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I stumbled upon a discussion about a book, which had a reference to a verse in Russian. Few of the readers of that site are speakers of the Russian language, so some wondered what the meaning of the verse was.
I realized that answering their question was not trivial, because translations are always tricky when you want to do the job well.
Here is how the challenge was described: Please translate this into English, without asking me anything. Just translate it as you think is better, preserving the artistic value.
Ya poet, zovus' Neznaika,
ot menya vam balalaika.
Я поэт, зовусь Незнайка,
От меня вам балалайка.
You can see several problems already:
- Neznaika is a character known to people with exposure to the Russian culture, others have no clue who he is;
- Balalaika is a Russian musical instrument, there is no translation for this word;
- No context is given, and it is emphasized that no questions should be asked - therefore the translator will have to fill in the blanks with something (I believe this is the coolest part of the challenge).
Before you continue reading, try to come up with your own version.
What is ahead? Different people's interpretations, an analysis of the task, as well as a new challenge.
I'm a poet, the name's Neznaika
from me 2 u a balalaika
I'm a poet, named Jar-jar,
And I give you a guitar.
A true poet, named Neznaika
I giveth thee a balalaika
Here's my cello, you can have it,
I'm "Know fuck all" - I cannot play it
I'm a poet called Neznaika,
Have my gift - a balalaika.
I'm a poet named Neznaika,
I give you my balalaika
I'm a poet, they call me Know-nothing,
My balalaika will make you start laughing
I'm poet named dont-know-ka,
take from me a balalayka!
I'm a poet, named Neznaika,
Get from me a balalayka
I'm a knowing nothing poser
you can't get a balalajka from me
I'm an artist, sponge-bob's the name
balalajka is my game
I'm a m****f***in' poet
balalajka couldn't show it
I’m a goofy poet called Know-Nothing
From me to you -- a guitar-like plaything!
I am the poet called Neznaika
I'm giving you the balalaika
I am a poet, I am Neznaika,
Giving you this balalaika.
I'm poet, my name is Neznaika
I give u as a gift a balalaika
I'm a poet, name's Dunno,
I'll give you a balalaika!
I'm a poet, my name is Neznaika,
I'm giving you a balalaika
When translating stuff that is tied to a particular culture, you bump into the problem of "untranslatability". Not only that translations usually "lose" some data because of how languages work (many words don't have exact equivalents, so you have to improvise), but some ideas are simply not meant to be translated - that's when you hit a brick wall. I've been there numerous times, especially when acting as a link between Moldovan villagers and foreign visitors; but I admit that my #1 enemy is my dad and his endless series of jokes which rely on Soviet slang, tech slang, and army slang; it is impossible to understand them unless you speak Russian (and Romanian), and you're an engineer who served in the Soviet army for decades, and lived under a communist regime for many years.
Of course, the problem is bi-directional, try to translate something into Russian from English, knowing that the reader is not familiar with the English culture. Now you see that it's not easy to be in this guy's shoes - Goblin.
What are the solutions?
- Explain the new concepts - in this case the reader needs a separate guide which covers Neznaika's history, as well as the artistic value of the balalaika. This will probably need pictures, sounds, and a lot of time;
- Use equivalents from the other culture - if you're translating from Russian to English, replace Neznaika with someone else (ex: G. W. Bush) :-)
Obviously, the second approach is cooler and more high-tech, because it means that you need to be very familiar with both cultures, in order to be able to pick an optimal equivalent, which will preserve the fun element, without going offtopic. Sometimes it is impossible to do this without going offtopic, so then you have to make sure that at least the funny elements are not lost.
If you go through the list of translations, you'll see that several approaches were chosen; some used an approximation, some "explained" who Neznaika is in a couple of words, others left the untranslatable stuff "as is".
It is up to you to decide which of them are cooler, because in the long run it is a matter of taste. I prefer the variants which attempted to translate "Neznaika" and "balalaika", making the verse "compatible" with non-Russians.
The social factor
In my opinion, the most interesting part of the challenge is that different people interpreted it in different ways; they were forced to, because there was no context. I wonder what would happen if this was more like a broken telephone game - hook the output of one translator to the input of another, and see what you get after 10 iterations :-)
None of the translations are identical, even though there was only one(!) iteration.
So.. what have we got? Optimism, pessimism, kindness, the balalaika, a balalaika, this balalaika, my balalaika, the show is about to start, there will be no show, the show is on, Neznaika rocks the world by playing the balalaika, Neznaika is a poet who needs no balalaika to rock the world, etc.
- A performance is about to start - "give a balalaika" is interpreted as "I will use my balalaika to rock the house";
- Pessimism - the balalaika cannot be used, due to lack of skill, so it is given away;
- Kindness - the balalaika is given as a gift (no reference to Neznaika's not being able to play it, there was no such data at the input);
- Sacrifice - Neznaika gives his own balalaika, not just any balalaika;
- Getters vs takers - in some cases Neznaika gives you the balalaika, while in other cases you have to come and get it yourself;
Wow, I'd say we've got a hell of a lot of diversity here! No two people think alike, even though it was just a matter of translating two lines of text!
It is clear that one's mood and character has an impact on their translations, when the only way to fill in the gaps is to make something up. Some of the translations seem rather "dry", they were made by people who did not take the "creative way out". When given insufficient input, and forced not to ask any questions, they preferred to come up with a simple version that matches the specs. Otherwise, if there were no constraints, they would probably ask additional questions in order to figure out what they are expected to provide.
What's in it for me?
The point is that you should always be aware of what people you are dealing with, and what kind of an environment you are in.
- Challenge the challenger. Are the constraints really necessary? I prefer to avoid tasks which are not clearly defined, because quite often my creative solution will be "too creative" (i.e. too far from what the requester expected), so I'll have to alter it anyway. My strategy is to challenge the challenger and convince them that unless they refine the requirements, they are not getting what they want, and they're not getting my "Ok, I'm on it" either. Better spend some extra time discussing what you want, rather than extra-extra time discussing what you wanted.
- Know your colleagues - if you are the challenger, be careful when delegating the tasks. Are you assigning them to a creative person? To a creative person who is too creative by your standards? To a non-creative one that can challenge you? Or to a non-creative one that doesn't have the guts/will/mood to challenge you?
The new challenge
This time we're going back to our roots, back to the Moldovan village! :-)
Ţărăncuţă de la ţară,
Te aştept la poartă seara.
Unleash your creativity! :-D And feel free to provide your own versions for the previous challenge in the comments.
SPOILER WARNING: Comments below contain submissions for the "Tărăncuţa" challenge, are you sure you want to read them now?
P.S. Did you know that Neznaika's official name in Romanian is "Habarnam"?
Nice competition, Sash!
About the Romanian version of Neznaika, someone translated it as "Decelush", which is probably a typo of "Decenush", which means "De ce? Nush'" :-)
Nice point about assumptions, I will definitely not forget this one; as well as the other version - "Assuming makes an ass out of Uma".
Won't you try your language skills in the new challenge? It's supposed to be x10 fun because it leaves more room for creativity.
Anyway, for the new challenge I found these three points of view:
(A) Blest girl riding with the free,
Come twilight I wait for thee.
(B) Peasant girl with face so fair,
See you tonight by the pier.
(C) Filthy lying little whore,
I'll kill you when you come home!
Make your own judgements ;)
"Mever assume as to assume is to make an ass of Uma Thurman" is the full version of the one you mentioned, Sash.
As for this one, how about slightly altering the conditions - try to find as many interpretations as possible; it's ok if some of them were already mentioned, if you can provide an alternative version which you think is better.
Constantin's C is so far my favourite :-)
Here are my first two versions:
- Sweet, and lovely peasant girl,
Come tonight, and break the spell!
- Sweet and skillful village living,
Help me paint the gate this evening.
"Hey you little country Miss,
I'm still waiting for your kiss."
I liked your version of "my version" as well:))
p.s.: I'll try to come up with something new ;) Ta-da...
In the red barn you'll find me waiting...
Although I'm not good at poetry, here's my version:
Little wench from countryside,
Meet me at the gate in the eventide
I like this one the most xD
"Sweet and skillful village living,
Help me paint the gate this evening."
Come into my hay, tonight.