A common challenge in literary translation is the issue of a non-standard variety of language being used in the text. Literature has no shortage of using dialects and varieties that can seem unusual when written: Cockney in Pygmalion of GB Shaw, African American English in A Raisin in the Sun of Lorraine Hansberry, or Joual form of Québécois French in Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Sœurs, and a created variety of English that Zachry spoke in Cloud Atlas and the simple speech of the neanderthals of William Golding’s The Inheritors in contrast to the complex speech of the new humans.
The solutions to this challenge is varied. It’s common enough that it becomes often discussed. Since I started my MA at AUS, I’ve discussed this problem more times than I can count. I’m hardly a month into my doctorate studies and I’ve discussed this issue twice. The solutions I’ve seen are three.
The first option is to ignore non-standardness in the source text. I see this as highly problematic. Often the contrast between the standard and non-standard varieties of a language tell us something. It is a detail that is difficult to ignore when read in the source text. Take The Inheritors as an example, the story is about a group of neanderthals who speak in a very simple way, whereas the new humans at the end of the novel are capable of using complex language (For a discussion of this see MAK Halliday’s 1971 paper “Linguistic function and literary style”, this was republished here and here). How do you carry along this contrast when you use one standard variety all through the text?
The second option is to force yourself to find a non-standard variety of the target language that is “comparable” (intentionally scare-quoted) to the non-standard variety used in the source text. I scare-quote comparable for a reason: will you really find a variety that has the same set of stereotypes as the source text’s variety? By doing so you could be introducing a different context into the text when translating. For example, when translating a text using dialectal features of Southern American English into Arabic, would you use a dialect among the dialects of the Bedouin Arabs? The sociolinguistic context of each variety is different, therefore incomparable. However, it was a successful strategy when Michel Tremblay’s play was translated into English, the variety used in place of Joual was Glaswegian Scots: The Guid Sisters. (Scots, in my opinion and in the opinion of many, counts as a language separate from English, but it is often portrayed as a dialect of English.)
The third option is to create one from scratch. You could take up the standard but oversimplify it in the case of the neanderthals, possibly abbreviate and contract expressions in the case of Les Belles-Sœurs and Pygmalion, or create lexical and syntactical features that seem unusual in the case of Cloud Atlas. This is my preferred strategy, I see it as a chance for a translator to input some of his creativity into the text he’s working on. This is not a new strategy, it’s been used before and often. Take for example the case of translations into Modern Hebrew (this example I found in Translators through History 2012: 53), which was for a time undergoing a period of revival and, because of two thousand years of strictly liturgical use, it lacked a spoken variety. I quote from the book the following paragraph:
“Translators had to resolve these difficulties, since the source texts included both spoken language and references to modern phenomena. This need was met by renewing Hebrew and extending its own range of resources. This included reviving old words by changing or enlarging their original meaning, giving new meaning to words whose old meaning had been forgotten and, in addition, coining new words or creating neologisms, on the basis of existing grammatical forms. When translators wanted to create ‘a spoken variant’, they sometimes disrupted the old language on purpose by using idioms incorrectly. Hebrew also benefited from its contact with various source languages, enriching the stock of Hebrew resources by imitating grammatical and syntactical forms, borrowing words, and translating expressions literally in the form of calques.”
I see this strategy as not merely creative, but also beneficial for any language, you’re giving the language you’re working with a new way of expressing ideas and describing experiences. The paragraph right after the one quoted above says how Hebrew fiction writers continue to use fictitious spoken language in their writings.