of telephone numbers see this very good post on translationmusings.

Numbers may have a different rhetorical force: something that is 'tuppenny-ha'penny' or 'ten a penny' or 'two-bit' in English might be 'da quattro soldi' in Italian. The sound of the number may even be important. The fourth stanza of Rimbaud's poem 'Le bateau ivre' [The Drunken Boat] reads:
La tempête a béni mes éveils maritimes.
Plus léger qu'un bouchon j'ai dansé sur les flots
Qu'on appelle rouleurs éternels de victimes,
Dix nuits, sans regretter l'oeil niais des falots !
In Oliver Bernard's 1962 translation the verse reads:
The storm made bliss of my sea-borne awakenings.
Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves
Which men call eternal rollers of victims,
For ten nights, without once missing the foolish eye of the harbor lights!
Samuel Beckett's translation of the verse, completed in Paris in 1932, reads:
I started awake to tempestuous hallowings.
Nine nights I danced like a cork on the billows, I danced
On the breakers, sacrificial, for ever and ever,
And the crass eye of the lanterns was expunged.
The poem has been translated many times and we could allow ourselves to be distracted by many different renderings, but let's just look at the 'dix nuits' in the fourth line. Bernard translates 'ten nights', as would most people. But sound is important in this poem (listen here for an audio recording of the French poem). For Beckett the assonance of 'dix nuits' can best be rendered by the serendipity of 'nine nights' – a decision in which he is followed by another Irishman, Derek Mahon, whose translation of the poem was published in 1991. 'Nine nights' gets two for the price of one: not only an assonance but also an alliteration. 'Ten nights' has neither. For more on Beckett's soundplay in this translation see Kathleen Shields' analysis here (warning for large file size).  Ironically, the fee Beckett received for the translation was also subject to a certain artistic licence; although he asked Edward Titus for a thousand (old) francs, the final fee was only seven hundred (Collected Poems, p.177). Plus ça change.

In Dezső Kosztolányi's 1933 vignette 'The Kleptomaniac Translator' an indigent kleptomaniac writer gets one last chance in the form of a commission to translate the pulp novel The Mysterious Castle of Count Vitsislav. Unfortunately, his kleptomania affects even unto his translation. The narrator is abruptly summoned by the outraged publisher. After a sleepless night poring over the manuscript and comparing it to the English original, he thinks he finally understands what happened. (Please note that I'm translating here from the French translation by Péter Adám and Maurice Regnault. Hungarian scholars kindly skip this bit):
The first line of the English original went like this: The old castle, which had survived so many storms, shone from all its thirty-six windows. The ballroom up on the first floor blazed with light from four crystal chandeliers… The Hungarian translation said: 'The old castle, which had survived so many storms, shone from all its twelve windows. The ballroom up on the first floor blazed with light from its two crystal chandeliers…' My eyes widened and I went on reading. On page three, the English novelist had written: 'Count Vitsislav smiled ironically, took out a fat wallet and threw them the requested amount, one thousand five hundred pounds sterling…' The Hungarian writer had translated as follows: 'Count Vitsislav took out his wallet and threw them the requested amount, one hundred and fifty pounds sterling…' I felt a touch of dread which, alas, over the next few minutes became a sad certainty. […] In the end I established that in his madness our comrade had, in the course of his translation, expropriated at the expense of the English original, wrongfully and without authorisation: 1,579,251 pounds sterling, 177 gold rings, 947 pearl necklaces, 181 fob watches, 309 pairs of earrings, 435 suitcases, not to mention houses, woodland and pastureland, ducal and baronial castles and other flotsam and jetsam, handkerchiefs, toothpicks and folderols which would be too long, and perhaps unproductive, to enumerate.
Kosztolányi's is a witty parable about the association between translation and loss. As the kleptomaniac translator proceeds through the text, "[m]ost of the time, unbeknownst to anyone, objects of value simply disappeared." Ironically, some of those objects of value seem to be an attempt to lend the pulp mystery story, described as "something fit only for the bin" a degree of distinction, but "[o]f the carpets, the chests and the silver destined to raise the literary tone of the English original, there was no trace in the Hungarian text. […] The worst thing, for me, that which confirmed his bad faith and cravenness, was the way in which he so often replaced precious stones and metals with base materials, rubbish, platinum with tinplate, gold with copper, diamonds with imitations or glass."

We know that if you want a good translation, you have to pay your translator properly. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. The right translator will take care of both the pennies and the pounds in a text. 

One last question. If the population of Pottsville County is 1280, as Jim Thompson's 1964 novel sustains,

what happened to the other five in Marcel Duhamel's 1966 French translation?
(Thanks to Sam in Paris for this one). Answers on a postcard please.

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