Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Translating the comedy of diglossia

Even in English, you can sometimes get a laugh by inappropriately mixing high and low registers - gangster slang in blank verse*, or discussions of medieval agriculture in Cockney. In a diglossic language such as Arabic, this trick is both easier and more effective. An excellent example is provided by Message to the Parliamentarians, a recent political satire by Algerian YouTuber Anes Tina. Apart from its primary themes - the offensive meaninglessness of Algerian elections and the hopelessness of abstention - this video is a spectacular send-up of the bombastic period dramas that occupy such a significant role in Arab TV schedules. In such shows, often set in the pre-Islamic period, the characters speak intimidatingly classical Arabic, case endings and all, as a matter of course. (This is, incidentally, somewhat anachronistic: no attempt is ever made to reproduce even the substantial inter-tribal dialectal variation that early Arabic grammarians explicitly tell us about, much less the substandard non-Bedouin varieties they preferred to ignore.) In this video, the characters speak accordingly - but with carefully planted intrusions from the world of everyday speech. Consider the opening scene:
lam yabqaa lanaa 'illaa Hallun waHid.
wamaa huwa lHall?
falnaktub irrisaalah.
wayHak! ma lladhii taf3aluh?
uktub: wilaayatu banuu qaynuqaa3, firraabi3i min shubaaTi l'awwal. risaalatun min ibnu taynah, annaaTiqu rrasmiyy walmukallifu l'i3laamiyy liqabiilati shsha3b, 'ilaa lfaasiq alfaajir almunaafiqi lla3iin addaa3ir alxabiithu ssaaqiTu lmaariq azzindiiq quzaaHah 'amiiru qabiilati lxarlamaaniyyiin. ammaa ba3d. la3natu l'aalihati 3alaykum. la3natu l3uzzaa wa hubal 3alaa Hamlatikumu l'intikhaabiyya. waHaqqi 'aalihati lwaay waay, waHaqqi 'aalihati shshiita, naHnu lan nuHallibakum fil'intikhaabaat. lan nashtarii sila3akum, walan natazawwaja minkum, walla3natu 3alaykum 'ilaa yawmi ddiin.
hal bu3itha lmiisaaJ? hal hum 'on liin?
Sabran ya bna taynah, fa'inna la koneksyoona thaqiila.
tabban littiSaalaati quraysh. faltuxbirnii idhaa xarajati lvüü firrisaalah.
How on earth are we to translate this? The "letter" itself is not so hard - the inflated rhetoric is easy to render into olde English, and the occasional dialectal intrusions (bolded) correspond pretty well to English slang, producing a roughly similar effect. The allusions to pre-Islamic religion and early Islamic history are unlikely to make much sense to most English speakers, but corresponding names with appropriate resonances can be substituted without much damage; thus:

Only one solution remains before us.
What, then, is the solution?
Let us... write the letter.
Perdition! What are you doing?
Write! Province of Idumaea, on the 4th of Zivim. A letter from Taenaus, the official spokesman and media officer of the tribe of The People, to the evildoer [cymbals!], the sinner [!], the accursed hypocrite [!], the debauched [!], the malignant degraded renegade [!], the miscreant Cuzahah, prince of the tribe of the Charlamentarians. May the gods' curses be upon you. May the curses of Ashtoreth and Moloch be upon your electoral campaign. By the gods of canned applause, and the gods of brown-nosing, we shall not suck up to you in the elections. We shall not buy your goods, nor shall we marry from among you. And curses be upon you until the Day of Judgement.
But what can an English speaker possibly do to reproduce the comic effect of the dialogue that follows it?
Has the message been sent? Are they online?
Patience, O Taenaus, for the connection is slow.
Damnation unto Quraysh Telecom. Inform me when the message gets a view.
All the bolded words are from French except "slow"; but it would be a mistake to treat them as switches into French. Each of them is the normal, well-established way to refer to its referent in spoken Algerian Arabic. In daily conversations, the corresponding Standard Arabic synonyms (if known at all) would be used only by an insufferable pedant, or - more likely - as a joke. Conversely, in a school composition - almost the only context where the average Algerian child is expected to actually produce Standard Arabic - such terms would be strictly banned. No dialect of English that I know of has non-standard words for telecommunication technology (if it comes to that, I can't think of one offhand that has its own word for "slow" either.) The problem rears its head again soon after, as the protagonist attempts to buy a mobile phone in the marketplace. Suggestions are welcome, but it looks to me like this is one gag that simply can't be translated into English. Among their many other effects, it appears that sociolinguistic situations limit what kind of jokes you can make!
* I think John Cowan will have the link for this one?


Etienne said...

Interesting problem.

I am guessing that this sort of humor would travel badly in the Arabic-speaking world (I imagine that East of Tunisia the French loanwords would not be understood, for example): by the same logic it seems to me that translating this into generic English must be well-nigh impossible, but translating this for any specific group of Anglophones whose variety of English differs substantially from the standard (African American vernacular English, Hiberno-English, Geordie, Newfoundland English...) would be possible.

David Marjanović said...

This is fascinating enough that I just watched the whole thing, enjoying every word that I understand (i.e., compte officiel, portable, vas-y, dégage, c'est pas la peine, c'est pas la même chose) and the "subscribe to this YouTube channel" message at the end...

English happens to be the language all computer vocabulary originally comes from. That means it's one of not many languages in which only the comedic effect of computer vocabulary in a Heroic Age setting would survive translation. Many other languages have tried to coin their own equivalents for computer vocabulary, but it's all gone so fast that they've only succeeded at maybe half of it; that means the additional comedic effect of English in a Heroic Age setting would come across, a bit like the French in the sketch; on top of that, you could just barely put fuck off into a German translation where the original has vas-y, dégage (though that's not the same stylistic level).

David Marjanović said...

Also profil, and I must have overheard a few more.

Interesting that uktub comes out with [x] (velar, distinct from the uvular one).

I suppose Ibn Taynah's exaggerated q (often qx) is a sign that the actor normally says [g]?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Etienne: Translating for, say, Jamaicans would be more manageable - but still by no means home free; the technology vocabulary problem remains.

You missed a couple, notably "faux profil" and "Kaspersky"...

Heroic Age - you're right. Why didn't I think of going all saga-ish on the translation?

Now I listen to it again, /uktub/ does have [x] here. Odd - maybe a Kabylism? I think the exaggerated /q/ is just for dramatic effect. In most of his videos Anes Tina speaks with a pretty normal Algiers accent, with *q mostly realized as /q/ (eg his last but one, L'amour en Algérie.

David Marjanović said...

Ah. In fact, I wonder if it sometimes goes to the other extreme and becomes ejective like in Georgian!

And is that a q in la classe?

Kaspersky! *dramatic gesture* Qalbi.

petre said...

You're both right and wrong, Etienne. I ran this by my (Tunisian) ex-wife and my (Algerian) partner, and they both cracked up, understanding much more than I did. Our Moroccan friends were kinda amused too. Egyptians and Palestinians (that's about as far east as I have friends) were kind of stony-faced, though it's hard to tell.
I hesitate to theorize about such things, but I think the Maghrebis have a brand of self-mocking humour that English speakers can easily relate to (like the Ashkenazi, I guess). I suppose "proper Arabs" (Saudis really) must have some kind of sense of humour, but I have yet to discover it. My prejudices on full display here, feel free to shoot me down.