Translating The Colour Purple

December 13th, 2014

The vernacular used in the novel The Color Purple is famous in translation circles for its difficulty to translate successfully into other languages.

Translating The Colour Purple | One Hour Translation

The novel “The Colour Purple” by Alice Walker is frequently mentioned in translation circles because of the peculiar challenges it represents. Not only is it a very American novel, with a story that is specific to this country and its unique racial history, but it’s also a novel told in a very distinctive vernacular that combines some very difficult linguistic concepts that make even simple sentences difficult to translate – if you wish to maintain the character and rhythm of the vernacular instead of simply conveying the story beats and literal meaning of dialogue.

And that’s always the choice you have to make when translating fiction. The author has injected their prose with the bounce and flavour of a specific vernacular or slang, and if you want your translation to keep some of that spice you’ll have to come up with a strategy for conveying it in the target language, where, presumably, no such vernacular exists. This can be very difficult even for experienced language translation professionals – consider the challenge of bringing American black vernacular into Chinese!

Ain’t Got that Swing

Ain’t is one of the strangest words in the English language. After a protracted battle, language scolds have only recently grudgingly accepted that it is a word. After centuries of treating ain’t as a sign of poor education or low intelligence, it’s now accepted as a common term in English that many people choose to use solely for its rhythm and mouth-feel.

What makes ain’t so difficult is the broad range of words and phrases it replaces. Ain’t can be used in place of am not, is not, are not, has not, have not, do not, does not, and did not. And that’s really just the most common usages it replaces. Imagine a single word used in place of all these different phrases and you’re trying to translate everything – it’s a very challenging task.

Negative Inversion

The other difficult challenge in translating this English vernacular is what’s known as negative inversion, a construction where multiple negatives are combined in creative ways. Consider this sentence: “He don’t want to hear nothing about that.” Normally, the word nothing here combined with the initial negative of don’t would indicate something (that is, that he does in fact want to hear), but the negative inversion means the opposite: Nothing stops meaning nothing and starts being used to represent the hypothetical things he might hear about.

This is difficult even for native speakers to parse, sometimes; imagine those poor Chinese translators working through this book! Not only do they have to understand the sentence, they then have to find a way to translate it so that the flavour of it is conveyed to some extent.

That’s the magic and fun of language, of course. Never let it be said that English, for all its flaws, is boring. It is in fact a riotous and fun language that ain’t never dull.

Image courtesy blu-raydefinition.com

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