Avoiding Translationese (English from Swedish)

by johannespunkt

Below is a paragraph in Swedish. This post is about translating it. Do tell me if I’m talking out of my arse.

Jag har en teori, en hypotes, en intuition. Det finns ett koncept som människorna kallar ‘Skuld’. Det är någonting som skapas mellan människor var gång en social interaktion utspelas. Många interaktioner är till endast för att skapa skuld för andra, så att Skuldskaparen kan hamna högre upp i den sociala ordningen. Är man ‘i Skuld’ till någon måste man göra denne tjänster tills Skulden är utbetalad, vilken kan ta livstider om inte mer. Kirurgen skapar Skuld när den räddar värdkroppens liv, men om den inte följer protokollet som lagts ut av Immunförsvaret så läggs all Skuld på kirurgen istället. Det vi gör nu är att vi får den att bryta protokollet vare sig den vill eller inte.

I just wrote the above in a story I’m working on. I’ve known that bit will be difficult to translate for a while, so I’m at least slightly prepared. (I write the story first in Swedish and then translate it to English because I’m difficult.)

Machine-assisted translation gives me:

I have a theory, a hypothesis, a hunch. Humans have a concept they call ‘Debt’. It is something that is created between people every time a social interaction takes place. Many interactions exist only to create Debt, so the Debt creator ends up higher in the social order. If a human is ‘in Debt’, they have to pay the Debt off, which could take lifetimes if not more. This surgeon will create Debt when they save the host body’s life, but if they do not follow the protocol laid out by the Immune System, any Debt created is on the surgeon instead. The thing we are doing right now is getting them to break the protocol, whether they want to or not.

I’ve adjusted it a lot, but I still love Google Translate and would like to have its babies or so. However, there is a problem.

The problem with this paragraph is that it is in translationese – you can tell that something’s not quite translated here. Something’s hidden under the words, some meaninglet not let through. It is perfectly grammatical, but there is something wrong with the word ‘Debt’ here.

That is the difficult element here – the word ‘skuld’ means both ‘guilt’ and ‘debt’, among other things. In the paragraph, the word means both (because I’m difficult) and the narrator is alien because ze does not recognize that it could mean more than one thing. What I need to solve  is how to translate this paragraph without losing anything of meaning, feel, or flow. Currently the meaning is lost, but feel and flow are fine.

If I write it like ‘Debt/Guilt’ the flow goes away, or changes at least.

If I take the time to put in the translation notes (these, but perhaps abridged) the text will lose the feel of being part of the story, and turn into a text about translation. If I’m lucky it will be as gorgeous as this poem-thing by one Janet Lembke. But it won’t be a story. So.

This is where artistic licences come in! The takings of liberties! Some things are not direct-translatable, and that means that one has to be creative. I will attempt to translate it more loosely, sans machine.

My first attempt gives me 145 words, versus 117 in the original text (and 122 for the machine-assisted). The flow is a bit damaged by this, and awkward phrasings. English is a bit more isolating than Swedish so I will arbitrarily allow it 5% more words, because that is a good number. 122 is within that range so yeah. Time for pruning.

I have a theory, a hypothesis, a hunch. It comes from observations of human interactions. I will explain: in every social interaction, one human is designated the responsibility over the interaction’s outcome. A human loses social standing when they are responsible for negative outcomes, whilst the other humans present gain. Many interactions are there solely to increase the social standing of themselves, or decrease that of another human. This surgeon, by saving the host body’s life, generates a positive outcome. However, if the surgeon does not follow the protocol laid out by the Immune System, they are responsible for a negative outcome, giving the host body the higher social standing. We are going to make them break protocol whether they want to or not.

124 words. 124/117≈1.06%. Ah, close enough.

Also, one day I write a story entirely in translationese. I was told that Skyful Futureful achieved that, a bit, which was not intentional but works. So, the plan for writing this story would first include making up enough of a pseudo-language that I can have deep meaning in it, and then translate away the deep meaning.

Then, coming up with a good meaning to leave out of the story. Somehow hint at this meaning in a way that does not show it until later, or something. It would be fun.


Any comments on my method or ideas are utterly welcome.