"You Can Say Everything in Every Language―You Just Have to do it Differently," Explains Zuzana Kulhankova

Opening my round of reviews on literary sessions held at the ATA Conference, 
here's food for thought about comparative literature in translation

During the 53rd Annual Conference organized October 24-27, 2012 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Diego, I attended a session entitled The Fifth Business in Five Languages. The presenter,Zuzana Kulhankova, is an English and Czech translator accredited by the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC) and received theCanada Council for the Arts International Translation Award for her translation of Robertson Davies’ “The Fifth Business” into Czech.

The classic novel written by Davies in 1970 was selected 40th on the American Modern Library's "Reader's List" of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. In her presentation, Zuzana discussed the challenges she encountered during the translation process and compared the English original, her solutions in Czech, and those of the German, Spanish, and French versions of the novel.

She started out explaining the controversy surrounding the title of the book. Davies had been pressured by his publisher to clarify what "Fifth Business" meant, and so he provided the following opening quotation, attributed to a writer in Norway:

“Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”
— Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads

The explanation was taken at face value for many years until, in 1979, the book's Norwegian translator failed to find the citation. Davies then admitted it was his own invention during an interview granted to Judith Shelton Grant, who later incorporated the confession in his biography entitled “Man of Myth.”

How do you compare literary translations? — The Czech translator developed her own method while evaluating the three versions she had proposed to compare.

The first question she needed to ask was: Did the translator actually translate the most problematic sections of the book?According to her, one of the main challenges literary translators face is understanding the original and, unfortunately, there are those who decide to simply skip what they don’t understand.

Once she identified the translated word or expression, she set out to verify whether it was an idiomatic solution. Her second question then was: Does it sound natural, not translated? Next, she needed to check the accuracy, thus asking a third question:Was the message or feeling conveyed correctly?

Lastly, as the most valuable part of literary translations that are successful among readers, Zuzana asked her fourth question: Was the solution exceptionally brilliant?

After explaining her method, the award-winning translator divided audience members into groups, according to their working languages. The Spanish, French, and German speakers were then asked to work together and come up with solutions for each issue she showed. After the exercise, she revealed the translations that actually went to print.

Here are the five expressions the presenter highlighted, followed by the translations published in each language (ES = Spanish, FR = French, DE = German, CZ = Czech) and a back translation with the literal meaning in English (EN):

[Page 231]

EN - The Fifth Business

ES - El quinto en discordia 

(The fifth in disagreement)
FR - Le cinquieme emploi 
(The fifth employed / implement)
DE - Der Funfte im Spiel 
(The fifth in the play)
CZ - Pata postava
(The fifth character)

[Page 25]

EN - To read the Riot Act

(Reprimand rowdy characters and warn them to stop behaving badly)
ES - Leerle la cartilla 
(To lay down the law)
FR - Tancer vertement 
(To dress down somebody)
DE - Die leviten lesen 
(Reproaching somebody after the fact)
CZ - Wyzvat shromazdeni k rozchodu 
(To ask a crowd to disperse)

[Page 110]

EN - “They’d yell across the street, ‘Hoor yuh today. Paul?’ Sly, you see, because he knew damn well they didn’t mean ‘How are you today, Paul?’ but ‘Your Ma’s a hoor.’ Kind of a pun, I guess you’d call it.”

ES - Tu madre esputa? 

(“Does your mother spit?” The verb "esputa" sounds exactly like "es puta," which literally means “a whore”)
FR - Pute tu venir avec nous, Paul? 
(With the misspelling, “Can you come with us, Paul?” becomes “Whore you come with us, Paul?”)
DE - Deine Mutter ist'ne Hure 
(No creative pun, for it literally means “Your mother is a whore”)
CZ - Jak se vejde tvoji mame? 
(With the misspelling, “How is your mother?” becomes “How does it fit into your mother?”)

[Page 239]

EN - “feel exactly like Lazarus [...] licked by the dogs.”

(In the biblical sense, Lazarus is a beggar on the street. “Licked” can also mean “defeated.” “Dogs” as in “underdogs.”)
ES - Me siento como Lázaro, lamido por los perros
FR - Je me sens exactement come Lazare, leche par les chiens
DE - Ich fuhle mich genau wie Lazarus, von den Hunden geleckt
CZ - Pfipadam si pfesne jako Kristus, toho take uftela devka
(“I feel exactly like Christ; he was also whipped by a harlot”)

[Page 241]

EN - "He had to be pretty stern with her to make her understand that what was sauce for the gander was certainly sauce for the goose. Indeed, he called her Little Goose for a few days but gave it up because of the ribald connotation of the word."

(The verb "to goose" means to poke a person's buttocks in order to surprise him/her)
ES - Lo que valía para los gansos, también valía para las ocas [...] mi gansita.
(Literal. However, “Mi gansita” could also mean “My naïve girl.”)
FR - Qu'elle disait des conneries [...] petite conne.
(“Talking nonsense [...] silly girl.” However, “Conne” has double meaning and can be a very derogatory term when used to describe women.)
DE - Was dem einem recht is, dem anderen sicher [...] billig sein kann.
(“What’s good for one, is good for the other [...] little goose.”)
CZ - C co svedci houserovi, svedci i huse [...] husicko 

Final Score — After evaluating these five sections, Zuzana rated each solution based on her four questions. In her assessment, German had the lowest score, since she believes the translator took a lot of shortcuts that did not accurately convey the original intentions and style of the author. The Spanish and French translators were craftier and more creative, the former being slightly better than the latter.

“Literary translation is relatively easy to assess,” Zuzana says. “You can get away with a lot in literary translations... As long as you're accurate and you're brilliant.”