Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Love in Translation

There hasn't been a lot of work done on the effect of translation on romances, and a fair proportion of what has been done isn't accessible to me, so I was pleased to see Artemis Lamprinou's article in issue 2.1 of the Journal of Romance Studies. Artemis Lamprinou looks at "British bestseller romances translated into Greek during the period 2000-2009, such as Gregson’s East of the Sun, Hislop’s The Island, and De Bernières Captain Corelli’s Mandolin," and shows that translation is not just about the mechanical substitution of words in one language for words with the same meaning in another. Translators have to take into account cultural norms and these differ from one culture to another:
Emotions may appear to be a common experience to all people across the globe but this is a generalization that requires some refining. All people feel and convey emotions but different cultures have their own emotional repertoires and their own norms regulating not only the expression of emotions, but as some scholars argue, even the variety of the emotions experienced. [...] The more modern version of the cultural approach to emotions, and the one that this paper adopts, is that some basic emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, are indeed universal. However, culture plays a considerable role in the suppression or heightening of emotions and generates norms governing the when, where, and how these emotions can be expressed (Shaver, Wu, & Schwartz 183). These cultural norms affecting the communication of emotions cannot be ignored in the translation of romances, especially when experiencing the emotions is vital for the identification of the reader with the characters, on which reader satisfaction depends. ("Translated")
Lamprinou's initial findings are that
  • when translating the word "anger," "translators have a tendency to increase its force in the Greek translation"; there was a "tendency to translate 'anger' as rage." Lamprinou suggests that this "could have been the result of the influence of Greek cultural textual norms which slightly differ in this case from the English ones as Greek authors value the production of more ‘dramatic’ passages."
  • similarly, translators may "raise the force of the described emotions [...] by altering the metaphor employed and [...] by introducing [...] personification." This would support the "hypothesis that Greek romance authors prefer more intense emotional passages than their English counterparts."
  • "Greek translators seem to eliminate, or at least ignore, certain strategies that were absent from the Greek romances, such as allusions and alliterations." Lamprinou rather tentatively suggests that "the translators may have eliminated the above-mentioned linguistic strategies in an effort to abide to the Greek textual norms, or, more possibly, they did not manage to recognize the importance of the strategies as they have not been often ‘exposed’ to such linguistic strategies through the Greek original romances."
Lamprinou's article draws attention to the importance of the translator and this is also emphasised in a 1998 article by Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, who interviewed members of Harlequin's Stockholm office, including "Ewa Högberg, the editor with the overall responsibility for translations in-house." Högberg explained that
sometimes I would get a translation of a book that I had felt was a real tenpointer -- and then a translator had taken it and it comes out like nothing. Then you're so disappointed, because I had maybe laughed out loud when I read it or cried. It had made an impact -- not all books do that, but these are the ones you remember and then you expect so much of them. Then there's the opposite situation. Sometimes you have to take books that you don't believe in to 100%, maybe because it's a particular translator, maybe because the book contains certain parts that are supposed to work in contrast to others that month, so you get a good variation in contents. Sure, it's okay, but not that great according to my way of looking at things -- and then it comes back, and it's just -- YES! -- the best story, dynamite language, and you just feel that...sometimes I've gone back to my notes to check -- is this the same book? Can this really be? (Eva Högberg, Förlaget Harlequin AB, Stockholm, personal communication, May 20, 1996)
So the dullness and lifelessness of the first may become the vivaciousness of the next. As she talks about her own reading, the enthusiasm is almost tangible. The book is not just "simply" translated into another cultural context, where it comes out clothed in another language, but essentially "the same." Instead, the process of translation is hazardous territory and what she is suggesting is that translations do matter -- so much so, in fact, that they can "make or break" the book. ("They Seek")
Swedish Harlequins were also reduced in length:
The most important direction given to the translator is that he or she needs to shorten the chapter by 10 to 15% since all Harlequin books are shortened in translation from English to Swedish. Books in the Superromance and Historical series are cut from 304 pages to 272 pages, books in the Romance, Presents, and Desire series are cut from 192 pages to 160 pages. ("They Seek")
 Further changes may occur because the advice given to translators
is hardly rigid: "it is allowed to distance yourself from the English text to a substantial degree" and even though the recommendation is to keep personal names as they are, they are not holy. At one of the editorial meetings, the pros and cons of the names in the miniseries Calloway Corners (where the individual books are named after each of four sisters) were discussed extensively. Mariah was kept, Jo became Chris (due to a possible mix-up with a Swedish orange juice sold under the name of JO), Eden was considered too foreign for Swedish ears and transformed into Ellen, and the hero in Mariah, Ford (a car, not a name, according to the editors), was rechristened Robert. ("They Seek")
In her work Lamprinou mentions that some allusions may not translate well and she gives an example from the Greek translation of Rosamunde Pilcher’s
Winter Solstice, Elfrida, the heroine, is afraid to get out of her car because of a barking dog. The author of the text employs the phrase “a Baskerville hound” to express her fear by alluding to Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Hound of the Baskervilles. The translator’s choice to render this passage into Greek word for word (literally “Baskerville hound,” as the article can sometimes be omitted in Greek) results in a Greek translation whose word order and phrasing remind readers less of the famous Sherlock Holmes book and sound more like the name of some strange breed of dog: a “Baskervillian hound” or simply “A Baskerville.” ("Translated")
The issue of allusions which are lost in translation is also discussed by Wirtén:
Cultural allusions to people or particular phenomena are treated either by exclusion altogether or by substitution. George Burns, George Strait, and Sadie Thompson are examples of characters that are simply deleted, presumably because they will not be recognized as references by Swedish readers; "Kleenex," a brand name synonymous with a product in North America is far better known as "paper napkin" in Sweden; similarly, the expression "Lead on, Macduff" becomes "Lead on, Sherlock" in all likelihood because the translator deems the detective to be better known than the character from Macbeth. References that require some previous knowledge of American culture to be understood at all, like a joke made on the concept of the Fifth Amendment or a pun on the word key (both as keys on a computer and the Florida Keys) are more problematic, either impossible to keep as they are or demanding an extra effort on part of the translator to come up with Swedish equivalents. ("They Seek")
In addition, at least with regards to sex scenes, it would appear that in the Swedish-language editions "the overt physicality of the text is substituted with a more reflective, metaphorical language" ("They Seek"); Lamprinou found that in the Greek-language editions of the novels she studied metaphors were also added (though the examples she gives were not taken from sex scenes).

Cumulatively, the cuts and alterations which are made to these texts leave Wirtén asking: "Is this not a new book? And where is the writer in all of this?" ("They Seek").


The image came from Wikimedia Commons. It was created as an "Icon for translation projects" by Flappiefh.


  1. Thanks for posting on this Laura: I find translation in romance (and other narratives) fascinating, and actually have an exciting (albeit embryonic) project in the pipeline to work on Tagalog translations of English language romances with a colleague.

    I have often wondered at the lack of critical work on romance translation (as you mention), especially since Harlequin Mills & Boon have such a global reach. So it's brilliant to see another article on popular romance translation.

  2. While this is strictly anecdotal, another interesting question is, how well do certain emotional words translate. For example, in English -> Russian translation, the verb "to anger" or the adjective "angry" have good equivalents ("сердиться", "сердитый"), but there is no noun with the same root. Just the lexical peculiarity of the language. So if you try to translate English noun "anger" into Russian and keep it a noun, you will end up saying either "irritation" or "rage".

    The obvious workaround is to rephrase the sentence sufficiently that you no longer need a noun, or to use a more complex multi-word phrase. I am in a slightly weird situation where most of my "emotional intelligence", as it were, was acquired after I moved to English-speaking countries, through combination or therapy and reading (a lot of it romance reading ;-). And so I learned that certain things that sound natural in English just don't translate back that well - you either end up saying something awkward, or end up reformulating the thought until it no longer really looks the same, or does not have the same impact because it is no longer "short and sweet".

  3. The items on translating romances which I've not been able to get hold of are:

    Al-Bataineh, Afaf Badr, 1998.
    "The modern Arabic novel: a literary and linguistic analysis of the genre of popular fiction, with special reference to translation from English." Ph.D., Heriot-Watt.["critical insights should enable us to form an overall picture of how the subject of my case study (Mills & Boon and its translation into Arabic) is viewed in the languages and cultures concerned: this particular genre has not been acceptable to the Western literary establishment until recently, and is not acceptable to the Arabic critical establishment even today. [...] Chapter Eight presents a detailed analysis of a Mills & Boon novel in English and its translation into Arabic."]

    Goris, An, 2009.
    "Romance the World Over," in Global Cultures. Ed. Frank A. Salamone. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars. pp. 59-?? ** [Discusses the worldwide translation, production and distribution of Harlequins.]

    Kemppinen, Anne, 1989.
    “Translation for Popular Literature with Special Reference to Harlequin Books and their Finnish Translation”, in Empirical Studies in Translation and Linguistics, Studies in Languages, nº 17, ed. Sonja Tirkkonen-Condit & Stephen Condit (Savonlinna: University of Joensuu, Faculty of Arts), pp. 25-36. She has also written a thesis/dissertation:

    Kemppinen, Anne-Mari Katriina, 1988.
    "Translating for popular literature with special reference to Harlequin books and their Finnish translations." University of Joensuu.

  4. Nowicka, Katarzyna, 2010.
    "Romancing the Masses – Problems of Light Romantic Fiction Translation in Poland" in 3rd Annual International Conference on Philology, Literature & Linguistics, 12 – 15 July 2010, Athens, Greece, Athens Institute for Education and Research. [The paper "centre[s] around the formative role of translation in the process of light romantic fiction publishing, subordinate and passive position of the author and special responsibility of the editor who controls the procedure of trans-editing. The main impact is to be laid on the power relations between the Harlequin translator and the Publishing House represented by the editor. In addition, the figure of factory translator is to be presented in detail, considering professionalism, working conditions, environment and methods. The problems of mass literature rendition, such as haste, restrictions, standardization or commercialism, as well as translation mistakes resulting from them are to be presented and illustrated with the examples taken from the English and Polish issues of selected titles."]

    Paizis, George, 1998.
    'Category Romances - Translation, Realism and Myth', The Translator, 4: 1-24. ["The study, which is exploratory in nature, shows this particular process of translation as a coming together of linguistic practices and cultural models, commercial considerations and readers' socio-cultural expectations."]

    Shibamoto-Smith, Janet S., 2005.
    ‘Translating True Love: Japanese Romantic Fiction, Harlequin-Style’ in Gender, Sex and Translation: The Manipulation of Identities, ed. José Santaemilia (Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing), pp. 97-116. ["Dialogue drawn from the Harlequin lovers' interactions is analyzed and interpreted against native Japanese norms for the appropriate expression of emotion and against the speech and actions of counterpart lovers drawn from a sample of contemporary native Japanese category romances. Of the differences found, two serve primarily to construct a different kind of heroine, the third, a different hero. Together, they provide new spaces for imagined female equality and emotional helplessness, on the one hand, and for male verbal expressivity, on the other. Japanese-language Harlequins offer linguistic portraits of 'true' lovers inhabiting very different worlds of heterosexual desirability from their domestic Japanese fictional lover counterparts."]

    This one isn't strictly about translation, but it does very briefly ponder the role of the translators:

    Bigey, Magali, 2008.
    "Stratégies narratives et mises en scène lexicales du roman sentimental sériel contemporain : l'auteure, le corps et les sentiments", Belphégor: Littérature Populaire et Culture Médiatique 7.2: no pagination. ["Il semblerait que les régularités de ce type de vocabulaire viennent des auteures elles-mêmes (et parfois également des traducteurs)"]

    There is somewhat more about the effects of translation in

    Flesch, Juliet, 2004.
    From Australia With Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels (Fremantle, W.A.: Curtin University Books). ["See pages 263-274. Flesch concludes that "French translators of Australian romances retain the basic story lines and descriptions of Australian locales, flora and fauna, but fail to translate much of what distinguishes the books as Australian. In keeping with the traditions of the French romans a l'eau de rose [...] the hero and more particularly the heroine are stripped of many of the characteristics with which their creators consciously endow them" (274).]

  5. I have often wondered at the lack of critical work on romance translation (as you mention), especially since Harlequin Mills & Boon have such a global reach. So it's brilliant to see another article on popular romance translation.

    I wonder if the difficulties involved in getting hold of both the English-language originals and the translations of Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances is a problem for those who would like to work in this area? Is getting hold of the texts likely to be a problem for your project?

    I also wonder, given that there seems to be a general perception that romance is trashy and badly written, whether this affects the number of people who care about how they're translated?

  6. While this is strictly anecdotal, another interesting question is, how well do certain emotional words translate. [...] certain things that sound natural in English just don't translate back that well - you either end up saying something awkward, or end up reformulating the thought until it no longer really looks the same, or does not have the same impact because it is no longer "short and sweet".

    I think you're right. I only have anecdotal evidence to support this too, but I remember listening to some love songs in Spanish and when a friend asked me to translate them, he found the words hilariously funny. I was not pleased; in Spanish they sounded highly emotional, but not funny. It could just be that my translation skills are bad (in fact, I'm sure they are) but even so, I think it's at least partly the case that some things don't translate easily.