Lost in Translation

Mutti, can you please make Pfannkuchen for dinner? Pretty please?

Of course, Liebling.  Would you like them with Zucker for dessert or with ham und Käse for the main course?

Setting a book for English readers in a non-English-speaking environment creates an interesting  problem.  Many writers solve it along the lines of the exchange I made up above — tossing in some relatively easy-to-figure-out foreign words so readers are aware that the characters are speaking German not English.  Here the child is calling her mother the German word for mommy followed by the very American expression, “pretty please” a solution I find very clunky if they are supposedly speaking only in German.  And film-makers have the same problem. Check out this excellent presentation on the subject over at Slate:  “How Hollywood Represents Foreign Speech.”



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4 responses to “Lost in Translation

  1. Even clunkier is when they write “‘Mutti, can you please make Pfannkuchen for dinner? Pretty please?’ Greta whined, begging her mother to make her favorite pancakes.” I’d rather have a glossary in the back, or the assumption that I’m intelligent enough to use context clues to figure it out.


  2. Zena Sutherland would go mad whenever she saw instant translation, such as “‘Oui, Maman,’ the child said, yes, Mother.”


  3. Ah, the omniscient translator.


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