My kids are growing up bilingually, and I can remember when my daughter became aware that you can’t always translate things word for word into another language. Or that if you do, you might not get the reaction you were hoping for.
She wanted to tell my mum a joke she’d heard at nursery and, knowing that Grandma doesn’t speak German, she very kindly translated it into English.
“What do you do if you see a snake?
Stand behind it.”
My daughter laughed her head off, but Mum was none the wiser. And of course by the time we’d explained everything, the joke was no longer funny anyway. It’s happened a lot over the years!
In German, the word Schlange can mean a snake or a queue. So if you see a Schlange, you stand behind it and therefore join the queue. It’s funny in German (well kind of!) but meaningless in English.
So what do you do when you have something like that in a text that needs to be translated?
Obviously it’s always great if there’s a parallel joke or expression in the target language. But often I’ll need to use a different strategy. You need to think about what the joke – to stay with this example – is trying to achieve in the source text. Is there a particular reason why the author might want to refer to snakes (or queues)? Then it’s important to find something snake-based in the target language. It might not be an exact match in terms of the kind of joke, but there may be a play on words or a cultural reference that has to do with snakes.
If it’s not essential to have a snake reference, you might be able to find a joke with a similar vibe – some kind of simple wordplay; something with a different animal perhaps; something that a child might find funny.
If you can’t come up with a good way of translating a particular joke or play on words, you might be able to add a similar joke elsewhere in the text so that the overall tone matches that of the source text. What you want is for the target audience (in my case the English-speaking reader) to have the same or a similar emotional reaction to the text as the reader of the original German.
What it comes down to is that, rather than translating just words or even sentences, my job is about translating feelings and ideas. And that’s what I love about it.