Translation Problems

In my continuing effort to learn at least one other language, I've begun watching Lois & Clark with the French subtitles on. I can read French at a third grade level (I never really hope to speak it), and my vocabulary needs some serious expansion.

While watching Lois & Clark with French subtitles, I encountered an interesting translation problem. At the end of an episode in Season 1, Lois and Clark have an argument. Basically, Clark is trying to persuade Lois that they can work well together as a reporting team. Lois is holding out. Exasperated, she says, "It will never happen. How long can you hold your breath?"

The French translators translated this as "How long can you be patient?" Okay. The phrase "how long can you hold your breath" is a colloquialism that means, well, how long can you be patient (or, how long can you endure).

The problem is, the translation misses the joke because Clark (aka Superman) mutters, as Lois stomps off, "A very, very long time."

This is funny and touching (Clark's unending goodwill and unflappability is one of the best parts of the show), and the French translation completely misses it. (Actually, to be precise, in French, Lois says, "I hope you are a patient man," and Clark mutters, "Very, very patient," so the romantic implication remains, but the Superman joke never makes it.)

And I wondered, is there any French colloquialism that would mean the same thing--both from Lois's and from Clark's perspective? Or are translators doomed to simply miss some jokes when they move from one language to the next? Or must they always compromise--pick one part of the meaning (the romance) but give up the other (the joke).

It also makes you wonder, What exactly are you reading when you read a translation?

1 comment:

Eugene said...

I believe that human nature is universal enough that in most cases the substance of the metaphor can be translated along with the text. Getting hung up on "close literalism" is a great obstacle. If a metaphor is unique but still understandable, I'll keep it. Otherwise, my approach is, "How would I phrase this if I wrote it?" I don't mind loosey-goosey translations if they preserve the intent.

The translator faces the same creative and literary challenges as the creator of the original work. Except that the distributor will want to turn around the product cheaply and expeditiously at the "good enough" level. Not many producers have the deep pockets to do what Disney (thanks to John Lasseter) did with Princess Mononoke and hire Neil Gaiman to do the final script rewrite.

And with dubs and subtitles, there's the whole matter of space and time constraints. Sometimes anime DVDs do add liner notes to further explain cultural contexts.