Translation trouble: when there’s no word for “fuck”

In the current Quill & Quire (print only), Mary Soderstrom asks, “What do you do when you’re translating Leonard Cohen’s raunchy novel Beautiful Losers into a language that doesn’t have profanity?”

Just to give you a sense of what we’re talking about, here’s one of Cohen’s characters describing to his friend what happened before he fucked the friend’s wife.

We dug our index fingers in each other’s ears. I won’t deny the sexual implications. You are ready to face them now. All parts of the body are erotogenic. Assholes can be trained with whips and kisses, that’s elementary. Pricks and cunts have become monstrous! Down with genital imperialism! All flesh can come! Don’t you see what we have lost? Why have we abdicated so much pleasure to that which lives in underwear? Orgasms in the shoulder! Knees going off like firecrackers! Hair in motion! And not only caresses leading us into the nourishing anonymity of the eclimax, not only sucking and wet tubes, but wind and conversaton and a beautiful pair of gloves, fingers blushing!

The Lithuanian translator, Aiste Ptakauskaite, ultimately resorted to Russian curse words.
 

This weekend J.M. Coetzee writes at length in The Australian about the “necessary imperfections of translation.” Coetzee is multi-lingual, but even so he’s only been able to read two or three of the 25 different foreign-language translations of his work. For evaluations of the rest, he’s had to rely on bilingual readers.

Coetzee acknowledges that a translator, of necessity, “becomes accustomed to aiming for the best possible translation rather than a hypothetical perfect one.” But sometimes the translator can’t even get close.

Working on the Serbian translation of Elizabeth Costello, AB met an unexpected obstacle when she transliterated Elizabeth’s name into Cyrillic characters.

Elizabeth looks forward to seeing her writings on the library shelves among such great Cs as Chaucer, Coleridge and Conrad. Then with dismay she realises than her nearest neighbour is likely to be Marie Corelli.

The first problem is that in Serbian, Chaucer, unlike Coleridge, Corelli and Costello, is not spelled with an initial K.

AB: Should I drop Chaucer, or replace him with, say, Keats? Corelli is a K, but the allusion would be lost on Serbian readers. May I insert an adjective like “sentimental” or “very minor”?

JMC: Drop Chaucer. Then I suggest you consult a Serbian-language encyclopedia and pick out a minor English-language writer near to Kostelo.

AB: Minor writers: only the popular ones get into foreign encyclopedias. Agatha Christie, James Fenimore Cooper, A.J. Cronin?

JMC: Agatha Christie, I think.

The Literary Saloon recently observed that, in the U.S., translators get little credit for their trouble.


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