Push My Car

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I need a jump. I’m gearing up for the panel I’m on at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference (scheduled for Friday, October 30th, 3:45pm – 5:00pm):

Vernaculars as the Substantiation of Traffic: A Challenge for Translation

Traffic within/across languages is substantiated through vernaculars. They attest to the spatial and temporal movements taking place. This panel discusses the ways in which translators navigate through dialects and vernaculars. The languages discussed in this panel are Arabic, French, Farsi, Montenegrin, and German. Literary works written in Arabic increasingly include the author’s vernacular. The same goes for Maghrebi francophone literature that often includes elements absent from mainstream French. Also, how to translate vernacular Afghani Farsi expressions when the translator has access only to mainstream Farsi? Finally, knowing that Swiss German and Austrian German have different vernacular expressions, how does a translator translate these various Germans into English?

I’m still monkeying with my presentation. It seems that I cannot just write it out for myself; I need to test drive my ideas by writing e-mails or blog posts to figure out what I want to say. I suppose that’s appropriate for a presentation on the vernacular — I have to talk it through. At least I’ve narrowed my topic from my earlier list of possibilities: I’ll be talking about the challenge of translating fictional characters’ use of words and phrases in foreign languages. I’ll take most of my examples from the play Otpad (Refuse) by Ljubomir Đurković, in which the characters’ use of wordplay and expressions in German, English, and Italian grounds the play in a specific place and point in time (Podgorica, Montenegro, 1999), establishes the characters, and adds layers of meaning to the dialogue.

To be clear, I’m not thinking about loan words, that is, words or phrases that have, through time, been absorbed into the standard and don’t call particular attention to themselves. I’m thinking about the use of foreign words as foreign words to add meaning (e.g., irony, disdain, humor, insider status, prejudice), which is pretty common in conversation and informal writing in the region.

A related feature of spoken Bosnian and Montenegrin (and I assume Serbian and Croatian, too, although I haven’t spent enough time in those countries to say so with certainty) is the switching of registers, or code-switching. (As an aside, I love it that the Wikia code-switching page links to a friend from NYC theater days, Gayle Tufts, now living in Berlin and capitalizing on code-switching in her musical act.) I’m referring to the use of different ways of speaking at home among family, at work among colleagues, at social events with friends, and at the šalter when you have business with government organs (think DMV, notary public, register of wills). The differences may be in word choice, grammar, pro- and e-nunciation, tone, or any combination of these, plus one’s attitude and overall bearing. To me this is not the same as dialect because the manner of speaking is intentional and the decision to speak a certain way drives meaning.

This shifting of linguistic gears might be as simple as emphasizing certain differences in pronunciation between a rural area and a city, as when exaggerating a village accent when telling a joke or recounting an event. We’re familiar with this in American English — playing the hick or country bumpkin, putting on an accent for effect (Y’all come back now! Y’hear?).

And just as we do here in the U.S., people from the countries of the former Yugoslavia use regional accents and lexical variation as shorthand for communicating all sorts of information. Some great examples of how code-switching can be used to define characters and advance storylines in fiction can be found in the film Sjaj u očima by Srđan Karanović. One central scene has the male romantic lead overhearing the female romantic lead talking to a cat. Thinking she is alone, Romana greets the cat in her (Romana’s!) native Croatian dialect, giving lie to her façade of a sophisticated Belgrade player. The scene represents a turning point in the film.

Sjaj u ocima - di si macurcinuMa, di si mačurčinu? Ah?

Well, that was quite a detour into code-switching. I love the topic, but there’s not enough time to cover that plus foreign words as foreign words in my portion of the presentation. Just as well I got it out of my system here.

So, getting back on track with the theme of this year’s ALTA conference: Traffic. The countries in which the languages I translate are spoken are well trafficked — they have been driven through and occupied by foreigners throughout history, right up to the present day, what with peace-keeping forces, international aid workers, diplomatic corps, and civil society NGOs. And all this traffic has left a mark on the language. Each region of the former Yugoslavia has a different blend of historical, hence linguistic, influences — more Italian on the Adriatic coast, more Turkish in Central Bosnia, more Hungarian in northern Serbia. The influence of German is widespread, especially in heavy industry, engineering, and construction.

Because so many foreign words have entered common usage, in addition to my Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, and older Serbo-Croatian dictionaries, I have dictionaries on hand for German, Turkish, Hungarian, Albanian, Latin, and French. And no Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian translator’s toolbox is complete without at least one rječnik stranih riječi (dictionary of foreign words) — I have the 2002 Anić-Klaić-Domović edition.

What dictionaries don’t always tell you, though, is the extra-linguistic information that accompanies the use of a foreign word. Yes, they provide definitions, but sometimes the real meaning of a word or phrase becomes clear only when you park it in context and examine it in light of the situation, speaker, and audience. And the mechanics of that are what I intend to discuss in the presentation.

To be continued — come along for the ride!

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PS: Even if my car won’t budge, I’ll never make you get out and push it. ;v) I gurantee it.

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