Mar 2 2011 10:00am

Translation Telephone

Line of telephone boothsYou might know what I think of as the archetypal story of translation telephone.  I’ll tell you anyway.  Someone asks to have the following phrase translated into Russian: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  Then it gets translated back.  (Don’t ask me why, that’s not important.  Also: don’t question me.) It comes back as: “The vodka is great, but the meat is rotten.”

See, translation is always an act of interpretation. Ironically, the quotation I remember regarding that comes from the French, I think, so I have to translate it. “Translations are like women. When they are beautiful, they are not faithful, and when they are faithful, they are not beautiful.”

All this is to say that we thought it might be fun to take a romance novel that has been translated into a foreign language and retranslated.  Hopefully, mirth and mayhem ensues. I’ll try to stick to the German syntax to make it nice and awkward.

In leidenschaftlicher Mission by Alison Kent

Okay, got my first book.  I’m a romance virgin, so go easy on me if I’m surprised by some of the turns the writing takes.  I don’t know if I can re-translate whole tracts of Alison Kent’s In leidenshaftlicher Mission—“In Passionate Mission”—so I’ll just go for random spots.

The first place I saw in the book was page 111.

Although that’s not quite true; the first I saw of the book was the cover and it took me back to the magazine racks of my youth.  I used to get comic books at a newsstand on a busy street that ultimately led to an onramp of the Autobahn, therefore this newsstand had something of a rest stop about it: Overpriced tapes, overheated freeway food, oversexed literary material.  I, of course, was more interested in the glossy visual stuff, but there were occasional racks of dime-store quality novels.  The quality I’m referring to is not the writing (as I never opened one), but of the packaging, which was about as sturdy as that of the Disney comics I was buying.  Sort of flimsy, sort of glossy, sort of visual, with some kind of discount sticker or appealing price point. 

This cover has a picture of skin on skin, fine. But the part I find especially interesting is the recurring chili pepper on the price tag in front, on the spine between the author’s name and the title, and finally on the back to evaluate several categories. Erotik: 3 peppers; Verführung: 3 peppers; Spannung: 2 peppers; Schauplatz: 2 peppers.  I don’t know how many peppers (Pfefferschoten, if you must know) constitute the maximum, but that sort of self-evaluation fascinates me.  The categories are: (a) eroticism, (b) misdirection (I kid; in German the word for misdirection and seduction is the same), (c) tension/strain/voltage—glorious language, no?, (d) location.

So, now, let me turn on my automatic translator for a paragraph from Seite 111:

He let his tail go and slipped with the free hand to one of her breasts up, spanned it and pinched with the fingertips slowly the breast wart together. On her back lying, laid she a hand over his and grabbed herself with the other between the legs.

First, let me towel myself off. Steamy. 

Tail” is pretty straightforward. I think the French say “cue” as well, which is a tail. So men have a tail in front. Like a dog’s tail, it indicates how little or how much he likes you. And, also like a dog’s tail, it’s not a controlled, voluntary reaction. Unlike a dog’s, I have yet to see one accidentally knock over a vase.

But then, “Breast wart”??  Sure, the regular translation is nipple. But German fuses words in a revealing way. Though it may make people lose their tastes for one or two, nipples do, when you think about it, resemble warts. In texture, that is. We’re not talking about the halo-inspired aureole or corona or whatever you want to call the surrounding, intermediate area. We’re talking the bump that, like the tail, gets involuntarily aroused around a stiff breeze.

Still, you’d think the country’s collective unconscious could move beyond the awkward visual similarity and come up with something more commensurate with the thing described. Breast wart?? Please.

What word would you append to “breast” to make it more appealing? 

I’d suggest “breast nonpareil” to get at the texture and pleasure, but that’ll mix too many languages.  How about “breast bon-bon”?  Similar, less textural, but more alliteratively appealing. 

Leave your ideas in the comments. I’ll put them into German.

Philipp Goedicke, Twitter: @PGoedi

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Lisa Hughey
1. LisaHughey
I am writers we are constantly trying to come up with new ways to say the same thing. Euphemisms abound in sex scenes because of the attempt to not use the same word over and over. But in a translation are there, er, German euphemisms or will 'tail' always translate as 'tail'? :)

2. Kathrin
This German girl begs to differ where your translation of Verführung is concerned. It can not mean both seduction AND misdirection. Misdirection in German is actually Irreführung. Close, but definitely not the same word. I have never heard (or seen) Verführung used as a translation for misdirection or vice versa. :)
Philipp Goedicke
3. PhilippGoedicke
Na gut, @Kathrin, da habe ich halt ein bischen gelogen. Oder die Wahrheit etwas ausgedehnt, um nochmal doppelt zu uebersetzen. Alles, um ein Schmunzeln zu erringen. Vergib mir, bitte.
"Never" is a big word. You've seen it now!
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