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'.
I recommend Ved Mehta's article "A second voice" which appeared in the New Yorker,
and is also in his 1971 (!) collection called John is Easy to Please, from Farrar, Straus, &
Mehta describes a particular UN interpreter, George Sherry, who when presented with a
Shakespearean quote in the midst of someone's speech, could bring up a similar
Shakespearean quotation - equivalence of meaning again - which he knew in the other
language. I haven't read this chapter for several years, but recall that Sherry worked
between Russian and English.
And you may recall in the Story of Garp by John Irving, the boy mishears the warning to
"watch out for the undertow" and is on guard for that sea creature the undertoad.
Swedish friends reported that this pun works in Swedish as underströmmen
(understow) and underst-hummen (under-est-lobster).
Written translation has the advantage of time to search for such equivalence.
Simultaneous translation (interpreting) must do in in the moment!
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