Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Losts in Translation

One of the interesting things about the process of translation, when you've got a translator who really pushes for the best result possible is that they fire you a bunch of really low-level questions of a sort that never get asked in interviews -- why this word here, why that phrase there -- but which are often really illuminating of the thought processes behind yer novel, and of the subtleties of sense that are dependant on a single word, how difficult that can be to transfer into another language. So I thought it might be interesting to post up this list of questions and answers as a wee insight into that process and into the weird-ass ways us writer-types think, how we (OK, OK, how I) tend to take for granted that this or that reference will be obvious, surely, to anyone and everyone (because aren't we all familiar with the transmission of Sumerian mythology to Greece by way of Phoenicia? No? Oh... right.) Anyway, I haven't posted for a while because I was busy helping organise my mate Phil's stag night, with some essays to write for various places, and with responses I'm working on to various comments, emails and bloggings all kicked off by the recent religious debate (Ben, Guy, Dave -- I will respond shortly, I promise).

So for now, here's some notes on translation. I've no idea if this'll actually be of any interest to anyone who hasn't read the book (or indeed to anyone who has), but it's my blog, bwah ha, ha, etc..

(You know, I'm kinda thinking of doing a story in this format now, a sort of Borgesian metafiction. Hmm...)


[62] „Did he think we wouldn’t gather you as well“: is „you“ plural or singular?


[76] „Everything is broken up, and dances.“ -- The Doors, if I am not mistaken. Could you specify „broken up“?

Yep, it's from American Prayer. I'm not quite sure what you're looking for here in terms of specification, but I take Morrison's line as a description of hallucinatory experience, where your perception of what's around you seems to fall to pieces, to be shattered into... particles of vision, for want of a better term, particles which shimmer and flicker, recombining endlessly. It's a bit transcendental and mystical, I suppose, and hard to describe. But imagine that end scene in The Matrix where Neo "sees the code", sees the corridor with the agents at the end of it, as these dancing streams of green digits. Now imagine that at a higher resolution and in all the colours of the spectrum. Or suppose you make a picture of a face using tiny wee pictures of faces as pixels, only each pixel is being constantly flipped for another which has a general tone close enough that the big picture stays pretty much the same, but just different enough that the effect is one of vitality, of vibrance...

Everything is broken up -- shattered, scattered, fragmented -- and dances.

[80] Some references I did not get or names I could not verify: „Land of Dreams“, „Peter Kern“, „Gate of a Thousand Doors“

"Land of Dreams" is applied to New Mexico because it's full of all these roads and places ascribed strange mystical significance, probably due to the syncretism of Catholic and native mythology in the culture of the region. Peter Kern was a property developer in the 1950s or 1960s as described, who built this bloody weird Gate on the road up to one of his housing developments. It's covered in mystical symbols and looks like some junkyard version of the sort of gates you get leading into Chinatown in various cities. "The Gate of a Thousand Doors" is, as I understand, a Hindu term. I came across it in a weird-ass book called Apocalypse Culture.

[80] „how many thousand klicks“: „klicks“ -- have heard it a thousand times before, but cannot find a translation (and feel stupid about it ;-)

"Klicks" is US Army slang for kilometres, riffing off words like "click" or "tick". A thousand kilometres = a thousand klicks. It's sorta seeped into the hard-boiled vocabulary of stuff like cyberpunk.

[87] „spend last summer hiding out [...], July through May“: is the summer here meant to be during a different time of the year than ours?

The idea is that Thomas actually spent that summer travelling backwards in time -- July >> June >> May.

[94] „Carrion comfort for this guy“: Could you elaborate?

Hmmm. This riffs off the idiom, "cold comfort", meaning "no comfort"; Dan Simmons uses the phrase "carrion comfort" as a title of a book, implying an even higher level of cruelty, callousness. I'm not sure if it originates with Simmons or before him, but I think the phrase deserves its own idiom status.

[94] „Tassili-n-Ajer“: I found „Tassili N’Ajjer“ -- same thing?

Yes. This will probably just be a variant spelling.

[94] „BCE“ ?

Before Common Era. This is common usage with modern academics as a neutral terminology, avoiding the whole Christian-centric terminology of BC as Before Christ.

[95] „looks at you“ ... „look around you“: singular or plural?


[104] „Adonis ... and Adonai Tammuz“: Adonis is familiar, of course, but Adonai? Your own variant?

"Adonai" is the Hebrew for "Lord" (subsituted in for YHWH when reading aloud from the Torah). The story of Tammuz/Dumuzi came to the Greeks via the Phoenicians, who evidently referred to him as Lord -- "Adonai". Add the typical -s ending of Greek and you get "Adonais" or "Adonis".

[104] „Damu, dumu-zi“: ?

"Damu" was an alternative title for Dumuzi. It's a variant of "dumu", which simply means "child". With "zi" meaning "shining", Dumuzi's name actually parses as "shining child" -- dumu-zi.

[104] „nipper of gnostic gospels“: „nipper“?

Literally, it just means a "youngster". The connotations are what's important here, though; "nipper" implies a child who's small enough and quick enough to "nip" -- to dart nimbly to and fro, here and there, like the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist or Shakespeare's Puck. Think impish and spritely, in thought as well as deed, the sort of tricksterish spirit who'd speak in riddles (c.f. the Gospel of Thomas) or be precociously sceptical (c.f. the "doubting Thomas" of the Bible... doubting like a child being told about Santa Claus who knows it's a story).

[104] „kidskin to lambswool“ ?

That's "to" as in "versus"... or as in "A is to B as X is to Y" -- i.e. shortened from "in contrast to" or "in comparison to". So in comparison with Jesus, Thomas is "kidskin [in contrast] to [Jesus's] lambswool".

He's associated with the goat (c.f. Dionysus or the Biblical scapegoat) as a pagan figure while Jesus is associated with the lamb, being referred to in the Bible as the Lamb of God, (wool being all white and pure and soft and all). Thomas is still a "kid" though -- youthful and innocent -- so he's "kidskin" (as in kid gloves which are, like wool, soft and white) rather than goathide (which is all rough and hairy, like).

[104] „Like a kid I have fallen into milk“? A quote? A „kid“ as in „child“ or „young goat“ or ...?

Yep, it's a quote. I picked this up from Robert Graves's The White Goddess. According to Graves it's what the initiates of one of the Greek mystery cults would say in their initiation rituals, as an identification of themselves with the god Dionysus. Primarily it means "young goat" but the metaphoric sense of "kid" as a "child" is a nice ambiguity. It feeds back into the matrix of associations above.

Anyway, the translation to go with would be "kid" = "young goat".

[106] „Pseudapigrahia“: the „a“ in the middle is intentional?

Yes, (strangely enough). The Pseudapigraphia is a real-world text, rather than something I made up, and my sources spell it that way. I did check, wondering if it should be an "e" as in "epigraph".


Anonymous Jen said...

Actually, it was fascinating. I've always wondered how this translation business works... (and I've cringed at times seeing how bad some translations are).

I'm Romanian by the way (and excited about the post down there somewhere about your Romanian deal).

3:12 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Cool. :) I don't know when the Romanian edition will be out -- these things can take a while, unfortunately, and I pity the poor translator working with my weird shit -- but I'll be posting updates as and when the various translated editions come out.

Actually, I was in Romania a couple of years back. Spent a few weeks in the town of Odorhei in Transylvannia for work. What's that wicked rot-gut called again? Polenka? Man, I was glad I was used to drinking absinthe.

3:49 pm  
Anonymous Surveyor said...

It is funny to read about the troubles that other translators have. Till this moment, I knew it only from the other side, the side of the sweating dumb one who has to ask. Thanks for posting it, Hal!
Hoping - but dreading at the some time - to meet some of your fiction face to face
Petr K., translator, Czech Rep.

9:12 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hi Petr. There's a Czech publisher who may well be looking for a translator for it at the moment. :)

1:04 pm  
Anonymous Surveyor said...

I know about it, Hal; and I think I can say it was me who prompted the publisher. We are in contact, but the fooking problem is time (not only in your book). Anyway, it is a big challenge!

9:21 am  
Anonymous onebatmother said...

Really sorry to crash, but does anyone know what the plural of Adonis is, in Ancient Greek? I know it's a proper noun and therefore doesn't often take the plural, but there must be something...??

7:43 pm  
Blogger nina said...

Oh yes, this is just what I need. I've been compiling a list of tricky questions but now I see that I'm not alone. Will drop by. Finland calling Elvis...

2:29 pm  

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