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)