Jokes, Curses, Idioms, and Faith
a conversation with Alluvium editor Susie Gordon
Note to readers: During a recent stretch with a busy travel itinerary, I attempted to schedule posts to appear on A Polite Lie while I was travelling. Being still new to the site, I’m afraid I only managed to save the pieces as drafts and did not manage to make them go live on schedule. My apologies for the light publication schedule last month – I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again. Also, I’ll try to make up for it by fitting the missed articles into this month’s publications. To get us back on schedule now, I’m very happy to have Alluvium editor Susie Gordon back for another conversation at A Polite Lie this month. Thanks! – Shelly
Hi again, Susie. It’s good to host you at my site again.
I wanted to talk to you this month about one of the trickiest parts of translation, translating humour. I have been giving a lot of thought to the question of translating humour lately (I say that as if it is something unusual, but it is actually something I think about a great deal), especially since posting on the topic at A Polite Lie recently. What are some of the most successful translations of humour you’ve come across?
Hello! Thanks again for having me back. I really enjoyed your post about translating humour, and many of the points you made were familiar to me from our discussions over the years while you were working on various translations. My favourite example is the one you cited, from your work on Death Fugue, where you rendered “Gu Ge” as “Swan Song.” This is particularly interesting because, as you say, there were elements that couldn't be conveyed, such as the pun that referenced Google’s departure from China. I also appreciated your translation of Zhang Shibang Salon as 007 Salon in Northern Girls – clever!
I read something interesting by Roland Diot, who wrote “When it comes to translating humour, the operation proves to be as desperate as that of translating poetry.” Do you agree with this? I can see that both pose challenges, but I wonder if one is trickier than the other.
Yes, I would agree with that. There are many things about translating humour and translating poetry that are similar. Both often rely on double meanings, wordplay, and the unspoken. In that sense, I find translating humour and translating poetry quite similar. It can be an almost violent process of tediously picking a piece apart, then putting the pieces together again and hoping it comes to life. I’ve talked elsewhere about how one hopes this is a true resurrection or reincarnation, rather than a Frankenstein-job. When it is the latter, the humour (or poetry) will read as a clunky thing, trying to go about life as if it were as natural as the next joke. I think part of the trick is to hold on a bit loosely, not trying to force things, but to let it formulate and breathe naturally. That is generally how life is, and what we hope for in our translations is always that they will be lively and vibrant, not just mechanically capable of imitating – or even participating in – life. The fluidity that hides mechanical competence should make the reader believe the new work is a living, breathing thing, just like a real body vs. a robot.
Earlier this year, Words Without Borders issued an article in which 18 literary translators were asked to share insights about translating humour. I have made reference to this article often in classes I’ve taught since it was published, and I suspect I will use it in classes for many years to come. There are some really good insights there.
That is an excellent article. I can see how useful it will be as a teaching tool. Several points jumped out at me. First is the “translator’s luck” that Jeremy Tiang talks about, when you chance upon a word or phrase in the target language that perfectly represents what the original is trying to say. This reminded me of the “perch” incident at the Translators Lab 2015 in Singapore, when, after you had translated a phrase in a poem as “a pavilion perched by the river,” your editor said, “The picture of the pavilion is that it is like a bird, so you need to state that in the line.” You then told her, “That’s exactly what perch means.” She hadn’t realised that perch connoted that image.
Something else that interested me in the article was Anton Hur’s segment about his difficulties in translating the work of a Korean author. He goes so far as to suggest that perhaps this author is actually untranslatable into English, due to a mismatch of humour and register. I find this fascinating, and it lead me to consider that the success of various authors in translation can hinge very much not only on the translation, but on a deeper cultural fit.
I was also intrigued by Charlotte Whittle’s section on translating curses. I remember a Polish friend of mine once yelled “Cholera!” in a moment of frustration, explaining later that illnesses are often used as swearwords in Poland. This set me wondering how it would be translated into English in a literary context. I know that Chinese curses are very culture specific – wishing ill on ancestors down several generations, etc. Have you ever run into any difficulties with translating things like that in your work?
Because of my upbringing and the environment I grew up in, I have never had the habit of cursing or using excessively crude humour, which is a real contrast to a good deal of the work I have translated over the years. The Chinese language has a wide range of potential for cursing or other forms of “crude” speech, so particularly in the early days of my work as a literary translator, I have had to put a great deal of thought into how to best render this sort of humour and language into English. I have since noticed that many translators have “go to” curses in English that they tend to use quite consistently, almost no matter what curse is used in Chinese, and have even heard some translators between English and Chinese say as much about their own work. To me, there is more nuance to any given curse than it might appear at face value, so I tend to think through several points before settling on a particular translation. The first consideration for me is the degree of crudeness involved – is it mildly offensive, or meant to cut deeply enough to leave an enduring scar? After settling on that, I think about how common the curse is – is it something anyone might say at any time, or is it more creative and colourful, and is it mundane cursing or delivered with a bit of flair and sophistication? And then I try to think through the manner in which it is delivered in the original, looking at whether it is an offhand, flippant remark, or something more sinister and malicious. There are other issues too, such as how dated the term is, how cool or “in” it is, and whether the curse will have a greater impact on the reader’s view of the person cursing or the person cursed. All of these questions will come into play for me when I have to translate anything beyond run of the mill curses or crude language. Some might consider this overthinking things, but to me, dialogue is a key component in characterisation, so it is important to hit the right notes. When a character is more emotional (i.e., the times one is more likely to curse), I think that is when we get more insight into his or her character, so that makes the use of such language quite important to the reader’s experience of the text and relationship with the character.
I think translating humour and crudeness/cursing involve many of the same techniques, as both tend to speak at an angle, rather than using words in their most direct applications. And like you’ve pointed out, metaphor is another place where this approach is employed in our speech, so it demands a similar type of attention in the process of translation. The “perch” example you’ve recalled is a perfect illustration of how this sometimes works. Often a word can convey a whole metaphor in itself, and a native speaker of the language will take that whole metaphor on board without really thinking about it being a metaphor at all, because the picture it calls to mind is inherent in the meaning of the word.
I’ve found this particularly useful for translating Chinese idioms too. I’ve noticed with many of my students that they get hung up on the picture drawn or story alluded to in an idiom rather than noticing that what really matters is the punch. An idiom is meant to be an impactful idea contained in the most compact of spaces. The impact and compactness need to be duplicated in English, even if that means sacrificing some (or even all) of the details of the story alluded to. We can’t make the mistake of thinking that the beauty is in the story, because it is in fact located in the brevity with which a great breadth and depth of emotion is conveyed. That is what we need to capture, I think.
Many native speakers of Chinese seem to struggle with the question of translating idioms, which I think comes from the fact that using idioms well is a mark of an educated, cultured person in Chinese culture. I’m not sure there is a real equivalent to this phenomenon in English. Have you found anything similar in the other languages you work in?
The translator Barry Davis sums it up quite well, I think, when he writes, “The truth is that all translation involves losses, and the job of the translator is to measure one loss against another.” Davis is a translator of Yiddish, which is one of the languages I’m currently studying. I’ve recently begun to experiment with translating Yiddish short stories into English, and one of the main issues I’ve come across is the possibility of capturing the culture behind a word. For example, shabbesdig has no direct single-word equivalent in English. While it literally means “suitable for the Sabbath,” it carries a vast panoply of meanings that cover everything from fashion (a shabbesdig outfit would be something you’d wear to worship at the synagogue) to food (a shabbesdig meal would be one that doesn’t require cooking on the Sabbath day) and attitude (having the mindset of the day of rest). In his foreword to A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (1976), editor Irving Howe claimed that the main challenge of translating the poems was “cultural rather than linguistic and formal,” and this is something I have found to be true.
Sholem Aleichem is one of the most widely known and translated Yiddish writers in the Anglophone world. His work is notoriously tricky to render into English (Jeffrey Shandler goes so far as to say that he is “untranslatable”), so I decided to see for myself. As an exercise, I’m currently translating some excerpts from Aleichem’s Motl Peyse dem Khazns (Motl, Peyse the Cantor’s Son). In one extract, the main character states that the fruit juice he and his brother are planning to sell must contain ice, otherwise “the drink would be good for nothing” (toyg dos gantse getrank oyf tishe nayntsik kapores). The challenge here is translating the word “kapores,” which refers to the Biblical practice of Kaparot – swinging the sacrificial rooster over one’s head on Yom Kippur. A literal translation would be “the whole drink would be like ninety-nine Kaparots,” which would make very little sense to a reader who isn’t familiar with this practice. In this case, it’s a question of sacrificing (no pun intended!) the humorous idiom in favour of a smooth translation.
Oh yes! Religious texts are another excellent example of the sorts of work that are difficult to translate because of their use of language that says more than it seems to. It’s also exactly the sort of work that those who grow up as insiders to it will always feel loses something when translated. The nuances, the richness of the underlying history, and the shared assumptions of the community for whom the text was written and who has been responsible for its preservation all come into play when we encounter such translations.
Several years ago, I taught one part of a workshop in which we translated two passages from Shakespeare (one from Hamlet and one from Romeo and Juliet) into Chinese. At the same time, a group translated the same passages into Malay. When we compared notes after the translations were done, it was fascinating to hear how the Malay version had to tread very carefully when working with the Romeo and Juliet passage, due to the potential for offense to Muslim sensibilities inherent in the language used in the passage. The Chinese translation had run into some hiccups at many of the same spots, but the level of difficulty in crossing that cultural boundary was much more difficult for the Malay group. I was quite fascinated by the entire process because it had not occurred to me how challenging the passage would be for our Muslim counterparts, and it certainly made me much more aware and appreciative of the work they had to do to render the passage into something that would work for a Malay audience without being offensive or distracting from the action of the scene.
Part of what makes these various applications of language – humour, cursing, idioms, religious language – so difficult to translate is that each relies, in different ways, on circumlocution as opposed to more direct speech. In a way, these are all forms of talking at an angle. The problem is that when we change languages and cultures, we change all the angles. It makes us stop and rethink the relationships between everything we are looking at, and between them and us, and the world beyond us.
One of my favourite language-related conversations I’ve ever had with you involved a very lengthy discussion about the various possible ways of translating “To be or not to be.” Shakespeare in translation has always fascinated me. Perhaps this is something we can talk about here next time, if you’ll have me back!
I’m very much looking forward to that. Thank you for the insights you’ve shared this month. I’m already looking forward to our next conversation.
Born in the northwest of England in 1981, Susie Gordon is a Liverpool-based editor and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Living in China between 2008 and 2016, she wrote and edited for many of Shanghai’s English language magazines, as well as for international publications such as Virgin Media, Condé Nast, Executive Travel, and the BBC. As a literary editor she has worked on the English translation of S. P. Tao’s memoir, as well as Fan Wen’s ‘Land of Mercy’ for Rinchen Books.
In 2016 she co-founded Literary Shanghai – a publishing and events company specialising in Chinese literature in translation as well as original work in English. She is currently the commissioning editor of Literary Shanghai’s international journal Alluvium.
Her short fiction has appeared in the Singaporean journals Eunoia Review and Junoesq, and in HAL Publishing’s two anthologies Party Like It’s 1984 (2010) and Middle Kingdom Underground (2011). Her non-fiction essay Empty From the Outside was published in Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw Books, 2013), sparking considerable press interest in China and beyond. In 2016 her short story Claire was selected for publication in Epigram Books’ Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume 3.
Her first poetry collection, Peckham Blue, was published in London by Penned in the Margins in 2006, and her second collection, Harbouring, came out in 2015 under Math Paper Press in Singapore. Her poetry has appeared in the May Anthologies 10th Anniversary edition (2003), Unshod Quills (2011), and United Verses (2014), and her 2005 poem On Raymond’s Bike has been translated into Hungarian by the poet Kőrizs Imre.
Susie holds a BA in English (2003) from St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford, and an MRes in Chinese Studies from the University of Liverpool (2016 – 2017), where she is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, researching the persistent appeal of the “China exotic” in contemporary English fiction.