Translating Magic or Madness (updated)

Israeli editor, Didi Canoch, just read Magic or Madness, and while he enjoyed it, thinks it’s untranslatable into Hebrew. Colour me disappointed, but I found his reasons why, and the enusing discussion in the comments fascinating.

So far, the book has sold to Taiwan, France and Thailand. I confess I have been wondering how those translations were going to get around the linguistic play in the book between Australian and USian English. Especially as I don’t speak any of those languages and don’t know much about them. Didi reckons a French translation could make use of Quebecois French.

Which got me wondering: wouldn’t using Quebecois French or, say, Mexican Spanish—were Magic or Madness ever to be translated into Spanish (fingers crossed)—raise different questions? There’s a particular set of relations between France and Quebec; between Spain and Mexico. Weird, mixed up colonial/motherland questions. But Australia and the US of A don’t have that kind of relationship. Neither country colonised the other, I mean, not in the way that England colonised them both. Am I overthinking this?

Obviously, translation is always about approximation, so you go for the best solution available. I’m dead curious about how they’ll deal with these problems. Or whether they’ll even bother. I can see a possible translation that would simply leave out the differences in the way the characters speak. Though I do think the translation would lose something if they went that way. But then most people reading it wouldn’t know the difference, would they?

The whole thing reminds me of Rome which just started on HBO in which everyone talks with an English accent so that it’s easy to figure out what class they are: toffee English accents for the upper classes etc. Yet it’s a USian production. US English has a huge variety of accents, many of which are marked for class. I wonder why they didn’t have posh Romans talking like Boston Brahmins (think Katherine Hepburn) and the lower classes talking like working class New Jerseyites (think Tony Soprano). Too close to home, maybe?

Rome, by the way, is a hoot. I, Claudius updated and with a bigger budget. Much camp fun. I can’t wait for the second episode. Maybe they picked English accents because they’re so much camper than the accents of any other English speaking nation?

Update: for those not familiar with the book, Magic or Madness is told from three different points of view. The two Australian characters have their chapters in Australian spelling and grammar, and the one US character has her chapters in US spelling and grammar.


  1. David Moles on #

    Mexican and Argentinian Spanish?

  2. marrije on #

    I think Didi is right to say that translating would be hard – I thought of that a number of times when reading the book, because in Dutch those same things would be difficult to render. I think it’s a pity though to give up on the whole book for that limited set of difficult scenes.

    Perhaps using the cop-out of a translators note would come in handy? it could say ‘look, there’s something going on in the original here that we can’t find an equivalent for in language X, but this is roughly what happens and why, now read on for the rest of the story.’

    A good translator should be able to come up with a fun, engaging note in line with the book, shouldn’t she?

  3. claire on #

    the “usian” use of english accents to replace ANY european or foreign accent is a convention (a silly, ignorant one that drives me nuts, but a convention.) if the action of an english-language film or show takes place entirely in another language, then the conceit is to make all the actors speak with english accents, to indicate that they’re furren. note the bad british in “troy” and “alexander”. note that even jean-luc picard (i can’t remember: was he french or quebecois?) was played by a brit speaking with an english accent.

    the only film i can think of that didn’t do this was “the last temptation of christ”, where a lot of the jews spoke with a variety of stereotypical new york jewish accents.

  4. janet on #

    Rome is a co-production of BBC and HBO, and I think most, if not all, of the actors are British. That’s probably why they have British accents.

    A few years ago my book group read “Lysistrata” aloud. We had several different translations among us, and each gave the Spartans a different accent, meant to get across the idea that the play portrays them as uncivilized and/or unsophisticated. The British translation gave them Scots accents. One of the American editions gave them, I think Appalachian accents. I forget what the other translations did.

  5. Dena Shunra on #


    I believe Dutch has a similar situation -Flemish and Dutch are actually closer then US/UK English, but what about Dutch as spoken in former colonies? The Surinami word for elbow, armknie, comes forcefully to mind. (Arm-knee. Really. It is now part of standard Dutch, causing translators worldwide to spew stuff at their screens).

    As to the ability to come up with a good note… …notes tend to be discouraged in YA books, don’t they?

  6. marrije on #

    dena: yes! absolutely with dutch/flemish. surinami/netherlands antillianese (sorry, don’t know the technical term in english (ha!)) and even afrikaans offer many delightful just-weird-sounding words for speakers of dutch.

    but you still wouldn’t have the exact same things to have misunderstandings about as Reason and Jay-Tee have in the book, so it would probably feel quite artificial. I know translations of wordplay in sitcoms into dutch (for the subtitles) often go horrifically, groaningly wrong.

    and i don’t know enough about ya publishing to offer any opinion on footnotes. i just know that i, as a ya, would have preferred a footnote that took me seriously and perhaps inspired me to learn a foreign language to properly understand a joke/pun to a weak attempt at a similar joke/pun that would have to twist things around or mess with layers of meaning. Reason is not from brussels and Jay-Tee from amsterdam, they’re from sidney and new york, and i don’t think a translation should have to hide that. (which is not saying that you are in any way implying that, dena, far from it)

  7. Justine on #

    I should confess that my real sense of annoyance with the accents in Rome is that they’re not using my favourite convention: English accents for the baddies (via Toby), USian accents for the goodies. Like they did in Spartacus and Star Wars. I guess that’s what happens when you foolishly partner with the BBC—they put a stop to that sort of thing. Damn shame, says I.

    Thanks, everyone, for the continuing cool discussion of translation. Fascinating.

  8. Dena Shunra on #

    The upshot of this is that I’ll just HAVE to get my hands on that book…

    …it’s becoming a professional challenge! (I’m a translator, working in English/Hebrew, and my partner does English/Dutch… …and while neither of us has done literary translation in years – we’re more into legal translation and technical and such – we’ve both done so a while back.)

    Oh, and Justine – the amusing bit of all this (for me) is that Didi’s reaction to your book is very similar to my reaction to Snow Crash, when I was reading it for much the same reason as he read yours… …with different challenges, of course!

  9. Didi on #

    marijje: like i wrote to Justine, there’s just too many of them to work around effectively.

    footnotes tend to take the reader out of the flow of the book. especially younger readers. i try to use as few as possible. also, lots of readers hate them with a passion.

    most importantly, books should *work* in the language they’re translated into. and that means using the tools that language has. if you do a stilted translation that is literally perfectly accurate, you’re doing the text and the author a grave injustice. the lack of understanding is a built in part of magic or madness. it is an important part, and i think it was a feeling that was important to justine to convey. using footnotes would not work in conveying that. one of the things i really liked about the book as a reader was that it will clearly read very differently to american and australian readers (though i suspect australian readers who haven’t spent their entire lives in the bush with a mom who hates television will be much more familliar with the american slang than american kids are with the oz stuff).

    dena: Snow Crash is the ultimate untranslatable book. well, that and neuromancer. neuromancer was actually translated into hebrew. the result was a god-awful mess that pretty much killed cyberpunk in israel. i read sc for fun, and couldn’t stop myself from thinking how i’d translate one thing or the other. in the end, my brain hurt.

    justine: i downloaded the first episode of rome (because waiting for tv shows to reach israeli tv is a mug’s game). i’ll watch it when i finish the book i’m translating and probably comment on my blog. hoping i like it, as i looove the period.

  10. Dena Shunra on #

    Didi (gosh, we meet in funny places…) – yeah, Snow Crash is the ultimate untranslatable. My report to the publisher who asked me about it (initials G.T. and I provided the reading services at no pay ’cause I was young and stupid…) was that only a brilliant poet could translate it, and I did not think we could afford the channeling fees for Shlonsky (and anyhow, he spoke no English; he’d even translated Shakespeare into Hebrew from the RUSSIAN.)

    I’ve amused myself for many hours, since then, trying to figure out who COULD do it and was still alive. Not I! Not you. Not anyone I’ve met so far. But maybe someday I’ll run across a translator of sufficient linguistic oomph to do so. (No, not even the winning combination of Amos and Shosh, who share Shlonsky’s over-deadness, but didn’t, at the time.)

  11. Justine on #

    So what is it about Snow Crash that makes it so untranslatable? You’ve got me dead curious. And how does Hebrew deal with new words? Does it suck them in wholesale like English? Or invent Hebrew versions the way French keeps trying to do?

  12. marrije on #

    didi, thanks for the further explanations. i see your points. i guess i was just a bit disappointed the book wouldn’t become available to even more young people.

    but now i have the urge to translate magic or madness into dutch, to prove that it can be done after all 🙂 thank goodness i haven’t won the lottery and don’t have the time to do that.

  13. Didi on #

    one of the great things about snow crash is the creation of a completely new lingo made out of a combination of invented slang and technical terms. hebrew is a bad language for technical terms. it may have something to do with the fact that it was a dead language during the industrial revolution. many technical terms have hebrew translations that no one ever uses. hebrew is also not naturally prone to compound words (it’s the opposite of german in that respect), and that makes creating new terms quite difficult. very few compound words have been created naturally in hebrew. virtually all of the ones currently in use were in introduced by The Academy of the Hebrew Language. the lingo stephenson creates would be horribly stilted and unnatural in hebrew. unless the translator was a gifted creator of words with a keen understanding of science and a poetic streak. if i could splice and mix some translators and writers i know, i think i could create the translator for it. dena – maybe emmanuel (for the word creation and the technical stuff) and meir shalev (for the poetic prose). not that i think they’d be able to work together. nor do i think that shalev (israel’s finest novelist) would be interested in translating a genre novel. but in a perfect world…

    justine: the academy tends to try to invent hebrew versions for new words. some stick, some don’t. in the case of scientific terms, i often deliberate whether to use the word the academy prefers or to stick with what actual scientists use. it’s an issue i’m facing right now with wilson’s spin. i usually go with the commonly accepted lingo, though.

  14. Dena Shunra on #

    Emmanuel is certainly enough of a poet and my awe for his translations knows no bounds. Having seen him at work, on the project we did together, cured me of trying to be a literary translator in the genre. But would he be able to be flexible enough with the language? His strength is in finding existing words and forms (although stretching them, sometimes, beyond the manufactuers’ directions), while Stephenson’s (in Snow Crash, at least) was sort of a verbal iconoclasitcism, breaking to bits the very structures that Emmanuel relies on to make the great and beautiful translations that he does.

    And would Shalev have the technical savvy? He wields Hebrew like a fine brush, but Stephenson uses the palette of high-tech, cyberspeak, quick-change, quick-turn, somewhat l33t-like, over-the-top-and-down-to-earth language, creating a path much like a roller-coaster doing a full loop. Shalev’s strengh is in the plodding, walking-speed, sometimes even mule-towed pace of Hebrew. You can always hear the cross-over movement of left-foot/right-hand, right-foot/left-hand as his (incredibly brilliant) novels progress (an effect which was not, by the way, carried over into their translations into English). Stephenson’s writing loses that cross-over
    movement, and reminds me more of a skate-board ride over a somewhat bumpy sidewalk (I can send you an exact digital photo of the type of place – downtown, here) or a surfboard – the internal rhythm would crash into Shalev’s like a particularly devastating wave, don’t you think?

    But if we’re recruiting authors for the dream-team, how about pairing Emmanuel and Kerret (either the author or the cyberanarchist would do; both for best effect)?

    Marrije, one doesn’t have to win the lottery (or get a special degree) in order to do literary translations. If it burns in your blood, translate a couple of scenes and then propose them to a publisher whose line this is (publishers are human, very much so. They like finding good material and good translators. Right, Didi?) …or just translate them for your own pleasure, to discover how hard (and fun) the craft is.

    Oh, and Didi? your decision about the Academy’s choices is divinely inspired, of course. Vox populi…

  15. on #

    Sometime in the distant past Justine said, “I should confess that my real sense of annoyance with the accents in Rome is that they’re not using my favourite convention: English accents for the baddies, USian accents for the goodies.”

    I like to look on this like it was such a horrific and debauched time that they’re all the baddies. Every last one of them.

  16. Justine on #

    Marrije: wow! It’s so lovely that you’re so enthusiastic about MorM that you would even contemplate such a drastic step as attempting a translation. I’m honoured. (But I’m relieved that you won’t actually do it because I fear you’ll wind up hating my book!)

    I’ve managed to read just one novel in Spanish, one that, as far as I know, has never been translated. I translated one tiny and very easy bit and it really, really hurt my brain in a way that writing from scratch doesn’t. My admiration for good translators knows no bounds.

    3³: excellent point!

    Didi and Dena: thanks so much for your back and forth on translating. Fascinating.

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