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July 18, 2018
Whether an elephant is always an elephant

Word cloud elephant
© Goethe-Institut Korea

​By Sabine Müller. Almost every day, Thomas Melle and the ten translators of the Merck Social Translating Project meet on the e-Book platform Lectory. Although their exchange normally isn’t accessible to outsiders, here we decided to give you some insight into the questions and the many creative solutions that are proposed and discussed on the platform.

Just a few mouse clicks stand between author Thomas Melle and the ten translators translating his novel “The World at Your Back.” On the e-Book platform Lectory, they have access to a closed virtual room where they can meet and interact with one another. At any time and from anywhere, the participants are able to post questions and/or notes about specific passages of the text as well as general comments. In the digital edition of the book, a marking on the left and a comment on the right side of the screen are visible to everyone and allow for additional reactions and full successions of comments. Not only is it possible to type written responses, but links, photos, and videos can also be added to the specific spot in the text for everyone to see.

Here we have provided a few examples from this lively exchange to show the questions and considerations the translators grapple with while translating the novel into their respective languages, which are much farther away from the experiences and way of life in German-speaking countries. We have also included the author’s references in comments with text, audio, and visual content to provide a deeper understanding of his text.

Exchange on the term “bipolar”

“Bipolar” is one of the central terms that runs through the novel. Thomas Melle illustrates it in various ways, for example, by referring to medical findings and adding in accounts from his own experience.  
At first glance, one might suspect that terms like “bipolar,” “bipolar disorder,” and “manic depression” could be found in any dictionary, and thus also in the reference works in other languages. But is that really the case? Does an adequate term exist in every other language, and do readers of another language share a similarly socially-shaped view of the mental illness that the term refers to?
An excerpt from the exchange dealing with the term “bipolar” gives an impression of the challenges the translators face.

In the prologue of the novel, Thomas Melle is at a dinner that his friends organized for him. He is talking to his female friend Henry, who is also there and for whom he feels an affinity.
Lectory passage „Dass ich bipolar sei“© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

(…) So casually and quietly, much more quietly than how I normally spoke, I told her that I am bipolar. But she also spoke quietly and was hard to understand, especially since she was sitting to my left, which also happened to be my side affected by tinnitus. I figured she knew anyway. Or she knew something. Everyone knew something.
Translator 1
This is where I have a problem, I mean with translating the word “bipolar,” since in most Indian languages the English words are more common when describing physical or mental illnesses/conditions. I think I'll have to go for the English option here. A Marathi word would be too difficult or even incomprehensible for the reader.
Translator 2
In this context you can translate “bipolar” precisely with a Bengali word or expression: দোমনা, মানসিক দোলাচলে ভোগা.
Translator 3
In my language, in Mongolian as well. But that is a technical term that many people do not know and something that is hardly talked about in our culture. But I think what it means is clear from the context. I’m glad that this could finally become a topic that we start talking about.

Translator 4
It’s interesting to know that technical terms are often borrowed from foreign languages. I’ll have to use a Chinese word. Although there is a Vietnamese equivalent, nobody is familiar with it.


The fact that someone with bipolar is treated like they aren’t there becomes clear from the following passage:
Lectory passage „Elephant in the room“© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

So there’s an elephant in the room that can’t be ignored, but no one is talking about it. Maybe the elephant is embarrassing.

Translator 5
There really isn’t a similar expression for this in my native language. I’ll try to find something similar anyway.
Thomas Melle

This expression doesn’t exist in German either. That’s why it’s cited as an English expression and then explained in German. I think the translations could do something like this: simply cite the English expression as an English expression and then translate the German explanation of the elephant image. I wouldn’t try to get “creative” with the translation, but just stick to the text. Have a good day!
Translator 6

I also think you should stick to the text here. Thankfully we have elephants in our culture :-)

Translator 2
Whether an elephant is always an elephant. The connection between the known expression “the elephant in the room” and the description of “ein Elefant im Zimmer” fits well and naturally in the account. It won’t be easy to find a similar way of expressing the content and illustration for this passage in Bengali. It’s possible that “the elephant” would really have to “go.”


Another image is discussed with regard to this passage:
Lectory passage „Elefant im Porzellanladen“© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

The china (only to stomp it with his second image) is still crunching under its feet [“Elefant im Porzellanladen,” literally “elephant in a china shop,” corresponding to the English idiom “bull in a china shop”]

Sabine Müller, moderator
The “elephant” image continues here. What are you doing with it? Is there a similar expression in your languages?

Translator 2
There’s a nice expression in Bengali for the expression “sich wie ein Elefant im Porzellanladen benehmen” (acting like a bull in a china shop): পদ্মবনে মত্তহস্তী – an elephant in a flurry of excitement / in a frenzy in a lotus flower. (“পাগলা হাতি” – “insane/embarrassing elephant” is also a popular expression.) The only difference is that “lotus” replaces “china” here. That makes me think of the expression “unnötig Porzellan zerschlagen” (create a lot of unnecessary bother/trouble). But first only half of it appears in the passage, meaning “ein Elefant” / “der Elefant” / “ein solcher Elefant” (an elephant/the elephant/such an elephant). Then comes the other half, meaning “das Porzellan ...” / “... von Porzellan” (“the china…” / “…of china”). The whole thing also corresponds to “bipolar” in the previous passage.
In the translation I am simply using “lotus” for “Porzellan” (china), i.e., “পদ্ম,” because it seems natural in the entire passage and at the same time maintains a similar form or mood and a similar enigma. It fits in very well with the overall background, from the playful use of an expression, from the two-part description of a certain mental condition, and from the association of ideas.
But what definitely gets lost to some extent is the interplay of sound. The image of “পদ্মবনে মত্তহস্তী ― an elephant in a flurry of excitement / in a frenzy in a lotus flower” remaining in the background makes you think of wild noises. But noise-evoking words like “stomp” (কচর কচর মাড়িয়ে যাওয়া), “trample” (খচর খচর থেঁতলে দেওয়া), and “crunch” (কচমচ কচমচ শব্দ করে), which have to do with china, don’t go with “lotus.” What can you do here? I can push this loss of sound in the background by using suitable onomatopoeia for these verbs. That is typical for Bengali and is a nice solution for a translator.
Thomas Melle
That sounds good and perhaps the lotus even “rustles”?
Translator 2
It’s more mild, but it rustles.

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