Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Harry Potter and the Cucumbers of Doom

... or are they pickled gherkins? An acquaintance alerted me to the following link yesterday:
(Don't bother if you can't read German.)
I don't know where exactly she came across it but she mentioned that this project had undertaken to translate the latest HP in something like 48 hours, a task that normally takes at least 3 months. (Yes, I can virtually hear the heaving and spluttering by anyone remotely associated with professional translation...)
Of course, I had to follow it up immediately. And lo and behold, it seems to be quite a laudable undertaking. Yes, it endeavours to translate every HP before the official translation is published, and no, I could not find any hint as to appropriate qualifications, and deplorably, no University appears to be affiliated -- BUT it seems to encourage readers of Harry, learners of English, thousands of them keen enough to buy the book in English, to try their luck at the art of translation.
It’s a true community thing, with a muck-in feel to it. Upon registration, one is allocated 5 pages to translate within a week. Each text thus supplied will go through three different clearing points and if accepted as a useful version it moves up a level to ‘editors’ who select the best passages and expressions from a number of versions. A final editor pulls it all together to produce a complete version of HP in German, before the official translation comes out (for HP 6, this will be Oct, 1st).
From what I can tell, members are mainly amateurs whose only reward is the downloading of the finished text – provided their entry had been accomplished enough. (Oh yes, no pain, no gain!)

But what’s it got to do with cucumbers and gherkins, I hear you ask... Hang on ... all will be revealed in due course!

The on-line friend who drew my attention to this link, justifiably asked how consistency of style could possibly be maintained with such a technique and presumed that the resulting text would necessarily have to sacrifice the literary experience to not much more than plotline.

Now, I haven’t seen any complete chapters of Harry-auf-Deutsch (HaD), but surfing their forums, where members have access to a comprehensive glossary of JK Rowling’s terminology and characters, including all the recent ones, and the opportunity to discuss any translation problem, however tricky or intricate, with a huge host of Harry fans, I can certainly report that nobody - whether it’d be a modern, techno-savvy translator with a Masters degree in translation studies, or your old-fashioned fellow poet in the mould of the Schlegel brothers, or Thomas Carlyle, or for more recent examples (and less accessible languages) Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney – nobody could take the task more seriously.
I discovered a 12 page long, most intense, fervent and passionate discussion on the finer points of translating the chapter title ‘The Unbreakable Vow’, including every aspect and level, be they syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, stylistic, or contextual, making full use of the width, depth and speed of the medium, the last entry recorded yesterday at 3:37 am. (To imagine such a platform for disseminating their doubts over comprehension, interpretation and the sheer exasperation of successfully translating a pun - let alone anything as technically challenging as a transposition from iambic pentameters to alexandrines - into the ether would have been totally exalted utopian daydreaming to even the most lethally intoxicated of the Romantics...).

I wonder whether Klaus Fritz[1] at Carlsen Verlag (i.e. the German publishers of HP) ever possibly has the chance to subject just one expression, just one chapter heading to so much thought and such scrutiny from so many sides and angles!
As an extremely frustrated and disillusioned language teacher in this country, I have to admit to ending up quite choked, and very much close to tears, so touched was I at the display of something so incredibly educational, which no programme, however well meant and didactically thought through, could ever have achieved if it had come via the ‘appropriate’, the ‘official’, the ‘proper’ channels.

And what about CUCUMBERS?! What about GHERKINS?!

Some of you really never lose focus, do you? (Unlike me, who was born with myopia, which means I can’t focus at all. -- Which explains a lot...)

Harry Potter and the Cucumbers of Doom

HaD (Harry-auf-Deutsch) have two areas dedicated to LEMONS – only they call them ‘Gurken’ ..., which are, depending on your preference, either cucumbers, or gherkins – which adds a whole new dimension to the popular song, ‘I say tomatoes, and you say tomatoes.... -- lemons, cucumbers and gherkins being such wholly different items of food...

But – back in the realm of semantics – what we’re really talking about are mistakes, blunders. Bad translations. Ranging from the duff to the downright ludicrous. HaD list both, Fritz-Gurken and HaD-Gurken.

I am not going to explain, or even just comment on the level of lack of cultural transfer, I’m just going to list some of the gherkins (I opt for that version basically because it’s the sillier term of the two!) for your own perusal as to why they pose a translation problem:

- to blow a raspberry
- yours truly
- coming up to scratch
- large, square houses, with large, square owners
- he ought to have asked her out
- for good
- learn by heart
- rest home (NB: even in the last instance, not translated correctly!)
- as he scrambled to his hands and knees
- Hermione was going spare
- he had taken to...
- gave someone quite a turn...

Tomorrow: My parcel has arrived! Family food tasting coming up!

[1] Dr. Klaus Fritz, *1946, studied sociology, philosophy and politics (note: neither English nor German literature and/or linguistics!). Before mysteriously landing the job of translating hitherto unknown author JK Rowling, he had translated mainly non-fiction.