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September 12, 2018
Play with words!

Word cloud puns
© 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.

Letters, parts of words, or even entire sequences of words used in unusual ways can trip us up as we read and usually make us smile. Playful use of language includes such things as multiple meanings and making changes to words that alter the meaning. Non-native speakers demonstrate exceptional language skills when they are able to easily recognize neologisms and distorted words in a foreign language and understand what is trying to be said. A book full of puns and plays on words was selected for the Merck Social Translating Project. “The World at Your Back” by Thomas Melle thus presents the translators with some very special challenges. Here we would like to show you a few examples of how translators deal with these playful stumbling blocks and the support an author, who is also a translator, can provide.

Exchange on puns

The third chapter of the novel consists of the author’s notes from September 17 to 21, 1999, the period of his first manic episode. It contains an abundance of linguistic abnormalities, puns, and neologisms. Each note is preceded by a time with the exact hour and minute. Thomas Melle says this about the chapter: “It should be noted that the entire chapter actually consists of the authentic notes of the psychotic person that I was at that time. So normal logic cannot really be expected here.”
Lectory Sauna und doch so fern© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

11:00 Uhr [a.m.]: SAUNA UND DOCH SO FERN
[Sauna and yet so far]
Translator 1
How did you translate that? Literally?
Thomas Melle
You would need to find a pun with near/close and far – I think that could be quite difficult.
Translator 2
A very funny pun on the saying “So nah und doch so fern” [So close, yet so far away”]!

Lectory Schrägere-als-sonst© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

Wie soll man da eigentlich noch Vertrauen haben in die engsten Freunde, wenn noch die kleinsten, vielleicht schrägere-als-sonst Aktionen sofort konspirativ kolportiert und letztendlich wirklich gegen einen verwandt werden? Was sagt die Sprache denn da? „Verwandt? “
[How are you still supposed to trust your closest friends when even the most minute, perhaps stranger than usual activities are immediately conspiratorially circulated and are ultimately actually used against you? What does language say then? “Used/Related?”]

Sabine Müller, moderator
A nice gem, but tough to translate.
Thomas Melle
Yes, the double meaning of “verwandt” (past perfect of “verwenden” on the one hand, and “verwandt” as “belonging to the same family” on the other). Something similar would have to be found in each case if that is possible.

Lectory Dichter dicht© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

Nachtruhe im Direktoratsbett, so machen wir das.
Dichter dicht, laut und flüssig inzwischen
[Sleep in the director’s bed, that’s how we do it.
By now the poet is drunk, loud, and fluent.]

Thomas Melle
Translator 3
What does “Dichter dicht, laut und flüssig” mean?
The poets close up, get drunk, and get loud? That’s how I understand it. Is that right?
Thomas Melle
“Dichter dicht” can be read as drunk poet, yes (even though it’s unlikely that the narrator would be drunk in the clinic). But it’s simply playing with the language. “Laut und flüssig” doesn’t really make any overly noticeable sense. Just translate literally – the text also has its own conundrums. That’s clear with psychotic texts.

Lectory Entlösung© Goethe-Institut Korea via lectory.io

17.47 Uhr: Ulrich Janetzki kontaktieren, gleich nächsten Monat. Rauchen und Schauen. Warten auf Entlösung, mit -t-. Entschuldigung, ich wollte nix Böses. Ich gut. Gut und krank, in Heilanstalt. Wo ist der Grund? Wo ist der Grund?
[5:47 p.m.: Contact Ulrich Janetzki, next month. Smoke and see. Wait for  “Entlösung” ― deliverance, relief ― with a -t- not “Endlösung” ― final solution ― excuse me, I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m good. Good and sick, in the clinic. What’s the reason? What’s the reason?

Thomas Melle
It will be almost impossible to find an elegant solution in the translation. Here you have to say loud and clear that in this journal excerpt from a psychotic episode there are logical and flavorful breaks. This here, for example, alludes to a dark chapter of German history, without spelling it out: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endl%C3%B6sung_der_Judenfrage ― but here the word is a blend of “Erlösung” (deliverance) and a personal “finale Lösung” (final solution) (perhaps even “Entspannung” relief, relaxation) of the problems. It’s typical for a psychotic person to come up with such puns, even tasteless ones. You can ignore the echo of the historic “Endlösung” [final solution], perhaps by simply translating “Erlösung” [deliverance, relief], possibly connected with an unusual pun.
Übersetzer/in 4
Very helpful explanation. Thanks!

Based on this exchange, it becomes clear yet again, that apart from being the author of the novel, Thomas Melle addresses the translators’ questions as a fellow translator and knows what is important when translating puns into another language. Thomas Melle has translated several novels from English into German, including “Whores for Gloria”, “Riding Towards Everywhere” by William T. Vollmann and “A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood.