In celebration of this month’s issue of International Humor, we asked top translators to share stories about the joys and challenges of translating humor, from puns to satire to creative curses.
Alta L. Price on Dana Grigorcea’s Double Meanings & Geographic Jokes
Romanian-born Swiss author Dana Grigorcea packs a lot of laughs—ranging from light to dark to very dark—into An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence, coming out this spring from Seagull Books. Many jokes are clearly labeled and told as such in the text, and although some were culturally and generationally specific, I felt fellow Anglophones would get them. For example: “Two communist militiamen on night patrol see two men beating each other up in the street. One militiaman says, ‘Should we break it up?’ The other says, ‘Are you crazy? Can’t you see there are two of them, and just one of us?’”
Then came a joke that presented the challenge of handling different uses of regime/regimen and the understanding of the title doctor. For this latter issue, the original spelled it out: “Up until the fall of communism, a statue of the first Communist Prime Minister, Petru Groza, stood there. He was a doctor, too, but a doctor of law.” The character then launches “into a joke I remember from childhood—A man goes to the doctor’s office. ‘What’s the matter?’ the doctor asks. ‘This treatment regime doesn’t agree with me,’ the man replies. ‘Who prescribed it?’ ‘Doctor Groza.’” I couldn’t rely on “regimen” alone, and didn’t relish turning (twisting?) it into “treatment regime,” but decided that was the clearest solution, and the editor didn’t trip over it.
And then, in a scene that could be considered the book’s climax, Dana and I rely entirely on our readers’ eagle eye and keen knowledge of geography. On his 1992 Dangerous World Tour, having just arrived in Bucharest, the King of Pop lands with a flop: “‘Hello, Budapest!’ Michael Jackson shouted. ‘I love you!’” It’s hilarious if you aren’t the kind of ignorant Anglophone so many touring rock stars apparently are.
Anton Hur on Yeonsu Kim’s Irony
I quit literary translation once. It was over a book called Whoever You Are, No Matter How Lonely by Yeonsu Kim, which I won a grant to translate in full in 2010. The funding body ended up rejecting the final manuscript and shorted me on the amount I was due. I didn’t pick up another literary work to translate for three years.
I’ve pondered over this failure since then. Was it not because of me but because of the author? For despite other translators much more accomplished than I tackling his work, he has never to this day been published in English, and nine years is a long time (cue RuPaul’s Drag Race “shade” castanets). Or are we, as translators, just not getting him?
An author I do get, thank God, is Jeon Sam-hye, who led me to my debut as a literary translator and also happens to be a big fan of Yeonsu Kim. When I discussed the problem of Kim’s work, she suggested that perhaps his dark humor was just tricky to translate. This was interesting. Yeonsu Kim’s work is humorous?
Humor is controversial in Korean literature. Most people say there isn’t much of it, while some beg to differ. There’s something to this minority opinion; Jeon’s advice reminded me of an important lesson I learned early on in grad school. I had once complained to the brilliant Professor Youngjoo Son about having to read J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians in her class because I was disgusted by the narrator. She replied that I shouldn’t confuse the author with the narrator and should try reading the work ironically: wasn’t Coetzee somehow satirizing the voice, subtly sending up the narrator, mocking him, even laughing at him? In other words, have I tried reading him ironically? With this in mind, I went back to my 2010 manuscript and revised it with an awareness of this possibility of an ironic reading.
That revised translation won an award last year. The prize money was, ironically, almost exactly the amount I was shorted in 2010.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones on Maryla Szymiczkowa’s Whimsical Names
When Zosia Krasodomska-Jones and I co-translated Krystyna Boglar’s children’s novel Clementine Loves Red, we decided that as the book was not firmly set in Poland, but could be just about anywhere, we would change the Polish names to English ones. One of the children was called, oddly, Jarzynka—the diminutive of jarzyna, “vegetable”—and the other children say how strange it is to be called “little vegetable.” But later in the book she turns out to be the daughter of Mr Jarzyna, hence her nickname. Despite its meaning, Jarzyna doesn’t sound strange as a Polish family name. I scoured lists of fruits and vegetables in search of ideas, and finally hit upon Macadamia as the name for the child, and then her father could be Mr MacAdam.
But when I translated Maryla Szymiczkowa’s retro crime novel, Mrs Mohr Goes Missing, firmly set in 1890s Kraków, I couldn’t be so flexible. The crime-solving heroine is Pani Profesorowa Szczupaczyńska—Mrs-Professor’s-Wife-Unpronounceable. It sounds comical in Polish because it’s a mouthful to say and also because a szczupak is a pike, and fish names are always funny. But however fishy, a pike has razor-sharp teeth. All of which reflects the character of our heroine, a tough cookie, but one who sometimes prompts laughter. Sometimes I ask authors if I can change Polish names that to non-Poles look like car crashes, but this time I needed to keep the humor. I needed a name that (a) sounded credibly Polish; (b) included a fish; and (c) warned us not to laugh at her too much. The authors reminded me that there’s a Polish name “Heryng,” but that didn’t tick the boxes. After reading lists of fish names and Polish surnames, I invented a new one: Turbotyńska. OK, a turbot is a harmless flat fish, but it has turbo power.
Bonnie Huie on Qiu Miaojin’s Love of Media Illiteracy
Depressives can sometimes be the funniest people of all. Emotional vulnerability and dark psychological depths may typify Qiu Miaojin’s masterworks, but there is a whole other side to her literary alter ego that is both savage and goofy, and this can be seen in the satirical episodes of Notes of a Crocodile, which are narrated in the third person and draw upon the lowbrow language of everyday visual media.
One such episode—which takes as its target mainstream Taiwanese newspapers and their sensationalistic coverage of a minority group referred to only as “crocodiles”—calls for the two-dimensionality of caricature. In a scene that could easily have been lifted from the panels of a comic strip, a naive “reader who called up the paper with an animal encyclopedia in hand” seeks information from a crass editor who answers the phone while “taking a bite of tuna sandwich.” Nothing could be farther from the fluid, abstract world of emotions and intellect inhabited by the alienated protagonist, Lazi, than this warped social reality, in which the entirety of one’s thoughts (and the essence of one’s character) can be flattened and reduced to the symbolic object in one’s hands. This zany prologue is followed by a spurt of other reader-editor exchanges that appear without speaker attribution, like a jumble of interjectory speech balloons. The interaction concludes in a mutual consensus to exercise stupidity, whereupon the exasperated editor, who wants to be asked the exact same question over and over so that it can be answered by a recording, instructs the reader: “Why don’t you just start with, ‘Can you tell me what the exact same question is?’” The reader replies: “That makes sense.” To render the artlessness of your fellow human beings, it takes a cold, cold heart.
Boris Dralyuk on Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Dark Hilarity
I recently wrote a little piece about the deliciously maddening challenges of translating the great Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko—specifically, of translating his darkly hilarious Sentimental Tales. That meant undertaking the thankless task of explaining jokes . . . And here I am, explaining another one. I do so for a good cause, because it seems to me that jokes can teach us an important lesson about translating in general, the lesson of freedom: it’s always best to let one’s mind do a somersault or three before grabbing hold of the trapeze again.
Early in the first tale of Zoshchenko’s cycle, our clumsy narrator explains the demise of a peripheral character. The original Russian, if translated “literally,” would read something like this: “Only the medical attendant Fyodor Perepenchuk died much earlier, and, to be exact, he didn’t die, that is, didn’t die his own death, but hanged himself.” That leaves a lot to be desired. First, the rhythm, which is beautifully halting in Russian, is just plain halting in English. More importantly, the core of the verbal humor—the fact that our narrator is constantly, unwittingly, undermining clichés and bringing dead metaphors to life—has gone out the window. In Russian, “to die one’s own death” is a fixed phrase, meaning “to die of natural causes.” By stumbling over it, our narrator points to the fact that hanging oneself is certainly a matter of taking one’s death into one’s own hands. To create a similar effect in English, I raided its native store of morbid euphemisms: “But the medical attendant Fyodor Perepenchuk was taken from us at an earlier date. Of course, it isn’t so much that he was taken from us as that he hanged himself.” The Russian Perepenchuk didn’t die his own death—but, then again, he very much did. Meanwhile, his English double wasn’t taken from us—but, then again, he very much was. After all, you can’t just leave a fella hanging. Take leaps, translators. Look alive!
Bruna Dantas Lobato on Caio Fernando Abreu’s Brutal Joy
Caio Fernando Abreu’s 1982 collection Moldy Strawberries gives life to the marginal underworld of the cities of Porto Alegre and São Paulo. Written during the military dictatorship in Brazil, the collection touches on censorship, homophobia, depression, and urban violence. The material is often so dark, so steeped in loss, that I worry I might not be “bleeding” enough on the page as I translate it—to quote the metaphor the author uses to describe his writing process. After the moments of tension in the stories, Abreu tends to release the pressure by cracking a joke or two, only to tighten his grip again immediately after. Here, humor dispels the tension so the stories’ darkness can catch us off guard and hurt us again.
In one of my favorite stories in the collection, “The Survivors,” the protagonist moves quickly from subject to subject, talking about her relationship with her best friend, her favorite authors, her depression, her sedatives, then about how she now knows how to properly masturbate—it’s all good—then back to her time in a psychiatric hospital. In the title story, “Moldy Strawberries,” a suicidal, recovering drug addict makes fun of his doctor’s recommendations but follows his orders anyway. In many ways, the characters’ wit and lightness serve as a reference point for assessing the depth of the darkness found in these stories. But they also show that despite everything, these characters are still alive and full of joy. At the end of “Moldy Strawberries,” the narrator stands on top of an overpass and stares at the flowerless flowerbeds down below. “Would it be possible to grow strawberries here?” he asks, by which he means, “Is it be possible to find joy and beauty in a world like ours?” For Abreu, the answer is always yes.
Charlotte Whittle on Jorge Comensal’s Profane Parrot
In Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations (forthcoming from FSG, November 2019), a Mexico City lawyer is stricken with cancer of the tongue: cellular mutations, pathology reports, a glossectomy, chemotherapy. . . sounds hilarious, right? Enter Benito, a bedraggled parrot gifted to the patient as a consolation for the loss of his tongue. Though Benito is from the jungle, he curses like a Mexico City native: “¡Cabrón!” and “¡No mames!” are some of his signature squawks. Translating curses is a tricky business, especially when they come from the mouth of a parrot. The question arises: is it most important to preserve the image evoked by the original phrase, or to find an alternative that occupies the same approximate role in the target language? Cabrón could be translated directly as “bastard” or “asshole,” but can also express praise and admiration. Perhaps, then, “motherfucker” was a candidate? I spent a long time watching videos of Samuel L. Jackson demonstrating the glorious flexibility of that word. But, for reasons that become apparent in the extraordinary final scene of The Mutations, I needed a term that could also be brought into play as a profane echo of “Lamb of God.” “Son of a bitch” offered an echo at least in structure, and delightfully profane implications when applied to the Holy Family. And what of “¡No mames!”—that quintessentially Mexican expression of surprise or disbelief? Though it may not occupy the same semantic field, the English “What the fuck?!” seemed to capture Benito’s reactions to his friend and confidant perfectly.
So, the protagonist’s first dialogue with the parrot goes like this:
The parrot was intrigued by this human who, unlike all the others it had met, didn’t overwhelm it with noise and gestures. There was something comforting about his discreet gaze and total silence. Gradually, it began to relax in the patio, surrounded by bushes and flower pots. Once it had grown used to Ramón’s presence, it demonstrated its cheerfulness with one of the phrases it knew.
“Son of a bitch!” it squawked in a shrill and nasal voice. “Son of a bitch!”
Ramón let out his first guffaw since the tumor had appeared on the scene. The mutant sound that emerged from his lips was more like a sea lion’s territorial bark than a human expression of delight.
“What the fuck?!” answered the parrot.
Ramón roared with laughter. The parrot reiterated its surprise at its companion’s unexpected reaction.
“What the fuck?!”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also fall down a rabbit hole (one I absolutely don’t regret) of watching videos of swearing parrots. From the deadpan to the jubilant, I have become an expert in the cursing birds of the Internet. I think Benito would approve.
Edward Gauvin on Satire and Swearing in Graphic Literature
Because I translate a lot of comics, I get a lot of questions about translating humor. I’m grateful to my medium of predilection for letting me tackle a variety of genres that don’t often make it over here, at least not from France: biography, popular science, epic fantasy, crime, science fiction, and, recently, documentary reportage. But humor is a small slice of what I do; Sunday funnies aren’t a thing in French. Then again, satirical weeklies aren’t a thing in English, though thanks to Ros Schwartz, I was part of a crack team translating a short-lived digital version of Charlie Hebdo. There, the task was as much to pack in cultural reference as to craft a snappy caption. If brevity is the soul of wit, and wit the epitaph of emotion, then too often translations are weathered headstones. Here lies a joke; it died of explanation.
Most of the funny pages I’ve done, from Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain’s Weapons of Mass Diplomacy to Gébé’s Letter to Survivors, have eschewed gut-busting for satirical barbs. By far, my bugbear in comics is, instead, translating profanity, which is all about emphatic equivalencies and seldom remotely literal. Just whose name is being minced in vain when the character’s . . . a pagan? A paladin? An alien? In the Loop and David Simon’s Twitter account set gold standards for swearing, but their invective is often so inventive it can’t be torn from context.
And establishing context—setting tone and voice, priming readers’ expectations—is something translating humor shares with translating just about anything. Punch lines hog the limelight, like trouvailles in translation, nuggets of linguistic brilliance often justly trucked out to validate our craft. But what’s a bit without a build? That elastic atmosphere of likely laughter lets the joke explode.
Emma Ramadan on Fouad Laroui’s Absurd Scenarios
Fouad Laroui is really, really good with plays on words, and his book of short stories, The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, is full of them. Translating that sort of thing is always quite difficult, especially when it’s necessary for the punch line of a joke. In his story “Bennani’s Bodyguard,” Laroui misspells the French word for “bodyguard” (guard du corps) throughout the story—gardkor, gardicor, etc.—to reflect and poke fun at the accent of Moroccans speaking French. This play with accents and dialects that works so well in French didn’t seem to in English, so I ended up dropping some of it.
But overall, the humorous story arcs present in Laroui’s book translate into English. One story revolves around a swimming exam that has to take place in sand or on grass at certain Moroccan schools that don’t have swimming pools—the students are thus caught off guard by the new exam requirements that have just been passed down from on high. That scenario is just as ridiculous in English as in French. In “Born Nowhere,” Laroui pokes fun at Morocco’s bureaucratic systems by unraveling the story of an uncle who goes to extreme lengths to ensure his nephew can vote for him in an election twenty-one years later. In the title story, featured in the January issue of Words Without Borders, our protagonist, Dassoukine, has to cross a major city square in his pajamas after a thief steals his only pair of pants. He buys a ghastly pair of colorful golf trousers to wear to an important meeting at which he is to negotiate the price of twenty million pounds of wheat. He makes out with the product for next to nothing because his appearance has the committee convinced he’s a “desperate case.”
The situations are absurd but also believable because of the systems in place in countries like Morocco, and therein lies the humor, which I think translates. One thing about Fouad’s humor is that it requires a certain understanding of the world, of what life might be like in other countries. But I think your average reader of short stories in translation is someone familiar with, or at least interested in, other countries and cultures—someone with an open mind and the ability to imagine.
Hillary Gulley on Yoss’s Latinate Laughs
The humor in Yoss’s “Interstellar Biochocolate Mousse à la Solitaire . . . For Two” is both situational and linguistic. On the one hand, it’s a recipe set in the future, intended for interstellar travelers who might not know what milk is, or that it comes from mammals like cows. On the other, it refers to ingredients—both familiar and futuristic—by their Latin names. For example, the recipe calls for milk from a cow (bos taurus) and warns against using milk from the dragonturkey of Colimán IV (dracubirdius horribilis).
While the translation of these aspects was surprisingly straightforward, there was the added layer of the recipe’s detached, didactic tone. Latinate words, which evoke the didactic in English, underlie the entire Spanish language, so their near-exclusive use in the original is inevitable—and not necessarily funny. But in English, the Latinate lexicon has a different role: it’s the domain of the institutional, the learned, and the guarded, and can be heavy and pedantic in a way that its cognates are not in Spanish. The same qualities, however, make it an ideal candidate for mockery.
When I translate from the Romance languages, I tend to avoid longer English words from Latin in favor of their shorter, punchier equivalents from Old English. But in this case, I knew I could heighten the piece’s ironic tone by using more Latinate words (studies have “determined” and not “shown,” milk is “produced” and not “made”). The challenge was to pepper the English prose with enough of these words to create the desired effect while still preserving the piece’s light, idiomatic feel. But after all my efforts, the ultimate irony may be that in Yoss’s vision of the future, cows are almost extinct and milk comes from dragonturkeys, while Latin has somehow managed to thrive in deep space.
Jeremy Tiang on Lawrence Lei’s Linguistic Slapstick
For a small island, Macau contains a lot of languages: along with Portuguese and English, the locals speak Cantonese and (sometimes) the Macanese patois, with neighboring China providing an influx of Mandarin. A story I translated for the Macau Literature Festival, “Wolf Hunt” by Lawrence Lei, exploited this linguistic fluidity to create a great comic climax.
The story follows a motley group of people fed up with their dead-end jobs who decide to carry out a kidnapping to make some quick cash. Unsurprisingly, they are hilariously inept at this, not least because their getaway driver is from Mainland China and doesn’t understand Cantonese, so everyone else can only speak to her in their appalling Mandarin.
The story ends with a standoff: a hit man has come after their victim and is prepared to wipe out the kidnappers to get at him. The driver manages to pull a gun on the hit man—and at the same moment, a dropped cigarette sets a pile of newspapers alight. One of the gang screams at another to open a window (“kai chuang”) to clear the smoke, but mispronounces a crucial word and instead says “kai qiang”—“shoot.” So everyone with a gun pulls the trigger . . .
Call it translator’s luck, but English provided an elegant, more straightforward solution: the single word “fire!” shouted at the sight of the flames is enough to set off the gun battle. Rather than try to explain the mispronunciation, I simply had the flustered gang member lose the ability to put a sentence together in Mandarin, so all he can shout is that one word, over and over.
John K. Cox on Ajla Terzić’s Comical Imagery
In the text “Tito and Taxidermy, or What If Tito Had Been on Twitter,” which Words Without Borders published, I was struck once again by Ajla Terzić’s incredible powers of observation. These powers come through in all her work, and if you hang out with her in person, they’re almost supernatural. It’s a real gift, I believe. Anyway, in this especially breathless and generally humorous essay of hers, she makes a lot of thumbnail characterizations of famous people, as well as of certain emblematic consumer products, quintessentially Yugoslav organizations, etc. When I first read her line about the “cat-eyed Elizabeth Taylor and a Richard Burton who’s sunburned to a crisp,” I dashed off to Google to look at photos of those stars from those years. Ajla was right, of course, and I’ve never been able to shake those images or her words. After a good laugh, I realized she works the same magic with all kinds of other things in that little story, from a goofy sex toy to a donkey ride at a county fair to Tito’s memory as a “phantom limb.” These images hit a remarkably high level of emotional truthfulness by combining both accuracy and humor.
Margaret Carson on Remedios Varo’s Absurdist Humor
Before I began translating Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings, I knew she had a strong comic streak—for example, in her masterpiece Mimetismo [Mimicry], a woman sitting in an armchair begins to blend in with it, like a moth mimicking a tree—but I had little idea of the comic brilliance I’d discover in her writings, especially in her letters. Forget about news and gossip: these letters are comedy sketches, pure and simple. They’re amusing not because of their ingenious punch lines or clever wordplay or culturally-specific jokes. The humor is in the weird scenarios and improbable elements, such as a house with a small volcano rising in its courtyard that’s “admirable at preparing shish kebabs and brochettes to perfection” and whose lava can be applied to the scalp. It’s an absurdist humor in which things like a woman’s shoe of pearl-embroidered, violet velvet or a dried hummingbird stuffed with magnetic dust have an unusually consequential role. The beauty of my job as the translator was to simply render Varo’s words into English in the same straight-faced tone, asking myself, “Is this amusing in English?” ”Is it deadpan enough?” “Too over-the-top?” There was one instance when I did add some flourish to the original: in a letter to an old friend Varo waxes nostalgic about “las antiguas paellas”—the former paellas, the paellas of old—which I couldn’t help but translate as “the paellas of yesteryear,” smiling all the way.
Michele Hutchison on Tosca Menten’s Creative Cursing
Humor can come in many different forms which pose different translation problems. Timing is often crucial, but that’s not so much of an issue as long as you think about the syntax beforehand so that the funny word comes at the end of the line where it belongs. A play on words is more of a challenge because you often have to move away from the original while keeping the association credible. Creative cursing can also be fun to translate, which was something I particularly enjoyed in the novels of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer. While translating the children’s novel Dummie the Mummy and the Golden Scarab by Dutch author Tosca Menten, I got to reinvent some fake swear words that might appeal to young readers:
“Nick rarely got angry, only at his paintings. He swore at them and said things like, ‘Ugly cottypot!’ It was a swear word he had invented because Angus and his father did not allow swearing in the house. He had also invented ‘Whumpy dumpman’ and he used that for all other things.”
Mui Poopoksakul on Prabda Yoon’s Humorous Nicknames
Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was and Moving Parts both have a lot of tee-hee moments where the author makes jokes playing off a word or a name. Trying to replicate his move with names proved particularly difficult because naming practices in Thailand and in English-speaking countries are different. Thai nicknames are often simple, everyday words, and you can choose just about anything; for example, it’s completely normal to name your kid Apple or Orange or Duck or Chicken, so writers have more options at their disposal when setting up a joke. Translating humor linked to a name presents two issues. First, to keep the joke, you’ll probably have to turn the name into an English name, which isn’t ideal. Second, your possibilities as to what passes as a name are much more limited. In a story in Moving Parts, a boy has a nightmare about being pinched by a crab (“pooh” in Thai). Then soon after he wakes up, we meet a character whose name in the original is Jah. The word “jah” in Thai is a particle so it doesn’t have much meaning, but there’s a Thai crab dish called pooh jah, so I had to try to come up with a recognizable crab dish that contains a person’s name in its name. In the end, I went with Crab Louie, although it’s maybe more retro than I would have liked.
Owen Good on Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s Fantastical Farce
Humour in Translation 101, or:
Tuesday, 11:00 a.m., a seminar room in Budapest. We’re about to discuss possible translations of a violent and absurd encounter. In one of Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s short stories, “The Age of Aquarius,” our hero Magdi, after a few productive hours of translation work at home, overloads on greasy scrambled eggs, a very milky coffee, and a quantity of chocolate cookies. Magdi presently passes out in bed fully dressed. She wakes up groggy in the unfriendly dark of the evening. It happens.
Swiftly en route to the bar, maybe grouchy from fatigue, certainly holding hard feelings toward her ex-boyfriend, Magdi plays out a fantasy where she spots her unsuspecting ex on the street and presently nekifutásból fejeli le . . .
“She gives him a diving head-butt,” chimes in a brave student. I put it on the board.
Any more? What else have we got?
“She floors him.”
“She torpedoes him.”
“She gives him a Glasgow kiss?”
On the board.
She dropkicks him, she roundhouses him, she spears him, she nuts him one, she clotheslines him.
We pause to catch our breaths and reflect. We’re having a lot of fun. The ex-boyfriend meanwhile has had better days and is crawling for the door, when from the back row:
“She Zidane’s him!”
When we look at the full board, we agree the first suggestion is the closest. But we can’t agree if it’s the best. We become film directors: First we get the best out of the English actors we have. Afterward we select the take that draws the best reaction, while still following logically. In our heads, we play back synonyms as Magdi launches, leaps, and dives across the street toward an unsuspecting ex.
Peter Bush on Teresa Solana’s Comical Cannibals
When names are comic, and the context is appropriate, I’m all for translating them. But how? I faced such a challenge when working on Teresa Solana’s surreal tale of the first sleuth in history in “The First Prehistoric Serial Killer.” The Hairy Bear tribe is experiencing murder after murder, and in the Catalan original these troglodytes are named after medieval Catalan nobles and other historic figures: Pere, Berenguer, Guifré, Odalric, Humfrid, Martí . . . All key figures in those halcyon days when Barcelona ruled the roost in the Mediterranean. A rival set of Neanderthals is based in Poblet, otherwise renowned for its beautiful medieval monastery. Not exactly household names in the US or UK! I should mention that the story is shot through with other anachronisms—the sleuth is familiar with Sherlock and Sigmund, among others. In a first version, I opted for contemporary aristos—Philip, Charles, Harry, Elizabeth, James & Co. When revising the translation for a new book of Teresa’s stories where it would be the title story, Teresa and I decided it would be funnier to use more resonant Anglo-Saxon handles. So out went the Windsors and in came Athelstan, Ethelred, Rufus, Alfred, and Lackland. And Poblet became Canterbury, home to those endocannibals, the Canters, who, as you can imagine, loved cant, as well as eating the flesh of their own.
Sebastian Schulman on Dovid Bergelson’s Creative Insults
I have to admit that since Yiddish is so often maligned and stereotyped as a language that only produces jokes and comedy that I’ll often go out of my way to avoid translating humorous texts. Promoting the literature and culture for me often means trying to avoid precisely some of those clichés about Yiddish’s supposed intrinsically silly or vaudevillian character. Still, humor is an integral part of any culture. One memorable moment translating humor comes from the 1944 play Prince Reuveni by Dovid Bergelson, a scene of which I translated about ten years ago for Bill Johnston’s literary translation seminar at Indiana University.
The play is a historical drama about a false messiah set in sixteenth-century Italy and is supposed to serve as a foil for the struggles of Soviet Jews during the Second World War. It’s pretty heavy material except for one character: the Cardinal, who is constantly insulting his nephew, the downtrodden Friar. In this scene, the Cardinal hurls Shakespearean-style invective of increasing severity and over-the-top ridiculousness at his poor nephew. Although it’s the Cardinal’s goal to belittle his relative, for the audience it’s the Cardinal himself who ends up looking like a fool, so there are multiple levels of laughter and irony at play. I had great fun considering the weight of each insult while translating, trying to build a crescendo. What’s a worse insult, I asked myself: “insufferable little twit,” “depraved nitwit,” or “useless slug”? And how do you create the pacing and timing necessary get a laugh (or is it a groan?) from the audience as you go from the casual “simpleton” to the playful “donkey-brained fool” to the stinging “diseased mutt”? More challenging than rendering the put-downs, however, was how to convey the scant dialogue around them so the scene would feel like more than just a simple gag. The best part of the whole process was the chance to hear the translation performed live in the classroom. There are few actors who can make the words “sniveling imbecile” sound as spiteful and hilarious as Bill Johnston!