Everyone of us has read a book in which a given character’s accent is rendered graphically, by altering the spelling of what he says. It’s a simple and very effective technique, much more so than describing the way a character talks. Of course, it’s important not to abuse it, ma it’s probably the best method of conveying a foreign accent. What happens, though, when a translator is faced with such a character?
In The Pilo Family Circus (published in Italy as La città dei clown), a book that I mentioned a while back, there is a character named Mugabo, an African magician. The way in which Will Elliott renders his accent graphically made me think of a francophone African accent: Mugabo says ‘treek’, ‘peeg’, ‘geev’ and ‘sometheeng’ (instead of ‘trick’ ‘pig’, ‘give’ and ‘something’), or ‘ze’ and ‘zis’ (‘the’ and ‘this’). Basically he stretches the ‘i’s turning them into ‘ee’s and can’t pronounce the ‘th’ phoneme properly.
In Chelsea Handler’s deadly funny Are you there, Vodka? It’s me Chelsea (Vodka, ci sei? Sono io, Chelsea, Strade Blu Mondadori), there was a chinese massage therapist (or maybe not) saying ‘wicense’, ‘cwothes’ and ‘wesbian’ (‘license’, ‘clothes’ and ‘lesbian’) or ‘fuhst’ and ‘dollah’ (‘first’ and ‘dollars’). As stereotypical as they might be, the usual, well-know problems with ‘l’s and ‘r’s.
In Ron Currie Jr.’s stunning Everything Matters! (soon to be published as Ogni cosa è importante! by Strade Blu Mondadori in Italy) there is a flight attendant, whose South American accent is rendered with words like ‘ree-fill’ (‘refill’), ‘ello’ (‘hello’), ‘choo’ (‘you’). He makes the ‘i’s longer, too, skips more than one ‘h’ and pronounces his ‘y’s as if they were ‘j’s as I think is commonplace in the Spanish of some Latin American countries.
My approach to these little translation problems is as simple as it is fun. First of all I translate the character’s lines correctly, given that any accent, twisting single phonemes, will obviously affect different words in English and Italian. Then, in order to determine which ones, I simply start sounding off that character’s lines with the relevant accent, and change the spelling accordingly. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had quite a knack for impressions, and for accents in particular, but it seems to work.
So, Mugabo the magician in Italian says ‘gonillio’ ‘gazzo’ and ‘guesto’ (‘coniglio’, ‘cazzo’ and ‘questo’) ‘palliaccio’ (‘pagliaccio’) o ‘piasce’ (‘piace’). Basically, his hard ‘c’s are too hard, his soft ‘c’s too soft, and he has problem (as most non-Italian speakers) with the sound ‘gli’.
The chinese massage therapist, says ‘pagale plima’ (‘pagare prima’) and so on,although I also tried to turn her ‘s’ into a ‘z’ as in ‘Met-ta quezto zu zuo zedele’ (‘Metta questo sul suo sedere’) and ‘lezbi-kah’ (‘lesbica’).
Alfredo, on the other hand, says ‘Me serve altro café’ (‘mi serve altro caffè’), ‘Tuto bene’ (‘tutto bene’) and ‘Hai tirrato l’agua tipo venti vuolte’ (‘hai tirato l’acqua tipo venti volte’), underlining the Spanish speaker’s trouble with the Italian double consonants, and on the other hand the long rolling that makes ‘r’s longer in Spanish than they are in Italian. For lack of an appropriate grapheme, I had to give up my idea of merging his ‘b’s and ‘v’s in that intermediate sound that is one of the distinctive traits of most Spanish accents.
So, basically, what I do is determining what kind of accent a character has, simulate that accent on their lines in Italian, and it’s done. Anyone out there using a different method? Or wanting to share an example of some other accents which were interesting to translate?