View Full Version : Trees, flowers, and translation
When a reader comes across the name of a tree or flower in a translation, they may skip over it and get on with following the plot. But what if a certain plant or type of foliage is a leitmotif in the book?
I recently had the word "juniper" appear a great deal in one translation. And I think to myself: what is the reader going to do on coming across this word for the umpteenth time? Even I had to look at a few Google entries to remind myself of what this bush-like tree looks like.
The trouble is that they vary quite a lot in size and shape, and although we all know that the bluish juniper berries are used to make gin, the tree itself can be a bit of a mystery. The Northern European or Central Asian variety differs somewhat form that of the Middle East or North Africa.
For instance, in my translation the protagonist pops a severed fish head over the point of a juniper tree, so that the head will dry out and he can put on his living-wall as a trophy without it stinking. This implies that the tree is not taller than a man and ends in a point. Does the reader grasp all this if he or she has not Googled for juniper?
This reminds me of a similar dilema with jungle creepers that I had once! While the narrator was differentiating the creepers that he was hacking at with his machete, I was a bit skeptic about whether the readers would get too confused with all those plant names.
And besides trees and flowers, the same goes for birds. For instance, in Europe magpies are known to steal shiny objects, while in the US people are more familiar with ravens.
Just last week I contacted the local ornithology association to ask for some local bird names, because google was not helping. But now it's a question whether such names would be too much for readers, if they aren't famliar with those birds anyways!
Well, just try translating a Swedish novel about Linnæus, the naturalist who, God-like, took it upon himself to name every creature and plant in creation. The average Swede would have problems understanding " ... de flockblomstriga. Körvel. Hundloka. Nålkörvel. Odört. Rödfloka. Harfloka. Morot. Björnfloka. Vattenstäkra. Bäckmärke. Kummin. Spikblad."
With the help of Svenska Akademiens Ordbok (Sweden's answer to the OED) and Google, I've turned this and the following passage into -
"(The friends Linnæus and Arctædius studied the Umbellates together.
They are: the umbelliferous plants.) Chervil. Wild chervil. Shepherd’s needle. Hemlock. Upright Hedge Parsley. Slender hare’s-ear. Carrot. Hogweed. Water fennel. Lesser water parsnip. Cumin. Pennywort.
Arctædius had a slender hare’s-ear in front of him:
- Bluish-green, slender, branching from its base. Leaves like narrow lancets, without indentations. Umbels with few flowers, the upper one composite, with three involucres. The others simple from the axil, with involucres longer than the umbel. The fruit round, with small spines and narrow ridges."
It's not the kind of Swedish you pick up as a transient teacher of English to adult evening classes.
As both of you suggest, it certainly is a field full of flora and fauna.
Birds are indeed in the realm of mystery for townies like me. I can recognise a dozen or so of those that flutter around where I have lived and live now. Funny how you can move house and still find the same types of garden birds hundreds of kilometres away. A Swedish magpie, looks very much like a Dutch or English one. And they are indeed associated with stealing shiny objects. And in the Estonian novel I've just translated, it is indeed a magpie that is pecking at shiny fish scales, to remove the last residue of flesh rather than decorating its nest with silver.
When you see the list of Linneaus' names, and the English ones, it is heartening to see names in the respective languages, as Latin ones always seem so cold and scientific. I wonder whether there's one called Drooping Hedge Parsley. My biggest trouble with wild flowers and other plants is that I don't even know what they look like without consulting a book or the Wikipedia. So it's not only a question of translation, but of the familiarity with shapes and textures that comes into play when translating.
I'd never seen a magpie till I went to Sweden. Somebody told me it was a skata, and I had to look the word up. The Thieving Magpie is Den tjuvande skatan in Swedish.
Sweden - i.e. Linköping - was also the first place where I saw a hedgehog, or igelkott. Gustav Mahler was brought up in 'hedgehog-town', Iglau, now Jihlava in Moravia.
And in Västergötland some years ago I saw a snake, the only time I've seen one outside a zoo. I know there are adders in the Scottish hills, but they're shy and hard to spot.
I have literally just taken delivery of Per Wästberg's new novel about Anders Sparrman and his travels, in the translation by Tom Geddes, so there ought to be more flora and fauna in that.
A Swedish magpie, looks very much like a Dutch or English one. And they are indeed associated with stealing shiny objects.
In Italian magpie is gazza ladra, "ladra" being "thief".
In Italian magpie is gazza ladra, "ladra" being "thief".
In English, "Gazza" is a well-known former footballer with a serious drink problem.
Apparently Ivan Thays had similar difficulties (http://ivanthays.com.pe/post/3982531709) when he encountered the first paragraph of David Foster Wallace's forthcoming The Pale King.
I love trees and plants so I took the trouble of learning the Latin nomenclature of hundreds of species. So when I run into a local plant name (even from my region) I try to check what the Latin name for it is, and that will solve it for me most of the times.
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