Several of the books we commissioned for translation brought to light some interesting translation challenges, particularly in terms of how disability is portrayed and the associated language and terminology. Very often, the challenge concerned the fact that what appears to have been considered ‘acceptable’ in one country (in terms of the way a disabled person was depicted or described, or the literal translation of a word) was not felt to be quite right, or fully appropriate to a contemporary UK audience.
Discussion of specific titles
One such example of this was Tamer’s Own World. A rough translation for our focus groups was provided by the publisher Yuki Press in Lebanon.
The narrator, a young girl, describes her impression of Tamer and his behaviour: "Tamer is peculiar. His manner puzzles me a lot". We were aware that the word ‘peculiar’ could have negative connotations. At the same time the young girl’s expression could be understandable and tempering the meaning of the phrase too much could alter what the author is trying to convey.
Another example is the French title Speechless/Muette. A literal translation of the title means 'mute' which would not be acceptable for the title of a book in the UK.
Zitti’s Cake Shop presented a particularly interesting case study in terms of the many translation discussions which arose.
The translator Denise Muir told us that the word "zitti" in Italian means "be quiet!" or just "quiet" as a plural adjective The word’s popular use – "Zitti!" yelled by countless parents and teachers would be familiar to any child or classroom.
Although 'Zitti' can be a surname in Italy it is clear from the author, Rosa Tiziana Bruno that she intended to have a subtle reference to 'silence' in the title and this resulted in several suggested English translations including: 'The Shuttup Shop', 'Muffle’s Bakery', 'Shush Bakery', 'Hush Bakery' and 'Zitti’s Silent Bakery'. Mr Zitti himself could have taken on any one of these variations for his name.
The author told us that she felt it would be important to translate into English without changing the meaning but if this could not be done we should choose what works best for us in English.
OIW asked some of the members of our focus groups for their comments on this translation dilemma.
Both Patricia Billings and Johnan Bannier felt that 'Zitti'’ had "a pleasing rhythm to it"/a nice ring to it" and Claire Ingham thought the original Italian name gave the book a beautiful flavour of Italy.
They all agreed that the story presented a positive image of hearing impairment and that neither the title or the character's name should be changed to an English equivalent, particularly to something like 'Shuttup', 'Shush' or 'Muffle' which could potentially have negative connotations.
After much discussion OIW felt there was no subtle substitution in English of 'zitti' and whilst we believed that it was important to try and keep as much to the original text as possible, none of the above suggestions were entirely suitable for either the title of the book or the name of the main character, threatening to place undue (and potentially negative) emphasis on the element of deafness.
Other areas within the text also prompted discussion, for example:
"The customers all felt a bit awkward when Mr Zitti just waved at them and didn’t speak"
OIW didn’t feel entirely comfortable with saying that people felt awkward with him (Mr Zitti) – even though people can indeed perhaps initially feel uncomfortable and are not sure how to react to someone who is perceived as 'different'. OIW wanted to avoid heightening the idea that a deaf person is different/unusual, instead of normalising it by using a word that has this effect.
The sentence was changed to read: "The customers all felt a bit embarrassed when Mr Zitti just waved at them and didn’t speak".
Claire Ingham explained that she often comes across people who are embarrassed by the fact that she does not hear them, and feels this is a valuable message about a very common reaction to deafness and the way this sentence has been translated is very effective.
Another sentence we mulled over was:
"The fact is, Mr. Zitti couldn't speak. He'd never been able to speak, and he couldn't hear what other people said either. He'd had an illness when he was little and the doctors couldn't cure it.
There were no medicines at the chemist's to help him either".
The sentence was changed to read:
"The fact is, Mr. Zitti couldn't speak. He'd never been able to speak, and he couldn't hear what other people said either. He'd had an illness when he was little. No doctor or medicine could change it – this was just the way he was".
Although we felt this was an improvement, there was still overall concerned about the mention of ‘doctors’ as this might convey a sense that the disability was an affliction or something that could be cured.
Rosa Tiziana Bruno told us that she had deliberately not specified the illness of Mr Zitti.
"I would love that every child (unable to speak and hear) could identify with him, regardless of the details of any illness"
Claire confirmed that it is quite possible that a condition such as meningitis would have meant that Mr Zitti would never really have heard or spoken, if he had had this as a baby. She thought referencing doctors was acceptable, as it says 'change' rather than'‘cure'. However she noted that it might seem odd to some people that he doesn’t just have a hearing aid. For many people, the simple answer would be hearing aids but it is worth noting that for others these would not be able to help.
OIW concludes that the effectiveness of a translation of any book relating to disability needs to be considered from several angles. It should go without saying that the 'new' (translated) book must of course first and foremost 'work' and read as a natural, flowing story in its own right. However, in terms of how disability is depicted, it must be considered in terms of both its general messages about disability but also how specific words, terms and concepts can be translated – and yet without losing the '‘essence' of the original and yet ensuring the meaning and any associated connotations or inferences are appropriate and current.