Sunday, February 28, 2016

Translating a pseudo-Welsh accent into French (or, over-explaining a joke)

Recently I came across Accros du Roc, a French translation by Patrick Couton of Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy Soul Music. In the original, Imp y Celyn ("Bud of the Holly" in Welsh) is a young musician from Llamedos, a small country full of druids and stone circles and harps where it rains all the time. He has a conspicuous Llamedos accent, which seems to consist mainly of doubling all his l's: "Not ellvish at allll, honestlly". For British readers, it's fairly obvious what's going on here: Welsh makes extensive use of the letter combination ll (transcribing a lateral fricative not found in English), so doubling the l's gives it a vaguely Welsh look without actually attempting the difficult task of representing a Welsh accent using an orthography as phonetically inexact as English's. Not a terribly funny joke, really, but it plays some small part in establishing our expectations for this character. But how could it be translated into French, or for that matter any other language?

Conveniently enough, France does have a sort of equivalent to Wales, a rainy, mountainous, coastal region with its own Celtic language and a lot of stone circles: Brittany. Breton does not make much use of the combination ll, but it does have a few characteristics that appear equally exotic to French speakers - in particular, the combination c'h (transcribing the velar fricative /x/) and the frequent use of the letter k (for /k/, reasonably enough). So Kreskenn Kelenn (one guess as to the name's meaning in Breton) talks like this:

Je vois un homme ki tient une hac'he de jet !

So in this case, it works out quite well - though I imagine the joke is lost on readers from, say, Quebec.

I gather that Soul Music has been translated into quite a few languages, but I don't think Arabic is one of them. What on earth would a translator do in this case? It would be kind of tempting to go for equating Celts with Berbers - there are a few stone circles in North Africa - and have Imp substitute ث ذ for ت د. But I don't think any Arab reader east of Algeria would get the allusion, and I doubt that the Middle East contains any ethnic group that can be satisfactorily thought of as playing the role for the Arabs that the Welsh do for the English. Then again, if I were an Arabic translator asked to take on Soul Music, I would give up immediately - any of the few Arabic speakers capable of getting enough of the rock music history allusions to be entertained by the book would be more comfortable reading it in English or French anyway. But that objection is not insuperable: after all, The Wasteland and Finnegan's Wake have been translated into Arabic (for some reason). Perhaps some day a genius will come along sufficiently reckless to give it a try...

10 comments:

John Cowan said...

Doubtless the town of Llareggub (where Dylan Thomas's play Under Milk Wood is set) is really in Llamedos (and indeed WP says there is a connection).

On the Arabian Peninsula, you might look to the speakers of South Arabian languages. But I don't think the objection from parochiality is well-taken: Pratchett is loved in America, where few people know anything at all about Welsh, even as little as a superficial knowledge of its written appearance.

PhoeniX said...

The Dutch translations if the Pratchett books (by a person apparently, named Venugopalan Ittekkot, which I just learned might be a real name since google scholar gives me hits of academic articles of someone by that name...) have always been extremely impressive in terms of how well they're translated. I thought I had a copy of Soul Music so I was excited to check out how they dealt with this (would he have used Faux-Frisian perhaps?).

But alas, I only have it in English.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

John: South Arabian would be nice in that it has lateral fricatives too - but unfortunately Arabic offers no familiar way to write them, and most Arabs probably know even less about South Arabian languages than about Berber. As for Pratchett in America, true, no one gets all the jokes - but at least the broad themes being played upon are widely familiar. Soul Music is comparatively international, actually; what really wouldn't translate well would be The Colour of Magic, where if you haven't read at least a few mid-20th-c. fantasy novels, you're left with only the broadest outline of a comedy about an incompetent coward and a clueless tourist.

PhoeniX: A shame - let me know if you come across the answer!

Michael Collins Dunn said...

And some Americans even got the Welsh jokes.

Languagehat said...

To spell out the obvious (since we're over-explaining): Llamedos = Sod-'em-all (as Llareggub = Bugger-all).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

In French, Kreskenn comes from Ker-Gselzehc, ie "Chez les Grecs", an expression I had not previously been familiar with.

John Cowan said...

"Chez le grecs".

Languagehat said...

I either never learned, or had forgotten, the word "éconduire."

January Firstofmay said...

The Russian version is Дион Селин, that is to say, Dion Celyn. I think I actually like this version better than the original (though of course it is clearly based on the original).
He still comes from Llamedos (Лламедос, in Russian), and his last name is described as meaning (paraphrasing a bit) "a kind of oak, which is the only tree that can grow in Llamedos" (I do not know enough about holly to say whether it counts as "a kind of oak").

I do not believe he speaks in any specific kind of accent, but I hadn't read the book in years - I'd need to check my copy.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks! The Celine Dion reference is certainly less obscure, but as whole it doesn't sound quite as insanely painstaking as the French translation.