Thursday, 16 October 2008

Translating Erotica

Out of the blue, I find myself translating erotic fiction for the first time - a short story by one of "my" authors. I had agreed to translate an unspecified piece for an exhibition catalogue, and yesterday the text arrived. Seven lines in, the phrase "halberigierte Penisse" made me choke on my Coke, and it went on from there.

The story is beautiful, very sexy and melancholy, very, um, erotically effective. But sadly, the translating process has killed the magic for me. Grammatically, German and English deal with bodies very differently. So while we say, to give a squeaky-clean example, "She washed her hands", German-speakers say "She washed herself the hands". Hands, feet, mouths, other body parts are generally used with the definite object and not with possessive pronouns. So in descriptions of things people do with their bodies, I often have to check back with the author exactly who is doing what with whose body parts. Not just for erotica, by the way, as German gives you the option of leaving things slightly vague, which can be interesting.

Or take body hair. Now the Germans have had a very different relationship to their body hair from the British, for example - as anyone who remembers watching Nena on Top of the Pops* will recall. Things are slightly more similar now (although sociologists are no doubt watching out for a body-hair backlash in the wake of Wetlands), but the word "behaart" (used of a man) is still relatively neutral. So what do I do - Hairy? Hirsute? Downy? Setaceous? I want to achieve an effect as equivalent as possible, without changing the content of the text. But the effect of the word "hairy" is more "Eeew" than "Oooh" - although not the idea itself, strangely. Or not for me anyway. I do have a solution actually, but I'm not telling you what it is.

So, all this means I can no longer read the text as erotica; it is now a rather dry collection of translation challenges. I really hope the end product works in the same way as the original, but I'll have to put it aside for a while to find out. And it also means a long and presumably awkward phone call with the author. "So whose hands exactly...?" I will be blushing.

*Just spent fifteen minutes staring at Nena's armpits on Youtube. Actually she was wearing a jumper on TOTP, but other footage is more revealing.


David said...

Slightly OT, but there is a good article in today;s NY Times about the dearth of literary translations in the US.


I'm astounded by the complaints here about Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio receiving the Nobel Prize, when hardly anyone has read him. It's not easy to find any translations here; I was fortunate enough to have read him in German translation.

kjd said...

Hooray for Mr. Engdahl, eh?