Friday, 31 July 2009

Rude, Lewd and Nude

I mentioned Polly McLean's exciting-sounding workshop on translating private parts not long ago. In fact, it tickled my fancy so much that I signed up for it.

If you're expecting raunchy revelations of linguistic heavy-breathing here you can stop reading right now - we translators aren't like that. Or at least we British translators aren't like that. It was all terribly civilised, with cups of tea and hardly anyone touching the biscuits. And few of the participants seemed to share my tourettical delight at uttering rude words in public. Polly gave the example of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach as a very English manner of writing about sex in "proper" literature - essentially by skirting around the issue.

Which, of course, makes it difficult for translators to render writers like Catherine Millet or for that matter Charlotte Roche in English. But it emerged that the difficulties are very different, depending on the source language. French - every Englishman's cliched idea of the ultimate erotic language - has erotic words, whereas English simply has rude ones. German, on the other hand, can sound rather brash on the ear with all its talk of tails, sheaths and hair of shame. Both languages have more room for ambiguity when describing sexual acts - washing the hands, stroking the what-have-you without posessive pronouns, while we poor Brits have to disentangle that sexy mass of limbs and apportion each body part to an owner.

There was much consideration of what to call private parts; hardly surpring, given the workshop title. Are certain words cliched, can we use the same rather shameful words we teach our children, to what extent is it a matter of personal choice? Translators from French face problems with the word sexe, which can be applied to both male and female genitalia (as with the German Geschlecht, although I don't see this term used overly often). Polly provided us with a carefully researched vocab list that I know I'll cherish for some time to come; indeed, it could prove so useful I might invest in a laminating machine.

Probably the most useful piece of advice, for me, was from French-English translator Ros Schwartz. Often enough when it comes to sex scenes, she told us, she simply doesn't understand what on earth her characters are getting up to (or down to) on the page. So she takes a step back from the source text and rewrites it in her own words, presumably with a healthy pinch of sexual imagination. In the end, she said, this re-write is usually pretty close to her end product.


david said...

A couple of weeks ago we had a case where a professor of German took a novel approach to this very topic:

"MILFORD – A University of New Hampshire German professor accused of exposing himself to two women in a Milford parking lot was arrested Thursday.

UNH police arrested Edward Larkin, 60, of Durham, around 3 p.m., according to Milford police.

UNH spokeswoman Kim Billings said Larkin has been placed on temporary, paid administrative leave and was directed not to be on campus through Aug. 15 while the school reviews the alleged incident."

kjd said...

Gosh. You mean he allegedly took a novel approach, though, right?