Translating

Today was the first day of our home summer-school. It’s an annual fantasy for me that I’ll supplement my children’s educations during the summer so that they’ll be fluent in history, conversant in ancient and modern languages, whizzes at math, and just all-around baby geniuses. Annually the fantasy peters out because:

a) I am none of these things myself and

b) it’s summer and I just want to goof off with them.

This year I decided we’d work on handwriting and basic math skills, which in the boy’s case means memorizing the multiplication tables. We’re only one day in, but this feels like a realistic goal. We just work a few minutes and then goof off, which is my m. o. for life in general.

Afterward I started reading Journey to the Center of the Earth to them. I consider reading novels to the kids to be entertainment rather than homeschooling. It’s a habit I picked up around the time my youngest was two, when I thought I might die if I had to read The Lorax for the thirty-second night in a row. I had reached the point where I was trying out a variety of foreign accents on the various characters in the book just to keep from falling asleep.

Me (doing bad, nasal Australian): Moi name is the Lorax, oi speak for tha trees…

Boy: Mooooooooooom! Stop doing that!

Shortly thereafter I picked up Little House in the Big Woods, and a new habit was born. We tore through all of Laura Ingalls Wilder, C. S. Lewis, most of J. K. Rowling (until she got too scary), a little of Robert Louis Stevenson, and so many others that I’ve forgotten what all we’ve read. They even loved Geraldine McCaughrean’s excellent translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. (Truthfully, *loved* is a bit strong for the girl; war and mythology isn’t her bag. But the boy loved it.) The only failure was Dickens, who turned out to be too complicated for me to translate on the fly, which is what I call explaining the meanings of complex words and concepts without disrupting the story flow too much.

I was inspired to re-encounter Jules Verne after watching the execrable movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Brendan Fraser. I remembered the book, which I read as a kid, as being much better.

I also recalled it as an easy read. I thought it would be fun to read aloud.

And it sort of is. But 19th-century British English that is peppered with scientific jargon is not particularly easy to follow if you happen to be American and eight years old — or worse, six — and I’m finding myself translating more than I had anticipated.

Here’s a relatively simple passage:

Fancy to yourself a tall, spare man, with an iron constitution, and a juvenile fairness of complexion, which took off a full ten years of his fifty. His large eyes rolled about incessantly behind his great goggles; his long thin nose resembled a knife-blade; malicious people declared it was magnetised, and attracted steel filings — a pure calumny; it attracted nothing but snuff, but to speak truth, a superabundance of that. When I have added that my uncle made mathematical strides of three feet at every step, and marched along with his fists firmly clenched — a sign of an impetuous temperament — you will know enough of him not to be overanxious for his company.

My translation on the fly (which was interspersed with the actual text):

Imagine a tall, thin man who’s tough and who has light skin that makes him look 40 when he’s actually 50. He wears glasses and looks around a lot, and has a thin nose that reminds people of a knife. Mean people say it’s like a magnet that attracts iron filings but that’s not true. But he does inhale a lot of snuff, which was a form of tobacco that people used to snort. (Wondering to self, should I not have said that? This is one trouble with translating on the fly — sometimes I’m midway through something before realizing it may not be age-appropriate.) The man would walk exactly three feet with every step, and he made fists all the time like he might get into a fight. So the narrator, the guy who is talking, is a little bit scared to talk to this man, his uncle, who has just called him into his office.

As you can imagine, it’s pretty slow going to read this stuff. I usually read as much of the text as I can and try to limit translation to the bare minimum to keep the story moving. My goal is for them to make it to high school undaunted by any “classic” book thrown at them because they’ve encountered something like it before. What could be scary about reading The Iliad, for example, when you’ve known it since you were five?

Here’s a tougher passage:

The name of Lidenbrock [the uncle] was consequently mentioned with honour in gymnasiums and national associations. Humphry Davy, Humboldt, and Captains Franklin and Sabine, paid him a visit when they passed through Hamburg. Becqueul, Ebolmann, Brewster, Dumas, Milne-Edwards, Sainte Clarice Deville, took pleasure in consulting him on the most stirring questions of chemistry, a science which was indebted to him for discoveries of considerable importance; and in 1853 a treatise on Transcendent Crystallography by Professor Otto Lidenbrock, was published at Leipsic, a large folio, with plates, which did not pay its cost, however. Moreover, my uncle was curator of the Museum of Mineralogy, belonging to M. Struve, the Russian ambassador, a valuable collection, of European celebrity.

Translation:

A bunch of scientists really respected the uncle, and he even published a book, but it didn’t sell very well. But he’s in charge of a rock museum, so that’s cool.

My boy loves rocks.

We made it through 12 pages, which was a pretty good start. I’m having fun with it so far, even though we’re still a ways away from the actual journey.

Later that afternoon the kids were amusing themselves outside when their father called.

The Big M: What are the kids up to?

Me: They’re outside playing with the hose.

The Big M: *awkward silence*

Me: *silence, followed by dawning realization that he may have transposed the letters “s” and “e” in “hose”*

Me: The water hose.

The Big M: *relieved* That’s good, ’cause I was kind of shocked that you would call the girls that.

(“The girls” are the sweet little six- and eight-year-old girls next door that are our children’s friends and frequent playmates.)

Me: I would never say that.

And I wouldn’t. But it was another reminder this afternoon that language is a tricky thing. Sometimes it introduces complications we weren’t expecting.

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Categories: The Kids

1 reply

  1. I translate too! The Chronicles of Narnia have been especially in need of it. (We are halfway thru the last book, finally.)
    The sentence structures and vocabulary for a much older audience than early elementary age. But my girls love the storyline, so translating is worth it.

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