A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to translate The Pilo Family Circus, Will Elliott’s award-winning debut. Will lives in Brisbane, a few kilometers away, and is an extremely talented writer. Strade Blu Mondadori published the book in Italy under the title La città dei clown.
Wait a second. Doesn’t that mean The City of Clowns? Yeah. I know. The problem of changing titles also affects literature. But in this case, at least, there were good reasons for it. The original title wouldn’t have worked for a number of reasons, as the word ‘Pilo’ evokes some unfortunate associations in Italian. Still, I’m not entirely convinced that this was the best choice, as there is no ‘city’ of clowns in the book. The choice wasn’t mine, but in any case the book was well-received.
I had lots of fun translating the peculiar language of one of the main characters, Doopy the clown. He speaks in a strange, incoherent and exhilarating way. Needless to say, such a character is a great device for an author to have fun with puns and word plays. And these are one of the least translatable elements of any language. Here I will present a short collection of the most interesting passages, very good examples of the daily challenges of a literary translator. In all of these cases, the peculiarity of Doopy’s speech were literally untranslatable, so this is one of those times when the translator has to go for that dynamic equivalence I mentioned a while back. In simple words, it’s about producing in the reader of the translated work the closest possible impression to the one the original had on its own audience. For example:
“Who done it, Gonko?” said Doopy. “Who done it? They shouldn’ta oughtn’ta done it, Gonko!”
The central point I wanted to maintain, here, was the over-abundance of badly conjugated verbs, of course. But verbs work so differently in Italian, that it wasn’t that straightforward. After a few changes, I went for
“Chi è stato a l’ha fatto, Gonko?” chiese Doopy. “Chi è stato a l’ha fatto? Non avrebbero dovuto dover averlo fatto, Gonko!”
Whereas the properly conjugated verbs here would have simply been ‘Chi è stato a farlo?’ and ‘Non avrebbero dovuto farlo’ so, mimicking the original, the addition of the same verbs (or parts thereof) conjugated in different tenses did the trick. Doopy’s use of redundant verbs, though, reaches its peak in this other sentence that he utters in a moment of great commotion:
“They done it again, they gone and done did it, they did doggone done do’d it!”
Which, after several versions, became
“L’hanno rifatto di nuovo, han preso e l’han far fatto, l’han proprio fatto farlo fanno preso far fatto!”
It’s easy to see how these sentences needed to be completely reformulated. I had to imagine an Italian-speaking Doopy. What goofy linguistic mistakes would such a brain come up with if it were thinking in Italian? It’s a great responsibility indeed, but it’s also a lot of fun. Other times, Doopy distorts set phrases and idiomatic phrases in clumsy ways, as in:
“He pooped the question, Gonko.”
“Yeah, that’s what he done. Goshy done went and pooped the question.”
Here I needed to find an element, in the Italian translation, that was suited to such an unfortunate distortion. Luckily I didn’t have to think much, about it, and went for:
“Gli ha fatto una prostata di matrimonio, Gonko.”
“Le ha fatto una proposta di matrimonio?”
“Si, ecco, quello ha fatto. Goshy ha preso, andato e gli ha fatto una prostata di matrimonio.”
Italian doesn’t have an idiomatic equivalent of ‘pop the question’, we rather make a plain ‘proposta di matrimonio’ (‘marriage proposal’), and that ‘proposta’ became ‘prostata’ (‘prostate’) which has quite an exhilarating effect.
Finally, Doopy’s funny speech presented me with one of the best cases of found in translation of my career. At some point the clowns are about to vent their anger on one of the circus’ acrobats, and there’s this exchange between clown leader Gonko and Doopy:
“[…] What’s the opposite of a facelift?”
“Squash smash face,” Doopy said.
It was obviously essential to maintain the consonance of ‘squash’ and ‘smash’. And in a few seconds, not only I had obtained that, but the Italian sentence even took that to the next level, thanks to a fortunate combination of Italian words:
“[…]qual è il contrario di un lifting?”
“Uno spiaccica schiaccia faccia,”disse Doopy.
If you don’t know how to pronounce Italian, this would sound something like spee-ah-cheeka skee-ah-cha fa-cha. The repetition of hard and soft (‘k’ and ‘c’) sounds really calls to mind what could happen to the acrobat’s face, doesn’t it?
As you can see, Doopy presented me with a special opportunity to explore the creative, or rather re-creative side of translation. I hope this little and unpretentious case study will help to shed some light on the practical details of our job, and make readers appreciate the ‘invisible’ work of the translator a little bit more.
If you’re curious to discover the world of Doopy, Gonko, the psycho clown JJ and all the other sinister characters inhabiting this insane circus, go look for The Pilo Family Circus, or, if you want the Italian translation, La città dei clown. And keep reading this blog.