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Translating the works of Roald Dahl requires creativity as well as linguistic talent

Our blog this week is inspired by the well-known children’s author Roald Dahl and this year’s remembrance of the centenary of his birth. Roald Dahl’s novels have delighted millions of children across the world. His novels have been translated into 58 different languages, but his unique, humorous style of writing has proved to be challenging for many translators. eSense Translations takes a look at how literary translators have approached the task of translating his work and the difficulties that they have come across.

Enjoyed by children of all of ages, Roald Dahl is famous for his creative and witty language in his novels, often making up words, phrases and phenomenon to bring his quirky characters to life. This unique style of writing requires quite a skill to recreate in another language, if one is to successfully transport readers to the magical of world of Roald Dahl. Although a translator will want to keep as close to the original text as possible, a good dose of imagination is required in order to make the novel work in another language and appeal in the same way to its target audience.

Matthew Fitt, who worked to create a Scottish version of Dahl’s novel, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ discussed one of many challenges when coming up with a suitable name for the well-known Oompa-Loompas. He commented, “There’s a musical element. And I was thinking, well how dae ye, ye dae wi this?” In the end, old-fashioned Scottish music proved to be the inspiration and the Oompa-Loompas became the Heedrum-Hodrums.

The Big Friendly Giant underwent a similar Scottish transformation in the hands of translator Dr Susan Rennie.  Possibly one of Dahl’s most famous novels, the Scottish translation stays true to the original plot line; however the charming language of the giants, Gobblefunk, was reworked to create new versions of these rib-tickling words. Rennie told The National: “In order to make that language, Dahl has based it on English words, pulled them apart and re-combined them. These are words invented for children to enjoy reading. They can relate them to English words or onomatopoeic sounds. If I hadn’t translated them, they would still have looked like English words.” She has therefore taken a similarly playful approach with the language to create terms such as “feechcumbers” for the not-so-tasty “snozzcumbers” and “fuzzleglog” for the noise-inducing drink “frobscottle!” The most noted change Rennie has made to this novel however is the title; our BFG has become the GFG in Scots, or Guid Freendly Giant.

Roald Dahl’s novels have been translated into many other languages too. From Armenian to Indonesian, the 58 languages, into which Dahl’s novels have been translated, show that the love for his inventiveness is far-reaching.

Vendula Srničková, Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University Faculty of Arts, recognises Dahl’s use of nonsense as a literary device and the difficulty it poses for translators in her paper, ‘Translating Nonsense in Roald Dahl’s Children’s Books.’ Her review of the Czech translations of Dahl’s novels led her to conclude that there is a lack of consistency employed and that the translations are not approached with a clear strategy. Srničková comments on how spoonerisms and portmanteaus are particularly challenging for the translators and therefore the translations can be somewhat disappointing. Alliterations are not mirrored in the same way as the original, as they are not a prominent stylistic feature of the Czech language and Srničková queries the lack of recognition of the repetition in Dahl’s writing by the translator. While the translator has focused on making the text as fluid and natural as possible, often some of the eccentricities are sacrificed. Translators have had to compromise or even forfeit elements of Dahl’s stylistic writing in order to get the content across, but then the resulting translation does not hold the same charm as the originals.

Literary translation is a specialised skill in the arena of translation. Translators require a deep understanding of not just the text as a whole, its characters and settings, but also the style of the writer. This is where literary translation becomes an art in its own right. A straight translation of a text into a different language may not work for the language’s particular nuances and colloquialisms. The translators therefore need to take a bit of artistic licence, which Srničková Czech translators struggled with and Fitt and Rennie tackled with gusto, and use their imagination to write text that emphasises the skill of the author to their target audience. The difficulties translators have faced in recreating Dahl’s work, however, really highlights his skill as a great creative writer in the first place.

By Lorna Paice

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