Lost in Translation

This article makes me sad. And mad.

Changing topic... I've been having some great exchanges with my Korean translator for Graceling, Yoon Hoh, as she works through some of the trickiest parts to translate. At a certain point, I realized that you guys might find this stuff interesting, so I asked her permission to share some of it. I never really thought about the challenges of translating before, but... well, here are some examples:

First, there are the words I made up for the book. The first time Yoon contacted me, it was to ask me to explain what "borderlords" and "underlords" are.

I was able to explain borderlords pretty easily -- they're lords who live on a kingdom's border, i.e., Lord Davit is a Middluns borderlord because his Middluns estate is right near the Nanderan and Estillan borders.

But... underlords? *...* What the hell is an underlord, and why did I make up such a silly word? I had to go back to the text -- thank goodness, I have the pdf of the typeset book, so I was able to use the search tool -- and check all the times I used the word "underlord" to figure out what I'd meant by it. I determined (with some relief) that, in the Middluns, at least, it's pretty much synonymous with "lord," but tends to be used when a lord is being mentioned specifically in relation to the king. ("An underlord of Randa's had been exposed as a spy," for example. "Giddon, Randa's underlord," to cite another example. Giddon is a lord; he's also an underlord, because all lords in the Middluns are lords under Randa.) (*....* Again, why did I make it up in the first place? Sigh....)

Second, there are ways we use language to create certain impressions that simply do not translate to other languages. Po's real name is Greening Grandemalion, and Raffin and Katsa make fun of him -- it's maybe a mildly silly name, a bit pompous, for someone who's only the seventh heir to a king. I meant the "Grandemalion" part, in particular, to sound ostentatious. How did I come up with the name? Well it's a combination of a bunch of kinds of names and words that sound royal and fantastical and mythical to me. Tolkien's Silmarillion, for one; and characters from the King Arthur stories, like Uther Pendragon, Gawain, Pellinore, Merlin, Lohengrin, Calogrenant, Igraine, for example. I still have the post-it note from when I was trying to come up with Po's various names. Here are some words I made up: Marillion, Coremillion, Galmarillion, Potemnian, Potemnial, Potadriel, Potendrial, Pomendrian, Pomendrillion! You get the sound I was going for?

Anyway. For Yoon, the sound of the name simply doesn't translate. Check out this passage from Graceling (bold print Yoon's):

Cocky, she thought. Cocky and arrogant, this one, and that was all there was to make of him. Whatever game he was playing, if he expected her to join him he would be disappointed. Greening Grandemalion, indeed.

Yoon asked me, what does Greening Grandemalion even mean, and what did I mean by "indeed"? Why is everyone making a joke out of the name? I had to explain how the name is meant to sound to a native English speaker, and also explain what Katsa is thinking and/or feeling when she says, "Greening Grandemalion, indeed." Like, maybe she's rolling her eyes or snorting. It was tricky to explain! And Yoon decided to think about adding some words to Po's name so that Korean readers would understand that it was fancy and grandiose.

Which then got us into a whole conversation about how all the Lienid names have color or image references, some of which probably don't translate, because I've spelled the colors weirdly (E.g., Captain Faun [like the color fawn]; Skye [like a blue sky]; Jem [like a gem]; Ror [like aurora, the Latin word for dawn]); but that's a whole other kettle of fish that I won't get into here.

Third, check out this passage (again, bold print Yoon's):

Just as she was beginning to wonder if Oll and Giddon had lost themselves in the dungeons, they appeared around the corner, and slipped past her.

A quarter hour, no more,” she said.

“A quarter hour, My Lady.” Oll’s voice was a rumble. “Go safely.”

Yoon asked me, did I mean, "It won't take more than a quarter hour"? Or, did I mean, "Make sure it doesn't take more than a quarter hour"?

Isn't that a great question? I intended it to mean the latter. But I had to go back and read a few pages, and pick up my own subtle clues here and there, to decide for sure that that's what I'd meant. Little things, like her worry about why Oll and Giddon were taking so long, her general attitude of being impatient with them, and of being in charge. I also realized, of course, that either interpretation is completely valid. (If you disagree with my interpretation, that's totally fine!) But at least here I had an opportunity to state which interpretation I'd meant to convey.

So. Am I crazy to find this process interesting? And it's also fun :o). I only wish I had a Korean cover to use with this post! Maybe one will be forthcoming at some point.

Happy Thursday, all. And thanks for voting on Monday! Seems like the socks and the kangas are running away with the show.

Oh, and Fire is getting two more starred reviews, in Booklist and The Horn Book :o)


Anonymous said…
i didn't realise how much effort it takes to translate. GRACELING ROCKS!!

tegan XXX

australia loves you! Po, no matter what your name is, you are still the apple of my eye:P
Artemis Grey said…
Kristin that article burns my bacon!!! >:l I can't say that I'm entirely surprised, people are cruel. I live in a 'small' town, and I can remember when I was little homeless folk would sleep on this open air mall we had. They never hurt anything, they never harassed anyone, they were intelligent and fun to talk to. They were good people who just happened to not live the same way. Now, that mall doesn't even have benches to sit on because 'the homeless people were beginning to push out paying customers and 'regular' folk.' What the #*@$? To quote an old Appalachian term, that makes my ass want to chop fire wood! (Hopefully that made you smile. What a random way to state extreme irritation!)

As for the translation. Totally intriguing! Really, it's right up my alley at the moment, as I just got my ms back from friends who were reading through it and giving me feedback. Some things that I need to work on were simple oversights or grammar (ugh) but others were issues with how what I wrote translated into what the reader read. Not quite the same as changing languages, but equally funny considering that at one one my main characters came across as being missed by people who didn't actually like her because she was always running around in mens clothing! My friend said she 'laughed like Beavis for half an hour' because she knew that's not what I'd meant, but it was how I worded the sentence without meaning to. :D
Ghostie said…
No, this post was really interesting! You're not crazy for being interested, it fascinates me as well. ;D
There is a company that translates manga (Del Rey Manga), and in the back of each volume, they have translation notes. Places where they could have gone in a different direction with translation, what this passage really meant in the original Japanese... It's amazing! Translating isn't a science, it's an art! I've always thought it would be awesome to become a translator.
Anyway, thanks for posting this!
Erin said…
How cool, thanks for sharing the process! My aunt is a translator (German/English), and I love it when she tells me about the particulars of a job. She has one friend who doesn't read a text before translating it; he just jumps right in. That way, he says, he preserves the misconceptions and confusion that occurs when you read a book for the first time in his translation. He feels that if he knew the plot ahead of time, his translation would be less accurate.

The whole business is fascinating!
Tynga said…
It is indeed very interesting!
I find myself being translator for my mom when we watch TV in english and it's not easy to really put the meaning in the translation. Something can be very funny in english and when you translate it, it loose all it's meaning.
One of the reason I prefer reading in english as opposed to french books. Also because I'm to impatient to wait for translation lol
Nope, it's fascinating! (And not just because I wanted to be a translator before I decided to become a librarian!)
robingarretson said…
The insight into translation is fascinating! I don't think we realize how much of what we say has connotations to it that, when translated, are totally lost... I think it would be a very fun process to work with someone to translate your work!

By the way, I bought an arc of Fire a while back, and absolutely loved it!! Thanks again for a wonderful read!
Laurence King said…
Love this post, Kristin! And I completely empathize with Yoon. I am French, and languages are my passion (my first love was German). I've had to deal with many translations over the course of my life, and let me tell you, it can get tricky indeed! But what's not to love about the intricacies and nuances of a language?
I've written a novel in English, and I just can't wait to start dealing with translators...
Anonymous said…
Your awesome anyway. I never knew translating was so complicated!
Jazz said…
This was very interesting! I actually thought underlords were young lords who had not held the title for very long. Thank you for the explanation.
Kristin Cashore said…
Jazz, I like that interpretation just as much, and anyway, anything I say outside the book doesn't really count as law -- if it's a possible interpretation, given what the author has presented, I say, go with it! :o)
Con Lombardo said…
Very interesting! I love your bit about "why did I make up the word underlord?" That word did make sense, and I never questioned it, and that's what's so great about great fantasy writing-- you get us to believe in your world and your made-up language!
tinkandalissa said…
Ooo, how about a kanga w/socks? Sounds like the makings of a Dr. Seuss book. Haha!
Great post about interpretations! I bet that can get really sticky. I dont pity all the work either you or she has to do. Oh the patience that must be required!
KT Howard said…
I took two semesters of Latin and during discussions we always talked about the different ways a sentence could be translated. We normally dealt with a single sentence at a time, but we were sometimes given whole paragraphs to translate, so we had to work at some of the smaller things to get the real meaning. It is fascinating! I love learning different languages to see how they express themselves differently. Saying something in one language can have a whole different meaning in another, depending on how you word it.
Anonymous said…
Douglas Hofstadter wrote an interesting book about translation issues called Le Ton beau de Marot. The book sort of carries its own agenda and I don't buy everything in it, but it's still worth checking out if you're interested in translation. Among other things, it includes translations of "jabberwocky" into other languages and a translation of a poem from French to English by a woman who is a native Chinese speaker and relying entirely on a French-Chinese dictionary and a Chinese-English dictionary.
It is utterly fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing the process with us!
WonderGirl12 said…
That's fun to read about. I never think about the translations! Is it fun talking about and going back to Graceling?
Rocy said…
Wow! This post is very interesting. I don't know if the spanish translator has the same problem. I wonder how the translator translates that words. I know early, beacuse I will read the book next days ^_^
Kristin Cashore said…
Readerchick12, that's a funny question, because at this point, Graceling was so long ago for me. I've written 1 and half books since then, and my mind is in a completely different place. So it's kind of weird to go back and talk about Graceling -- but, of course, I need to, because that's what people are reading right now. A lot of the time, people will ask me questions, and I can't remember the answers anymore -- I can't remember details about what it was like to write it. It helps that I'm writing Bitterblue now, which contains a lot of the Graceling characters. Working with them again helps to revive my memory.
MK said…
Hey! I just finished Graceling two days ago, and oh I loved it so much!!

The reason why I'm commenting is because I am a Korean high schooler living in Korea. I read your book in English, but the thing about translating it into Korean was interesting. I've read parts of the translated version of Harry Potter, and there were parts where I was disappointed, because it couldn't fully...portray what the original version depicted. Well it's inevitable...because of the culture and language difference...
Anyways, I hope the translated version of your book will be just as great!
Ooh gosh I wish so much that Graceling was a series...:(
H. Chang said…
The topic of translation causes much emotion in me. Growing up an immigrant, English as my second language, you’d be surprised how many things truly are “lost in translation.” In discussion of fantasy fiction and translation, the difficulty in language translation isn’t always so much the words used to describe or personify---rather I think the difficulty comes in the translation of culture (not to say that language isn’t so much embedded in the culture of origin)---but essentially, without the culture capital necessary to understand concepts from within said culture, it is nearly impossible to understand regardless of the vocabulary.

I didn’t grow up reading fantasy fiction. I wasn’t introduced to the genre until much later in life. It felt as if the ideas and the characters were foreign, not in so much because they existed in different worlds, but more because none of them looked like me, felt like me... let alone the social-economic sub-text of the heroes. We love the strong female characters like Katsa and Alana/Diane (from Tamora Pierce’s books) because they come from humble backgrounds, but possess special powers and gifts that help the powers of good win, more so, because they CHOOSE goodness. These concepts are the ones that cross those cultural barriers that exist. Which, I think, are the most important.

Good luck with the rest of the translations, I’m very happy to hear that Graceling is crossing over to Asia! You wrote a wonderful story, with characters that anyone can fall in love with---and THAT can’t get lost in translation.
Kristin Cashore said…
Kristin Cashore said…

So, a cat was responsible for that last comment. I could delete it, but I want the cat to feel that she is entitled to an opinion, too.

MK, that's so interesting -- and the books are inter-related, you know, so they will be sort of a series.

Chin, thank you for that beautiful comment. :o)

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