Say that Again? – The Trouble with Translation in the Speculative Genre

Illustration by Katicha Hirigoyen

Tom Marvelo Riddle is a great anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort”.

In English, that is.

I often get surprised looks from people when I tell them that I absolutely cannot watch the Disney animated version of Robin Hood in English. It simply doesn’t feel right to me. Growing up with a particular version, with a specific cast of voice actors, my mind refuses to process anything different.

Even now that I am grown up, the original English versions of movies are still not dominant in my life. For instance, I will happily sing “When Will My Life Begin” from Tangled in Russian, and with the exception of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I haven’t seen any of the Marvel movies in English.

A topic that is particularly valid throughout the realm of speculative work is a question of whether or not translation is even a possibility. And if it is, then how much of the original meaning and “cleverness” value is maintained in the translation? 

For example, many jokes cannot be translated literally language-to-language. Sometimes the wordplay is unique to a text’s mother tongue, other times the difficulty is in a culture gap. I didn’t realize just how interesting the issue was until I tried having a conversation about Harry Potter with some students at a coffee shop, and discovered I was at an impasse.

The world of Harry Potter is known for its use of made up concepts and new terms that rely frequently both on wordplay and a degree of linguistic understanding. In the case of the term “Horcrux”, I spent a long time explaining what I was talking about to people because the term that I was using, “Крестраж” (“Krestraz”), bears no similarity to the original. Here, the translators had to be creative, although another alternative was to simply take the English term and create an Anglicized term that could be written in Cyrillic.

Other translators rely on the denotation of the words themselves to find a more-or-less fitting equivalent. Terms such as “Howler” become “Громовещатель” (“Gromoveschatel”, literally “loud-proclaimer”), and “Sneakoscope” become “Вредноскоп” (“Vrednoskop”, literally Nastyscope).

With other words, creativity and wordplay was necessary. One of my particular favourites is the translation for “O.W.L.S.”, which becomes the Russian word for “owl”, “сова”, or “S.O.V.” in a literal English equivalent. The best part is that it can also be deconstructed as an acronym, translating as the “Standards of Learning Magic” with the Russian acronym.

Another interesting one is the Mirror of Erised. The Russian translation uses the same trick and takes the word for desire “Желание” (“Zhelaniye”) and inverts it to make “Еиналеж”. Other terms, like “Ravenclaw” or “muggle”, resort to a mixture of these strategies.

The Harry Potter example is relatively simple, however, if you look at the much more extreme side of the spectrum. Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem “Jabberwocky” is a common example in linguistic and cultural anthropology courses when discussing the abstractness of English. Since the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” makes little sense in our literal understanding, it’s really a free-for-all in the realm of translations. The question here becomes whether translation is beneficial or detrimental to the speculative genre, and how one should approach it.

Fluency is not an ability that everyone possesses, and there is certainly something special about reading a literary work or watching a movie in its original language. But the fact that a massive studio like Disney has separate divisions in numerous countries should be an indicator of how drastically the area of translation has evolved. They show that a lot of effort is put into preserving some of the initial emotional sense of a term or phrase. Moreover, often there are humorous little rhymes and anecdotes that sound much better in the translated version than they do in the original.

There is no right or wrong in this case, as some of the explanation lies in the nature of languages themselves. One language may have a more diverse range of colour terminology, for instance, while another may have adjectives that are used to convey sounds, textures, and other minute details that another culture may not pay attention to. There is one certainty however: being able to watch or read something in two or more languages certainly makes one more receptive and open-minded to these nuances. It creates the realization that there must be something brilliant and wonderful in the work itself if so many cultures are trying to find ways to say it.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko


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