Lost in Translation

The Pern stories have been translated into more than 120 different languages. On Saturday, track director Charlotte Moore led a panel on the various forms one story took when translated into four languages. Panelists read several translations of a passage from Dragonflight, chosen for its difficult-to-translate poetic and “Pernese” contents. Thomas Edgar (German), Jacob Klunder (Danish), Joyce Lanterman (French), and Moore (Spanish) followed the reading with a discussion of how each version differed from the original.

The quality of the various translations varied. The German version, while fairly accurate, contained several mistranslations. The Danish translation was full of needlessly direct translations for the Pernese terms and concepts. The poem, though faithful in meaning to the original, lost its poetic quality. In both French and Spanish, both the story and the poem very closely matched the original.

Klunder said he generally prefers books in their original form, as he finds them much more affecting. All the panelists agreed that quality depends on how well the translator understands the book, citing such works as Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno, and the Bible as perfect examples of how much the written word’s meaning depends on its adaptor. They voiced concern that translating fine nuances in works of fantasy requires a great deal of knowledge and attention. They noted that humor and idioms need special care as well.

Moore raised localization issues for individual languages with a wide dialectal variation, such as Spanish. There was a lively discussion of the different languages’ pronunciations for Pernese names and terms.

Later editions of the same translated work seem to consistently improve. It was clear that the difference in translation quality lay in the individual translators’ skill levels and not the target languages’ appropriateness for the content.

The panel decided on three characteristics they’d like to see in a translator of science fiction. The job requires high competence in translation, a native fluency in the target language, and a love for the material. A translator of SF should love the work.

Author of the article

Katya Jenson grew up reading her mom's collection of science fiction and still thinks sci-fi cover art peaked in the '70s. She works in the editorial department of an Atlanta publishing house, and freelances as a book editor and translator. This is Katya’s second Dragon*Con, and her second year happily polishing commas and murdering apostrophes for the Daily Dragon.

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