Notes for a presentation


So, the ALTA conference is coming up. In just a few short weeks I’ll be one of four on a panel discussion about translating the vernacular.

Do you ever wonder if you’ve perhaps been too hasty at volunteering for something? Like a conference presentation?

Although I’ve been speaking my native vernacular since I was . . . 3 years old (I’ll have to ask my mom), and translating from the Bosnian vernacular since I was 33 (with mixed success in those early years), I never thought much about how that differed from translating the literary standard. Part of it has to do with my relationship with American English (it’s complicated), part of it with how I picked up Bosnian (not sure if “in the field” or “in the street” describes it better). Another part is the nature of the languages themselves, both of which have a rich history and an openness to loanwords and wordplay and neologisms. The languages are forgiving; they travel well.

From the gutter to the ivory tower, the combination of word choice, syntax, grammar, and intonation seems like a continuum to me, where all choices are in the pool, and you make a decision according to context.

Everything I know about colloquial language I’ve learned (and that just recently!) from reading the introductions to my bilingual slang and colloquial dictionaries. And by intuition. And from the funny looks I get sometimes, which prompt me to ask later of a trusted friend, “What did I say?!”

I listed all the categories of the vernacular that I could think of, and this is what I came up with:

  • Interjections
  • Vulgarities — includes cursing
  • Non-standard grammar, syntax, and pronunciation
    • natural
    • affected
  • Expressions in other languages
    • neutral or appropriate usage (e.g., “bon appetit!” before starting a meal)
    • used or, often, misused for effect (e.g., “achtung!” as a response to a request that implies the requester is being dictatorial)
  • Other charged linguistic variation (if a synonym, is it a synonym from a different ethnic fund – could be used to show belonging in a group, irony, outsider status, etc.)
  • Wordplay — includes made-up words and nonsense words
  • Baby-talk
  • Folk sayings, especially just the first part with the second part understood (e.g., “when the shoe fits [wear it],” “out of the frying pan [into the fire]”)
  • Contemporary cultural references (lines from songs, TV shows, movies, commercials)
  • Regionalisms, localisms
  • Field-specific jargon (technical, occupational, sports), common slang, criminal argot
  • Synonymy — variations of register or nuance (thanks to Ghada Mourad, panel convener and copresenter, for this one)

I’ve faced translation challenges in all of these categories, some of them overlapping (Bosnian is rich in the combination of wordplay + vulgarity, for instance, and wordplay + expressions in other languages + vulgarity). I don’t have enough time to even briefy touch on all these categories in my presentation, so I’ll have to focus on examples from just one or two.

But hey — nema frke! Or as Edo Maajka would say, No sikiriki!


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