Newsletter Archive

Irish, Language Acquisition, Links, Literary Translation, Translation, TV series

New Words #2: Complicated as 1, 2, 3

Has there been an uptick lately in clickbait about “untranslatable” terms? Maybe the algorithms are just increasingly determined to lure me in. Either way, I’m not falling for it.

I suspect this focus on untranslatability leads people to believe that the challenges of translation are concentrated in a handful of terms per language, which isn’t the case at all. In fact, the grammatical impacts of simple, everyday concepts in a given language can affect its syntax, rhythms, and sounds in ways present as much of a challenge to translators as they do to language learners.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine we want to describe in Irish what we see in the photo below.

two bees on a pink flower
Photo by Esperanza Doronila on Unsplash

First, we’ll need some basic vocabulary.

bee: beach

small: beag

small bees: beacha beaga

This might seem reasonably straightforward so far. As is the case in many other European languages, the adjective follows the noun, and both words are made plural, in this case by adding -a. Simple enough! So if we want to say exactly how many small bees, we’ll just state the number and follow it up with “beacha beaga,” right?

Not so fast. English speakers are accustomed to thinking of singular vs. plural as a binary concept; any quantity greater than one is plural. (“This recipe calls for one and a quarter cups of sugar.”) But many languages treat small quantities as their own separate category.

In Irish, if we’re talking about anywhere from two to six bees, we’re going to use the singular form of the noun with the plural form of the adjective. Yup! Oh, and they’re also getting lenited; that means the “b-” becomes a “bh-” (pronounced v). So no, “two small bees” aren’t “dhá beacha beaga”; they’re “dhá bheach bheaga.”

But wait! That was for numbers two through six. What if we have seven, eight, nine, or ten bees? Well, the adjective is still plural and lenited. But the noun? It’s still singular, but instead of lenition, we’ll use eclipsis, which means the “b-” becomes “mb-” (pronounced m). So “seven small bees” are “seacht mbeach bheaga.”

To summarize:

Come on, Laura, counting in Irish can’t be all that complicated. Surely these rules still apply even if you’re working with quantities greater than, say, nineteen? Not exactly. Well, do they apply if you’re counting people? LOL, no.

At this point you might be wondering what difference this makes when it comes time to translate. Two small bees are two small bees, right? Well—translators, say it with me!—it depends on the context.

If you’re working with a factual, informative text, such as a caption for that photo of two small bees on a flower, then yes, the thought process is fairly straightforward. The goal is to state the idea of “two small bees” so that it is clear and comprehensible to readers of the target language. That might not be quite as simple as it sounds; perhaps the target language has multiple words for “bee” or the target readers are most familiar with a bee species that conjures a different image in readers’ minds than the source text intended. Even so, the options available to the translator are likely to be few in number, and the decision-making process shouldn’t be especially draining.

If you’re working with an expressive text, such as poetry, fiction, or personal essay, things might get more complicated. Let’s say we’re translating a picture book from Irish into English. The author’s choice to include “dhá bheach bheaga” in the story might have been motivated by the alliteration. Maybe that’s the whole reason why there are two of them rather than seven—because “seacht mbeach bheaga” wouldn’t be alliterative! Maybe the whole book is organized around alliterative phrases! That sounds delightful for the reader and nightmarish for the translator. If you need to translate the text so that the same illustrations can be used, it’s unlikely you can translate those phrases directly while maintaining the spirit and purpose of the book. So perhaps you’ll decide those are “baby bees” or “itty-bitty bees.”

All this for three words that will never show up on a list of “untranslatable” terms—and a similar challenge awaits on every page of that picture book.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure.

If the writers in your life are crankier than usual, that might be because November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and they’re trying to write 50,000 words in thirty days. I’m technically a NaNo rebel this year because I’m trying to use the positive peer pressure to finish the first draft of a novel already in progress rather than starting from scratch on November 1. Either way, it’s tough! NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit that works with writers of all ages; if you have K-12 teachers or students in your life, check out their programming for young writers.

The Hulu series Reboot has finished its first season, and it’s brilliant. The premise: Hulu greenlights an edgy reboot of an early 2000s network sitcom. The original cast members’ reunion is not exactly joyous, a generational conflict is playing out in the writers’ room, it’s anybody’s guess who is actually in charge of this production, and everything is hilarious. Seriously, go binge-watch the whole season right now. (Unless you’re doing NaNo, in which case you should be writing.)

Here, Look at My Cats

The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.

Cat mór i mbosca beag / A big cat in a small box
My assistant lends a helpful paw as I review Irish grammar

That’s all for now. See you when these 50,000 words are done!

Laura

To receive new posts in your inbox, subscribe (for free!) at lauranagle.substack.com.

Books, Fiction Writing, Links, Literary Translation, Podcasts, Recommendations, Translation, Writing

New Words #1: Rejection, Shmejection

Welcome to New Words, a newsletter about writing, translation, and language acquisition.

I am a freelance writer and translator, an adult language learner, and a former high school world language teacher, which means that these topics are inescapably intertwined in my career and creative pursuits. This newsletter is intended to offer a peek behind the scenes as I work, and I hope it will appeal to folks who are interested in blurring the lines between these fields: writers and language teachers curious about translation, for instance, or translators wondering whether to pursue an interest in teaching or writing.

To get us started, I’ll share a bit today about how my experience as a translator prompted me to reengage with fiction writing. There is a practical aspect to this; my schedule as a freelancer can be unpredictable, but it also enables me to reserve time for creative work at moments of the day when I am focused and energetic for creative work. It wasn’t until I started translating literature and submitting it for publication, however, that I began to get past the mental block I’d had for years. I stopped limiting myself to the verbal equivalent of doodling; I started finishing drafts of short stories, revising them, and submitting them to literary magazines.

Judging by my Twitter feed, which is littered with writers offering each other advice about how to handle rejection, I’m hardly alone in finding that last step to be the toughest. This is not a matter of hypersensitivity but a reflection of the sheer difficulty involved in placing a poem, essay, or short story in a literary magazine. Few publications are open about the number of submissions they receive, but the handful of acceptance rates that are common knowledge are well below those of Ivy League schools. Case in point: Taco Bell Quarterly, a magazine devoted to—you guessed it—prose and poetry about Taco Bell, accepted about one percent of submissions for its forthcoming issue. Submitting to lit mags is such a universally demoralizing experience that Chill Subs, a new database and online community designed to make the process less intimidating, offers a rejection bingo game for users of its submission tracker, turning “we often have to reject great work” from a platitude to a collectible.

Because rejection is the norm, every acceptance I have received has taken me by surprise. I treat emails from publications like horror movies; even if the subject line is “CONGRATULATIONS,” I still peek through my fingers at the message in case there’s a jump scare ahead.

As it happens, I’d put rejection letters into the same category as jump scares: I dislike them, but they don’t have the power to hurt my feelings.

It isn’t just that I’ve had the experience of receiving a rejection from a lesser-known journal and an acceptance from a prestigious one for the same piece on the same day, although that certainly helped me get some perspective on quirks of the process. It’s also a principle that became clear to me as soon as I started submitting as a literary translator. When I’m translating a work that was previously published and well-received in another language, I know I’m not alone in thinking the story is worthy of interest. Since I’m also confident in my skills as a translator, I have no doubt that the story’s quality is up to the level of the publication’s or editor’s expectations, yet more often than not, the outcome is a rejection.

That’s because the question is not Is this work good enough to appear in this publication? but Is this story the right fit for this publication’s current needs, and if so, is it landing on the right editor’s desk at the right moment?

That framing has given me a healthier attitude toward submitting my own fiction. A magazine’s decision to publish or decline a piece isn’t an up-or-down assessment of the writer’s talent or effort; instead, an acceptance marks the convergence of talent, effort, and (crucially!) a considerable degree of luck. It became a lot easier for me to let a piece go in search of a home once I recognized which parts of this process I can control and which I can’t.

My first short fiction publication is scheduled for the end of this year.

A Humble Suggestion

In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure.

  • Novelist Rebecca Makkai has launched a personal/public reading project on Twitter, using the hashtag #AroundTheWorldIn84Books. (You can read about the origin of the project in this thread.) The first book she selected was The Door by Magda Szabó, translated from Hungarian by Len Rix—a stunning novel that I can’t recommend highly enough. I’m currently reading The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from German by Joachim Neugroschel, in anticipation of Makkai’s discussion on Twitter in early November. This project has provided a great incentive for me to move a couple of classics to the top of my to-read list, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
  • The podcast Everything Is Alive is back for a new season, and it continues to be delightful. Each episode features an in-depth interview with an inanimate object. Does a rental car care which airport it’s returned to? Does a baguette remember the hopes and dreams it harbored back when it was dough? At long last, we have answers to the questions we probably never knew we had.

Here, Look at My Cats

The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.

Two cats are shown reclining on a sofa. In the foreground, a dilute tortoiseshell cat is leaning against a green pillow, looking directly into the camera. In the background, slightly out of focus, a tuxedo cat with a black-and-pink nose is also looking toward the photographer.

If David and Alexis ever decide to record an album as an indie folk duo, their album cover is ready to go. Their rider demands, however, will be a nightmare.

That’s all for now. See you back here soon!

Laura

To receive new posts in your inbox, subscribe (for free!) at lauranagle.substack.com.