My last book was translated into German, and I struck up quite the correspondence with the translator. This is not too unusual; translating something from one language to another is not easy, and certainly is not the sort of thing that can be completed by a machine. A real live human being reads your words, and then re-writes them in another language. Even the best and most experienced translator can run into words – even seemingly simple words – that are difficult to translate.
Take, for example, my German friend’s trouble with the word hot.
Hot seems like a pretty black and white concept, the sort of word that has an obvious German equivalent (pro tip: its heiß or heiss). The sort of word you can’t get too confused about; things are either hot or they are not hot at all, right? There are totally separate words for not really hot (that would be warm) or simply not at all hot (er, cold). Nevertheless, my poor translator had a lot of trouble because I used the word hot in so many different ways. For temperature, sure. Also for attractiveness, intensity, popularity, and as part of idioms like hot and bothered or hot under the collar. It is a science fiction book, too, so I think there might have been some acronyms for made-up technologies in there as well.
The first time Dierk contacted me, he assured me it was for a quick question; the way I had used the word hot confused him and he just needed a nudge to point him towards the correct reading. A few days later, another quick question. A day after that, a timid email with an additional dozen or so instances where he was increasingly confused about my usage of the word hot. He understood that it could be used to mean many different things depending on context and structure, but he was beginning to suspect I used it to mean everything.
I assured him I did not mess around with Joycean wordplay like that and helped him with his queries. By the end of it, Dierk’s jaunty tone had collapsed into a whimper of sorts. It was amazing: He could translate a paragraph about alien grubs infesting the sewers of a city on the Moon without breaking a sweat, but every time I used the word hot, he sent me a flummoxed email.
To be fair, Dierk was working on the first book in a five book series. By the middle of the second book he was not only completely comfortable with hot, he was correcting my English grammar as well!
It just goes to show that sometimes even the simplest words can be the hardest to translate.