Something old and something new – or why I’m not using Humbug

One of the problems in translating a piece of text is how to translate dialogue. Do I go for faux archaic dialogue, “Come hither, sir knight, ” because, hey, the text is really old, or do I go for ultramodern speech, because when they wrote, for them it it was today. “Wasup?”

The danger of either is that it dates the language for a second time. “Wasup?” will become dated soon (I so hope!) (The emphasis on so is very recent, so using it I just dated myself.)
So, it’s perhaps best to try for a happy medium, in the hope that it will date slowly. In fifty years someone else can do a new – “up to date” – translation.

The problem is really hard when it comes to swearing, because swearing dates faster than anything else, “Fie on thee villain!” “Gadzooks!” “Humbug!”

Another problem with translating swearing is that profanity that can sound unacceptable when directly translated from one language to another, often didn’t sound that bad to the native speakers. Try directly translating some Italian swear words and phrases to English. Phew! But to Italians they are ho hum. And the opposite is true: what other cultures think of as swearing, we might think unremarkable, or silly. “You cow head!” in the Anglo-Saxon-speaking world doesn’t sound too bad.

Then there are the difficulties of what’s missing from ancient texts. In our post-modern writing we like to see inside peoples’ heads, and occasionally have a peek at their direct thoughts (or not so occasionally, if the writer is James Joyce.) This view didn’t exist in ancient writing, at least when the writing was done the normal way. (I’m leaving their magical methods of writing to another time.) Instead there is direct speech, ‘Gilgamesh said’, direct action, ‘Gilgamesh walked’, no internal monologue, and not much description of people and even less of places (sadly for historians). In the Bible, we emphatically do not get to hear the direct thoughts of Jesus, or St Paul.
All in all, ancient texts are the opposite of a modern novel 🙂

This is hard going for a modern reader, and leaves the translator (me) with two alternatives; leave the text as it is, in which case the people seem quite lifeless to our twenty-first century eyes, or – in the nicest possible way – make it up. In the translations that this blog is about, I have taken the second option.

It’s a worry, of course. I’m worried about straying too far from the original, and I’m really worried about putting thoughts into their heads they could never have had, because their concepts were different to ours: for example I think they thought about time in a way that we don’t, and vice versa.

In the stories, you do get what they said, and it is what they did. As to what they were thinking and the details of where they were, I’m hoping you will give me the benefit of the doubt.

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