Ask-A-Linguist Message Details
When a book, film or TV program is translated into another
language, what do translators do when puns, anagrams or other
wordplay is involved?
To use one example, one mystery story I read had the solution hinge
on the homophone floorless/flawless. When translated, this would
'break' and the premise fails.
Another example is the movie Sneakers. The plot hinges on an
anagram 'Setec Astronomy'/'too many secrets'.
It's very difficult! Ideally, the translator finds some comparable piece of wordplay in the target language. A famous series of publications in this connexion is Hergé's "Tintin" cartoon books, which are full of puns and suchlike in the original French, all of which have apparently been rendered by parallel pieces of wordplay in the English-language editions. (I say "apparently" because I don't know these bande dessinée publications well in either language, but I have often read that the translations are a real tour de force in this respect.) Obviously this will often require huge ingenuity, and if the "content" of the pun is crucial to the subject of a piece of prose, it may be impossible -- one can't guarantee that a given target language will offer even a distant parallel. A much weaker solution, sometimes inevitable, is for the translator simply to insert a footnote explaining that some words in the translation worked as a pun in the original. Or the relevant wording might just get omitted from the translation: published translations vary greatly in how close they hug the original text, sometimes they are quite free, and this will often be regarded as justifiable.
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