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August 14, 2018
The oracle of the dolphins

word cloud dolphins
© 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 “Dolphins jumped out of my mouth”

Under the year 1999, Chapter 30, during the first manic phase, shortly before the breakdown. The author roams tirelessly through Berlin, distributes flyers, acts peculiar. Memories of scenes that happened while roaming through the city or at events as well as reactions from friends and strangers alternate with thoughts and fragmented thoughts.
Lectory passage „Delfine sprangen mir aus dem Mund“© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

Dolphins jumped out of my mouth and the colorless green idea furiously went back to sleep.
Translator 1

Is only the animal meant here or also the Oracle of Delphi?
Thomas Melle

No, just the animals, but the connotation is of course very nice.
Translator 1

Then the image seems somewhat surreal to me... what do the animals stand for? Or maybe there’s some sort of saying?
Thomas Melle

No, there’s no saying. The image is in fact surreal and a bit nonsensical. In connection with it the Chomsky quote afterwards: “Linguist Noam Chomsky referred to the sentence: ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.’ (German: ‘Farblose grüne Ideen schlafen zornig.’) as an example of a nonsensical, but syntactically grammatical sentence. Logically this makes no sense since ideas are not green and don’t sleep; something that is green cannot be colorless, and furious sleeping is ruled out. In poetry, on the other hand, such a sentence can certainly have meaning. Nonsense thus is not necessarily characterized by a lack of meaning. As a metaphor there might be ‘colorless green ideas’ in a figurative sense. The sentence thus gains new meaning. ‘Green ideas’ could be the ideas of Green politicians. Some people might find them ‘colorless’ (in the sense of not very striking), they are still asleep, but are already active ‘under the covers.’ The sentence thus gains meaning when interpreted this way. Whether it is understandable is decided at a different level.” https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsinn [Translated from German]
Thomas Melle

So perhaps it is the case that nonsense simply took over in the mind. Here the dolphin sentence is just a quick example, and it can visually also be taken literally, like in a comic. The dolphins are part of the nonsense and the reader doesn’t really know what the point is.
Translator 1

Ok, so it would be better to translate the sentence literally into Japanese. Thank you for the reference to Chomsky’s sentence!
Thomas Melle

Yes, exactly, literally. In German it makes just as much or little sense as it does to you now. Like a clear comic picture without any meaning for the rest of the story. Definitely a mini-surrealist moment. Glad to help. Greetings!

The “jumping dolphins” in the passage surprise the reader because of the surreal context. The reference to Chomsky in the following part of the sentence may not be familiar to every reader. The exchange makes it clear which other (literary and philosophical) dimensions the novel takes on through its references.

Recommended reading: The work by linguist and influential intellectual Noam Chomsky that Thomas Melle refers to is entitled: Syntactic Structures. It was published in 1957, Mouton, Den Haag and in 1989  by de Gruyter, Berlin/New York.
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