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5 Epic Literary Translations

It’s no secret that literature can be difficult to translate. That said, some books are definitely more challenging than others. Here are five novels that required epic levels of time and/or devotion from their translators.

1) Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

From a translator’s perspective, David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece could not have been more appropriately named. At one thousand pages of prose, with footnotes and 388 endnotes, the length alone makes translation an intimidating prospect. On top of that, there’s Wallace’s stream-of-consciousness prose style, packed with sly humour, allusions and hints that need to come through in the target language if readers are to have any chance of making sense of the tangled plot.

Nonetheless, Infinite Jest has been translated into six languages: German, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish and French. The French translation just came out this year. It took two translators a dozen years to finish! Read more

Alice Learns a New Language

Her French skills may have been notoriously poor, but Alice, of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” fame, just learned a new language: Jèrriais.

Jèrriais is also known as Jersey French and is spoken only on the island of Jersey. The story of a little girl falling through a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world has long been a favorite of children all over the world. It’s already been translated into at least 97 languages, and as of this month, children in Jersey now have a version to call their own.

According to the BBC, Jèrriais author Geraint Jennings initially began translating the original book into the Jèrriais language as a side project, just for fun. Everytype, a publishing company that specializes in minority languages, found out about the project and requested a complete translation.

The island of Jersey has a long-standing literary tradition that goes back to the twelfth-century poet Wace. However, little early literature has survived the ages, and the language itself has been largely replaced by English. UNESCO classifies is as “severely endangered.”

These days, Jersey children grow up speaking English, though they may study Jèrriais in school as part of a program to revitalize it. This new translation gives them a little bit of an extra incentive to learn the language of their ancestors. Not only has the story been translated, it has been adapted so that Alice is from Jersey instead of England. Many other aspects of the story have been localised as well. For example, when Alice encounters a mouse after falling down the rabbit hole, she assumes it is a French mouse that arrived in England with William the Conqueror. For the Jèrriais translation, Jennings changed the scene somewhat to use local history instead.

He told the BBC,

“[Alice] is familiar with the Battle of Jersey in this version as it would make no sense when she meets the mouse in her lake of tears for her to imagine he speaks French and for him to have come over with William the Conqueror. As we know, William the Conqueror didn’t speak French, he was a Norman, so I make it that she knows the mouse as a French mouse who came over for the Battle of Jersey.”

The title also had to be tweaked to accommodate the local dialect. Jèrriais is closely related to French, and the French translation of the title is “Alice in the Land of Wonders.” In Jersey, however, “wonder” essentially means “donut.” Alice in Donutland, anyone?

Here’s how he handled the translation:

“I wanted to make it sound more like a country, so used Emervil’lie, which is a verbal noun that could translate as a state of wonderment. You could translate it as Alice in a state of wonderment or Alice in a wondering or Alice in a country which happens to be wonderland.”

All in all, this translation should make for interesting reading for anyone who speaks Jèrriais.