Finding Dylan In “Translation”


Bob Dylan in 1963

I’ve busked a few Bob Dylan numbers in my time. I’m one of those people who ruin the end of parties by bringing out their acoustic guitar. In my twenties, I used to play regularly at folk clubs and open mic nights. One of my favourites is “Boots Of Spanish Leather”. And I do a mean “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – or at least I think I do.

It’s not just Dylan songs. I have an anachronistic love of singer-songwriters from the 1960s and early 70s, so I like singing songs by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen too. And, until about five years ago, I would always sing them with a North American accent – the same sort of approximate, hybrid North American accent that most British artists resort to when they sing.

On “Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, I would go to town trying to imitate both the standard and less standard features of Bob Dylan’s idiosyncratic accent (“Finno-Hebraic Minnesotan, by way of Greenwich Village”, according to journalist Graeme Wood). I would g-drop right from the opening line (“Early one mornin’…”). I would drop the yod from “Lord knows I’ve paid some dues”. I’d elongate most of stressed monopthongs, like the “e” vowel in “offered meee a pipe”. I would reduce the /aɪ/ dipthongs in “I” and “my” to “ah” and “mah”. I’d reduce the unstressed “of” (for example) in “I seen a lot uh women” to a schwa. And so on.

It wasn’t until someone asked me once why I was singing in an American accent that I started to question it. I realised it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was automatic. I was trying to recreate “Mr Tambourine Man” as perfectly as I could – note for note, word for word. So, in some ways, it made sense to copy every phoneme too.

Then, I got a bit more into folk music. I started to listen to English folk musicians like Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy. They, like almost everyone on the folk scene, sing unashamedly in their own accents. It’s actually something of an unwritten rule among folk singers (often attributed to 20th century folk revivalist Ewan MacColl) that you only sing songs in a language or dialect that you speak.

Later, I studied linguistics. I found out that accent, and dialect more generally, is just one part of what sociolinguists refer to as “style” – the part of language, which is not about “what you say” but rather “how you say it”. Sociolinguists posit that our linguistic style is intrinsically linked to our social identity. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it’s almost impossible to say anything to anybody without them making some kind of judgement about who you are – where you are from, where you were educated, what you do for a living, and so on. And, just like we can code-switch between languages, within our personal repertoire, we can style-switch depending on whom we are talking to, and what sort of identity we want to project.

It made me realise the obvious – that when I sing in an American accent, I’m not being myself. I’m taking on someone else’s identity. I’m being the one thing that the folk singers of the 1960s were aiming to avoid: inauthenticity. I’m being a fake.

It took a long time to unlearn the habit, a bit like a golfer having to change their swing. But these days, I only sing covers of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in my own accent – a sort of generic South-East England British Standard English with the odd Nottingham vowel thrown in.

However, when the guitar comes out, I’m still left with a problem when it comes to Bob Dylan. The reason is that Dylan didn’t just sing in dialect, he wrote in it. His songs are not only full of phonological markers of his Woody Guthrie-influenced Midwestern dialect. His identity is marked both lexically and grammatically in the lyrics.

Take “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” for example. Across the four verses, there are particular forms of address (“honey”, “baby” and “gal”) that I would never use. There are archaic forms of goodbye (“fare thee well” and “so long”) and North American terms like “rooster”. There’s the addition of the prefix “a-” to present participles, which somehow makes me think of Mark Twain, concurrent with the frequent g-dropping (“a-thinkin’ and a-wanderin’”). There’s the contraction “I ain’t”, which isn’t part of my dialect (I’d say “I’m not”). There are bare adverbs (“you treated me unkind”), and grammatical constructions (“it ain’t no use to”), that don’t exist in British Standard English. There’s the North American use of simple past where British English would use the past perfect, and some nonstandard conjugations (“the light I never knowed”). In fact, probably the only stylistic feature in the entire song, which I would also use in speech, is the contraction of “kind of” to “kinda”.

Because of all the wonderful lexical and grammatical stylistic features, it turns out, there are very few Bob Dylan songs that I can sing without putting on someone else’s identity.

There’s only one solution. It’s the same thing you would do if you wanted to sing something written. You have to rewrite the lyrics in your own dialect. You have to attempt some sort of “translation”.

Of course, that’s not a trivial thing to do. Change just one word of a song, or one syntactic construction, and you can screw up the rhyming pattern or scansion. More fundamentally, you are faced with the same challenge all translators are faced with when changing one language for another: finding a replacement word or phrase (say, for “gal” or “it ain’t no use”) that doesn’t completely wash out any sense of identity entirely.

But, with a bit of effort, you can do it. Here’s how I now sing the first verse of “Don’t Think Twice”:

There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
If you don’t know by now
There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
It doesn’t matter anyhow
When your alarm clock rings and it’s a brand new day
Look out your bedroom window, and I’ll be gone away
You’re the reason that I just can’t stay
Don’t think twice, it’s OK

I’m definitely not saying it’s as good as the original. But it’s still recognisably the work of the Nobel Laureate – and I can sing it while remaining true to my own suburban, English identity.

Of course, hardcore Dylan fans will be screaming, “heresy!” But I would argue the opposite. Fans think of Bob Dylan as a true authentic: someone who never compromised, who was always true to his own, idiosyncratic self. I like to think, by “translating” Dylan so as not to compromise my own authenticity – I’m actually giving Dylan the respect he deserves.


This excellent book by David Pichaske includes an in depth discussion of Bob Dylan’s dialect. There are a couple of interesting papers in the journal Oral Tradition on translating Dylan into French and Spanish.

Image in the public demain downloaded here.

Proust Was A Neuroscientist… And Also A Linguist

ProustMarcel Proust was a neuroscientist, according to researcher-turned-sciencewriter, Jonah Lehrer. I’d like to argue, he was also a linguist.

Lehrer might have been publically disgraced for inventing Bob Dylan quotes in a follow-up book about creativity, but he had a point. The great rememberer was interested in a great many things – in music and theatre, in nature and architecture, in fashion and society, in love and jealousy, in time and memory. And if you’ve ever read any of the volumes of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (recently reimagined as a graphic novel), you’ll know he was fascinated – above all – by how we conceive and perceive these things in our heads. Proust’s interest in psychology was profound enough to have inspired a personality questionnaire that still features regularly in Vanity Fair magazine. And political commentators are even now referring to Proust in trying to make sense of Donald Trump.

After a recent trip to Paris, I was inspired to finally sit down and read the five hundred or so pages of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s epic novel. Although I knew he’d have a lot to say about art and psychology, about nature and society, I was surprised at how much he had to say about language.

So, as well as being a neuroscientist, I’m going to argue that Proust was also very definitely a linguist. Here are ten reasons why:

1. Just like any good linguist, Proust knew his parts of speech

To describe and study language you first need to be able to categorise and label its various components. In Swann’s Way, for example, Proust talks of the “imperfect” and the “preterite”, “proper names”, “metaphors”, “figures of speech”, “indirect speech”, and “particles”.

2. Proust was interested in where words come from

Proust was definitely into his etymologies. As well as a whole section in Swann’s Way devoted to place names (and the various romantic associations the narrator makes with them), Proust makes various etymological asides. Like this one:

(I’m not certain, by the way, of the etymology of Roussainville. I’m rather inclined to think that name was originally Raville, from Radulfi villa, analogous, don’t you see, to Châteauroux, Castrum Radulfi, but we’ll talk about that some other time.)

3. Proust understood how language changes

Relating to his interest in the origins of words, Proust had an understanding of how language changes over time. For example, he mentions elision, a key process in language change in which words, or bits of words, get left unsaid:

[Mme Verdurin] still said instinctively “the de La Trémoïlles,” or rather (by an abbreviation sanctified by usage in music hall lyrics and cartoon captions, where the “de” is elided), “the d’La Trémoïlles,” […]

4. And he understood how new words and phrases can become old hat

In Swann’s Way, Proust shows insight into how new bits of language – particularly words and phrases – are born. For example, he describes how “do a cattleya” becomes a shared euphemism for more intimate physical acts, after Swann uses the pretext of rearranging an orchid on Odette’s dress to lean in for their first kiss. He describes how the phrase becomes a key part of the two lovers’ shared language (what linguists might call a famiolect), which eventually loses all association with the flowers themselves.

Proust also knew how new words and phrases (like “to give a free hand” and “to be absolutely floored”) can be born as metaphors – another major force for language change – and how, over time, the literal origins of such metaphors can be gradually forgotten:

[antique pieces of furniture] charmed her like those old forms of speech in which we can see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by rough usage.

Proust knew that some metaphors – like “splitting hairs” – can become so overused that they become clichés. And, cloaked in satire, he had an Orwellian dislike of them:

“D’you know, that’s a funny thing; I had never noticed it. I may as well tell you that I don’t much care about peering at things through a microscope, and pricking myself on pin-points of difference. No, we don’t waste time splitting hairs in this house,” Mme Verdurin replied, which Dr Cottard gazed at her with open-mouthed admiration and studious zeal as she skipped lightly from one stepping-stone to another of her stock of ready-made phrases.

5. He knew something about how words and concepts are stored in our brains

Proust’s narrator speaks often of the “associations” he makes between the various things he encounters and different parts of his memory – what he refers to as the tangled network of “mental habits, of seasonal impressions, of sensory reactions”. Psycholinguists (and neuroscientists in general) differentiate between our episodic memory (where we store information about specific instances and experiences in our lives) and semantic memory (of facts, ideas, concepts, and meanings) – although both are connected and interdependent. Proust also knew that different concepts in our semantic memory can be more closely connected than others. When referring to Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, near his family’s home at Combray, the narrator talks of “the distance that there was between the two parts of my brain in which I used to think of them”.

Proust also understood how our semantic memory connects to another network in our brain where we store the words or lexemes (including proper names) that represent the concepts within it:

Thus was wafted to my ears the name of Gilberte, bestowed on me like a talisman which might, perhaps, enable me some day to rediscover the girl that its syllables had just endowed with an identity, whereas the moment before she had been merely an uncertain image.

6. He could see connections between concepts and the sound of the words

For a long time, one of the most fundamental assumptions in linguistics was the arbitrariness of the sign. That is, as language develops, lexemes (like “love”) are chosen to represent the underlying semantic concept in an entirely accidental way, so that the string of phonemes in the word has no meaning in itself. These days, it’s more readily accepted that this isn’t always true. Words can, and quite often do, have a degree of iconicity. Proust was definitely aware of the possibility of associations between the component sounds of words and the concepts they represent. For example, when the narrator thinks about the Norman Cathedral in Coutances, he imagines “its final consonants, rich and yellowing, crowned with a tower of butter.” Elsewhere in Swann’s Way, the pronunciation of “ch” leads to a sensual association between the word “charming” and a budding flower:

And she [Mme de Laumes] murmured, “How charming it is!” with a double ch at the beginning of the word which was a mark of refinement and by which she felt her lips so romantically crinkled, like the petals of a beautiful, budding flower […]

7. And he knew what happens when connections go missing

Proust was aware that certain neurological disorders, resulting from brain disease or injury, can lead to the loss of these lexemes, or the ability to access them (asphasia), or even the loss of the underlying concept in the semantic memory:

Moreover, the name Swann, with which I had for so long been familiar, had now become for me (as happens with certain aphasiacs in the case of the most ordinary words) a new name.

8. He’s not just interested in what people say, but how they say it

Throughout the novel, Proust pays close attention to how his characters speak, in particularly to prosody (stress and intonation). For example, the narrator manages to make Swann sound like a precocious university student:

[…] whenever he spoke of serious matters, whenever he used an expression which seemed to imply a definite opinion upon some important subject, he would take care to isolate it by using special intonation, mechanical and ironic, as though he had put the word or phrase between inverted commas […]

What Proust refers to as “intonation” and “accentuation” (and what is often translated into English as “tone” by Moncrieff and Kilmartin) is more generally what linguists refer to as (speaking) style. He knows that his characters, like real people, use different styles – which might be more or less formal – at different times, according to who they are speaking to, what they are speaking about, and why. For example, the narrator says that Odette “invariably adopted a poetical tone when she spoke to Swann about my uncle”. And Proust knew that speaking in a style which is not appropriate to the context is not a very gentlemanly thing to do:

[Swann] was shocked, too, being accustomed to good manners, by the rude, almost barrack-room tone the pugnacious academic adopted no matter to whom he was speaking.

9. He knew that our identities are created in what we say and how we say it

The view that identity is “created”, “constituted” and “constructed” (all Proust’s words) is a prevalent one in applied linguistics, and across the social sciences. Instead of the (essentialist) perspective which says we all have only one unique and stable personality, the theory says instead that our identity is the sum total of what we do and what we say – each an act of identity or identification with a certain group of people. For example, if we throw a baseball, we are telling people we are sporty. If we speak in a French accent, we are telling people that we’re French. If we speak in a style associated with the upper classes (for example, Swann speaks with the “the style of the Guermantes set”) we are identifying with them. If we mention Proust in a blog, of course, we are telling people that we think we’re clever. And so on.

Early on in Swann’s Way, it’s clear that Proust shares the same (socially-constructed) view of identity:

But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will.

And like any good applied linguist Proust knew that, because we can speak or act differently around different people, we can create different versions of ourselves:

Doubtless the Swann who was a familiar in all the clubs of those days differed hugely from the Swann created by my great-aunt when, of an evening, in our little garden at Combray, after the two shy peals had sounded from the gate […].

10. And he’s interested in what code-switching says about our identity

One way of creating a complex identity is to mix languages – what linguists call code-switching. Odette, for example, is very prone to litter her French with English words and phrases:

Comme il est gentil ! il est déjà galant, il a un petit œil pour les femmes : il tient de son oncle. Ce sera un parfait gentleman, ajouta-t-elle en serrant les dents pour donner à la phrase un accent légèrement britannique. Est-ce qu’il ne pourrait pas venir une fois prendre a cup of tea, comme disent nos voisins les Anglais ; il n’aurait qu’à m’envoyer un « bleu » le matin.

The narrator describes how, in pronouncing the word “gentleman”, she clenches her teeth “so as to give the word a kind of English accentuation”. Is Odette simply showing off? Is it pomposity? It’s difficult to tell, but the code-switching adds a layer of nuance to her character.

So, there you go. I hope I’ve done enough to argue that Proust was more than just a great rememberer and novelist. As well as a neuroscientist – and probably a great many other things – he was a pretty good linguist too.






“I Am China” by Xiaolu Guo

IMG_6477I recently bought a copy of Xiaolu Guo’s 2014 novel I am China. As a Mandarin learner, and a linguist, I was intrigued by the premise on the back cover. Spanning London and Beijing, the novel tells the tale of a young woman slowly translating the romantic letters of two Chinese lovers, each separated from the other by political forces beyond their control.

The author, London-based Guo, has a track record of writing books of linguistic curiosity. Born in China, Guo moved to London in 2002 and won critical acclaim for her first English language novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers some five years later. That story – of a Chinese woman who comes to London to learn English and falls in love with a British man – is notable for being written in deliberately imperfect English, which then improves as the narrative unfolds.

As well as being a moving tale of love and loss, and an insight into Chinese censorship post 1989, I am China is also very much a book for lovers of language and languages.

The narrative, for example, is not constrained by national and linguistic boundaries, moving swiftly from Beijing to Shanghai, Dover to the Hebrides, Switzerland to Paris and finally Crete. Mostly it takes place in London, a city which is fittingly multilingual. On the bus, for example:

“Spanish-speaking, Swahili-speaking, French, German, Swedish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Greek, Turkish, Portuguese, Russian, the voices flood into Iona’s ears […]”.

Language is also integral to the novel’s three main characters. The first of these, Iona, is a young Scottish translator who studied Chinese at SOAS. She has been asked by her publisher to translate a set of diary entries and letters written by two young Chinese lovers. One of them, Jian, is a songwriter in a punk rock band, and a political activist; the other, Mu, is a performance poet. Adrift socially, Iona’s translations are a way of reaching out:

“To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of life. Perhaps this, most of all, is what enables her to connect.”

When she travels, Mu likes to tape the sounds and conversations around her which, just like Jack Kerouac, she dreams of transcribing into one huge book. Her lover, Jian, is inspired by the Misty Poets to write his own rhetorically-charged manifesto. Language, for all three of them, is essential: it is the medium of work, of art, of protest, of tenderness and of anger.

Critically, the novel hinges on Iona’s acts of translation, a device which means Jian and Mu’s story is slowly revealed to us as she works through the pile of letters and diary entries. As such, I Am China is a fascinating insight into the art and science of translating, and an interesting counter-point to David Bellos’ excellent Is That A Fish In Your Ear?.

For example, as she works, Iona ponders the “many basic difficulties in translating Chinese into English”. In Mandarin, there is “no tense differentiation; no conjugation of verbs; no articles, no inversions in questions […]”. At one point, she worries about how she can translate Jian’s swearing, without completely alienating potential readers. At another, she struggles to capture the stylistic variations in Jian’s writing, or simply to understand his “modern Chinese colloquial idiom”.

At a critical point in the story, as the importance of Mu and Jian’s letters starts to become clear, Iona discusses the concept of intranslatability with her former professor from SOAS. In translating the correspondence of the two lovers, the challenge for Iona becomes more than simply a lack of direct equivalence between words and phrases in Chinese and English. In understanding the text, and ultimately Jian and Mu as individuals, the question is how Iona can “get inside a person’s inner culture.”

What is also interesting, as a linguist, is Guo’s prose. While reading I wondered if very occasionally Guo’s lexical choices – which sometimes felt mismatched to the appropriate register – give her away as a non-native speaker of English (“A bearded man, maybe fifty-odd, with scraggly hair”). But, very possibly, I only arrived at such examples because I was looking for them. In general, the prose is colourfully rich. In French or Mandarin, I could only dream of writing a sentence like “Brandon walks as raindrops pelt down, exploding in his hair, like gobs of pigeon shit”.

Perhaps what is most interesting is what decisions Guo – who is really the person translating the (imagined) writings of Mu and Jian for us – makes in her “translations”. It is fitting that Guo’s principle protagonist worries about the amount of freedom she has as she works, and therefore the power she wields over her two protagonists:

“How much liberty does a translator have? It’s a question that has been playing on Iona’s mind. One has to build or subtract to make a text less obscure. That’s obvious. But Iona feels like something else is going on. Like she herself owns these diaries. Or she has the right to reshape them, or even a duty to do so.”

It’s interesting to speculate why Guo occasionally leaves “untranslated” certain words (“xiang chou” means “homesickness” or “nostalgia”), when Iona probably wouldn’t have:

“China is not here. You are not here. And my manifesto means nothing in this land and to these people. Xiang chou is the only emotion I have. I miss my land.”

Or why she leaves certain taboo expressions in Pinyin:

“Only the sea will ta ma de senselessly stay.”

Or why it is, when Guo translates Mu’s mother’s words about finding “an upright man of bamboo quality”, that she doesn’t find a phrase Western readers would more readily recognise.

A simple explanation is that the author, like Iona, is fully exploiting the freedom she has as a “translator”. And Guo is doing so, of course, for a variety of literary ends. The result is a fascinating book for all students and lovers of language.

Just what is it about language?

IMG_5751Just what is it about language that we love so much?

Why do we enjoy a good neologism? Why do we revel in an arcane expression? Why do we admire a good pun, and love a bad one even more? Why are we possessive about words we think hardly anyone else knows? Why do we worship words, as it were, like “discombobulate” and “whimsy” and “gusset”.

And, why do we praise a good phrase? What is it about a good metaphor, the poetry of Shakespeare, or the catchy rhetorical tropes of a dance show judge? Just what is it that makes us bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at even the most everyday of language?

Or to put it another way: why do I write this blog? What is it that language bloggers, book readers, novelists, speech-writers, stand-up comedians, poets, language learners, and lovers of this Fry & Laurie sketch all have in common? Why is it that we humans might feel emotionally drawn to language, beyond its principal function of communication?

By coincidence, the last two novels I read both offered answers. Admittedly, the explanations they offered were as different as the novels themselves.

The first book was Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller; the second was I am China by Xiaolu Guo, the tale of a star-crossed Chinese couple and a young British translator, Iona. Guo’s book is a tremendous read for language lovers (more on that in a later blog). Early in the novel, she describes how Iona is drawn to language, especially foreign ones, and how language offers her a way of connecting with others:

“To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of her life. Perhaps this, most of all, is what enables her to connect. As a teenager, driven crazy by the boredom of living on a small Scottish island inhabited largely by sheep, she found herself longing for foreign words: the alien sounds, the unknown syllable, the mysterious sign. Learning languages consumed her. She stuffed herself full with them, and went to university for more. Perhaps a foreign language would offer her an escape. At school everyone teased her about acting because of her striking resemblance to Hollywood actress Winona Ryder, but shy Iona never saw herself as an actress. She retreated into words.”

In Tropic of Capricorn, Miller has a different – and characteristically more visceral – explanation for his relationship with words:

“‘I love everything that flows,’ said the great blind Milton of our times. I was thinking of him this morning when I awoke with a great shout of joy: I was thinking of his rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences.”

As I read the passages, I didn’t think either really summed up what it is that I love about language, although I could see something in what Guo writes about the “mysterious” and exotic sign. But the two books did get me thinking about the question of why we might be emotionally drawn to words and sentences, vowels and consonants, and just what other explanations there might be.

Have we as human beings evolved to “enjoy” language to some degree and, if so, why? For example, does it facilitate or accelerate – or is it even a requisite for – the learning of our first language? Language is a semiotic system. It involves things and signs (such as sounds or scribbles on a page) to represent those things. So, is it really the things we love – the concepts? Or is it the representations of those things? Is our love of spoken language about aural pleasure (or “sound-sex” as Stephen Fry so aptly puts it) like it is for music? And is our love of written language about visual pleasure – enjoying the printed sign like a painted landscape?

Or is our love of language about things that flow, as Miller suggests? Is it something about transience and streams of ideas? Or is it about a taste of the exotic, like it is for Guo’s protagonist? Are words a mean of escape? Or is language something that connects us deeply with other people, and with ourselves?

I’m sure there are many possible answers and, no doubt, an exploration of them all would provide the material for a long and very interesting book.

A book filled, of course, with pages upon pages of wonderful language.

Tolkien, Fiction Writing and the (Implicit) Act of Translation

TolkienAs translator David Bellos points out in his excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, translation of literature is no easy task. Take this passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

‘It was one of those regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby […] and now you’d hear the thunder go off with an awful crash and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.’

As well as getting as close as possible to the basic (‘referential’) meaning of the text, there are poetic aspects of rhythm and rhyme (‘rumbling, grumbling, tumbling’) that the translator might try to somehow recreate in the target language. There is metaphor and simile, and invented words like ‘spider-webby’, which might not transfer easily from English to another language. And there’s the specific cultural reference to rolling wooden barrels down cellar stairs, which would seem an odd choice of simile for audiences in, say, Morocco.

And how about the dialogue that follows:

‘Jim, this is nice,’ I says. ‘I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot cornbread’.

‘Well, you wouldn’t a ben here, ‘f it hadn’t a ben for Jim. You’d a ben down dah in de woods widout any dinner […]’

When it comes to the speech of Huck and Jim, and all the other characters, there is also the prickly question for the translator of how to render the (very meaningful) differences in dialect and style. In fact, how could anyone hope to translate the dialogue of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without risk of offending Twain himself, when he writes in the preface: ‘The shadings [of the dialects] have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work, but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech’?

But even though they might not be aware of it – and even though they are not ‘translating’ in the literal sense – these challenges are also faced by novelist themselves, writing fiction in their own language.

Admittedly, if an English speaking author is telling a story set close to their own time and in an English speaking setting (as Mark Twain was), then there’s unlikely to be any translation involved. Assuming it will be reasonably comprehensible to the average English speaking reader – even if, for instance, the protagonists in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting might sometimes stretch that assumption – the author simply has to do their best to render their characters’ (imagined) language in a way that captures their nationality, place of birth, class, and so on.

But if the context or setting for that story becomes too far removed from the writer’s here and now, they will soon have to face the same challenge the translator faces. For a novelist writing in English, the question is: what is the best way to represent the language of that (spatially or temporally removed) context in a language that will be readable and comprehensible to a modern English-speaking audience?

In the temporal dimension, language change is the principle problem. For instance, what if the story is set in Medieval England, like Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth? In the imaginary world of the story, about the building of a cathedral in the twelfth century, the characters will all speak various dialects of Middle English. But in writing the novel for (and making it sellable to) a modern British audience, Follett has no choice but to render this speech in modern English – albeit with a few choice archaisms (such as Tom Builder’s ill-fated wife being ‘with child’).

And perhaps less evidently, because of the unstoppable evolution of language, a similar issue arises for authors writing about an imagined future – dystopian or otherwise – as Stan Carey has recently pointed out in his blog. All we can be sure about the English of 1000 years from now is that it will be very different to the English of today.

Likewise, the challenge arises when events unfold somewhere else in the spatial dimension. Where the narrative unfolds in a foreign country, where another language is spoken, the author most make certain choices about how to represent that language to an audience who might not be familiar with the language in question.

Take, for example, French author Jules Verne writing about upper class British gentleman Phileas Fogg in Le Tour Du Monde En 80 Jours. In the imagined world of the novel, his characters speak a Victorian version of English. The first problem the author-translator faces is how to get across a sense of ‘foreignness’ (Englishness in Jules Verne’s case) in the French prose.

Verne, however, had a few solutions up his manche. For instance, when Fogg meets Passepartout for the first time he asks, ‘Vous êtes Francais et vous vous nommez John?’ (‘So you’re French and your name is John?’). Of course, his reliable new manservant is French, so his name is really ‘Jean’. With one carefully placed word, Verne captures Fogg’s true nationality in an otherwise Gallic sentence.

Lastly, of course, there are those story-tellers whose imagination takes them far further along the dimensions of both time and space, into whole new worlds entirely: that is, the writers of science-fiction and fantasy.

Today, one of the most celebrated of these is George R. R. Martin, author of the series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. In creating the lands of ‘Westeros’, ‘Essos’ and beyond – and in keeping with their geographical, ethnic and cultural complexity – Martin also needed to create an entirely new linguistic world to map on top of them. Handily for us, the Common Tongue of Westeros is represented by an English we understand, with all of its more fine-grained dialectal and stylistic variations represented by similar variations in English.

But whether Martin, Verne and Follett considered themselves translators – or even considered that writing direct from their imagination could seen as ‘translation’ – is a different matter. It’s fair to say that this (implicit) act of translation is seldom made explicit by writers or novelists – albeit with a few notable exceptions.

In The Old Man And The Sea, the novella which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, Ernest Hemingway alludes to the Cuban setting by scattering occasional Spanish words throughout the English prose. On the first page, he writes:

‘But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky […].’

But what makes Hemingway different to other authors is the fact that – at one particular point in the prose – he actually acknowledges that he is ‘translating’ the words of his ageing protagonist as he types:

‘“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. […]’

Hemingway was something of a linguist having lived and worked in many countries, including Italy, Spain and Cuba. As a result of his multilingualism, perhaps he was more aware than most of the process of transferring meaning between different languages. Or perhaps, by making the act of translation explicit, he simply wanted to make the story more real. That is, he wanted the reader to feel that he wasn’t just writing from his imagination. Instead, he was translating from Spanish the true story of an old fisherman fighting for the biggest catch of his life.

But if Hemingway alludes briefly to his role as translator, there is one author that goes far further. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this writer was also himself a linguist.

As well as an author, J. R. R. Tolkien was an academic philologist – an expert in medieval languages. C. S. Lewis said of Tolkien’s work in writing The Hobbit and the epic Lord Of The Rings: ‘No imaginary world has been projected which is at once multifarious and so true to its inner laws.’ Perhaps this is most apparent in the mind-boggling complexity of the languages Tolkien devised for his fictional Middle Earth.

In a preface to The Hobbit, Tolkien briefly introduces the languages of the world he has created. ‘This is a story of long ago,’ he says. ‘At that time the languages and letters were quite different from ours of today. English is used to represent the languages.’ But in The Lord Of The Rings, he goes far further. He includes an entire Appendix to Book III about the ‘Languages and Peoples of the Third Age’. In it, there are lengthy descriptions of ‘the Westron’ (or the Mannish ‘Common Speech’), as well as the ‘Elderin’ languages ‘Quenya’ (the ‘Latin’ of the Elven languages) and ‘Sindarin’, and even the ‘Black Speech’ of the Orcs. The phonemic systems or these languages are described in great detail, as are their roots and origins in earlier languages. Tolkien the linguist also describes the way language contact, between speakers of these different languages, has led to language change – for example, how the Westron has been ‘enriched and softened under Elvish influence’– just as it does in the languages closer to home.

Later, and at some length, he even discusses the dialectal and stylistic variations between speakers of the Westron. According to Tolkien, the Hobbits mostly speak ‘a more rustic dialect’ and – with the exception of the odd one or two with knowledge of ‘book-language’ – in a less formal style. In The Hobbit, very soon into his adventure, Bilbo Baggins comes across three trolls whose language is ‘not drawing-room fashion at all’ (‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton tomorrer’). Later on, he comes across Gollum who has possibly the most famously idiosyncratic idiolect of all: ‘Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciouss. It like riddles, praps it does, does it?’

The second part of the Appendix to The Lord Of The Rings is even more striking. Titled ‘On Translation’, Tolkien gives a thorough and detailed account of how he has rendered the languages of Middle Earth for his readers and how, in doing so, the Common Speech has ‘inevitably been turned into modern English’. Tolkien explicitly makes the point that – from the very first page – he is translating the words of his characters, except for a few names of places and people, into English. At the same time, he acknowledges those very same challenges that all translators have in representing the source language in the target language of their readership: the subtle variations in accent, dialect, register and style, code-switches to third languages, and so on. He even makes a point, which David Bellos also makes, that in the act of translation differences in dialect and style are inevitably smoothed out (into what Bellos calls ‘Tranglish’).

Perhaps most striking of all is Tolkien’s central conceit that, in writing The Lord Of The Rings, he is in fact translating from a manuscript called ‘The Red Book’. Tolkien says he is ‘presenting the matter of the Red Book, as a history for the people of today to read’. Perhaps, as with Hemingway, Tolkien wanted to create a tangible origin for his writing, that wasn’t simply his fertile imagination: that is, to make the ‘story’ closer to a ‘history’. Perhaps he was setting out a defence of his work against serious academic colleagues who might deride his stories of dwarves and dragons as frivolous. Or perhaps, as a linguist who greatly enjoyed the intellectual and artistic challenge of translating old Norse Anglo Saxon texts, he couldn’t help himself from consciously bringing that same process to the process of writing fiction.

Either way, it’s clear that for Tolkien the act of creating a fictional world, and all the fantastic stories that went with it, was inseparable from the act of translation. One thing is certain: without authors like Tolkien (and Hemingway and Martin) who are prepared to ‘translate’ for us stories from other times and other places – knowingly or otherwise – our own world would be a far poorer place.

Many thanks to John Cowan for giving me the initial idea for this piece in the comments he made to an earlier blog post.