Saturday, 13 September 2014

Translating incidental rhyme, part 1

One of the things that interests me in translation is how the material features of the text like sound, prosody etc. can be a challenge for the translator (see e.g. here (paywalled) and here and here).  It's the start of the new academic year, and I was hunting around for good examples of rhyming texts for lecture examples and class exercises.

Obviously poetry is the obvious place where you find rhyme, but then the problem of translating the sound and rhythm gets tangled up in all the other problems of poetry translation, and that's a different kettle of fish. I was looking for rhyme that wasn't part of a complex poetic whole, and could be discussed as a (relatively) free-standing textual issue. So, method:
1) Come across random instance of rhyme occurring in non-poetic context.
2) Check for existing translations.
3) Track down copy of translation to see what they did with the rhyme.  
4) Develop (hopefully) engaging classroom exercise based on the students translating short text excerpts and then comparing their version with the published version.
The first text I thought I might use is a French graphic novel:

The first episodes of Transperceneige came out in 1982, written by Jacques Lob and drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette. The graphic novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a new ice age has descended and all of humanity has frozen to death, except the inhabitants of a train fuelled by a perpetual motion engine. The book was filmed by Bong Joon-Ho last year as Snowpiercer. Though the film is 'inspired by' rather than 'an adaptation of', its appearance has led to a flurry of translations, including translations in English and in Italian.

One of the features of the French graphic novel is a series of 'establishing shot'-type panels (I'm sure there's a more technical term for them) giving exterior views of the train against the snowy landscape. There are ten of these panels, one for each of the original episodes (I think, since the story was originally published in instalments):

The text in each case is presented as a rhymed couplet or quatrain. In the single-volume graphic novel, these panels have a strong rhetorical effect, punctuating the narrative, offering moments of reprieve from the story of the main characters and providing an external, ironic narrative perspective. I wondered how this would be rendered in English translation.

So I trundled down to my trusty branch of Forbidden Planet in Bristol and bought the first volume in English translation by Virginie Sélavy, to find that the rhymed bits from the French graphic novel don't rhyme in English. For instance, one recurring couplet is:
C'est le transperceneige aux mille et un wagons.
Cest le dernier bastion d'la civilisation. 
This is repeated four times, juxtaposed with images of the violence and exploitation of life aboard the Snowpiercer. The couplet is identical in each case except for the punctuation.

In the unrhymed translation by Sélavy, instead of repeating the same text several times, we find slight variations.
This is the Snowpiercer, one thousand and one carriages long.
This is the last bastion of civilisation...

This is the Snowpiercer, one thousand and one carriages long,
Carrying the last of civilisation through the endless wastes...

This is the Snowpiercer, train of a thousand and one carriages.
The last bastion of civilisation.

This is Snowpiercer, one thousand and one carriages long...
This is the last bastion of civilisation.
The same happens with the initial introduction to the train (see the first panel above). This text reappears in the final panel of the graphic novel; the only difference is that in the opening panel it has a full stop, and in the final panel it has suspension dots.

In the English translation, more small variations appear. The first panel is rendered as follows: 

The final panel is rendered:
Across the blank immensity of
an eternal winter, from one end
of the planet to the other, there
travels a train that never stops...
These aren't huge differences. 'Blank' replaces 'white' and the adjective 'frozen' disappears. There's a slight difference in the layout of the text. I wonder, why the variation? I guess the rhyme just felt hokey in English, but perhaps there's also something about the repetition which doesn't travel over in English? Perhaps, without the rhyme, the repetition seemed a bit flat? Interestingly, what appeared at first to be a trivial use of rhyme, not linked to other elements of the text and therefore easily dispensable, turns out to exist in a more delicately balanced textual ecology.

More on the translation of incidental rhyme (in detective fiction) in part 2.

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