Translated fiction now sells better than English fiction. It’s time to celebrate the linguistic detectives who make it all possibleby Miranda France / March 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
Here’s a translator’s tale: it’s early morning and I’m working on a scene from an Argentinian thriller. A woman has discovered her husband’s infidelity and leaves him a chilling message on the mirror written in rouge. In rouge. That doesn’t sound right. Although I’ve never tried it, I think it would be hard to write on glass with a cream rouge and impossible with a powdered one. Surely you’d use lipstick? I turn to WordReference, the online oracle for linguists, and ask the other forum users if rouge can ever mean lipstick in Latin America. Someone from Spain immediately says no. Lipstick would be pintalabios. Another poster from Mexico agrees, although he says that lipstick there is lápiz labial. Then the southern hemisphere starts waking up. A commenter says that rouge does indeed mean lipstick in Chile. And finally someone from Argentina agrees. Her mother always uses this word.
While writing is famously solitary, translating thrives on connection and collaboration. If I’m writing a book I tend to secrecy, but when I’m translating one I’ll rope in anyone useful. My plumber provided diagrams when I was working on a short story about a piece of jewellery lost in an S-bend. An architect friend explained how the foundations are laid for a tower block, for a novel in which a body is buried in wet cement. Various lawyers have helped unpick the workings of different judiciaries. The book club at the Argentine Embassy has been helping me with some Lunfardo, a language derived from Lombardy, honed in the prisons of Buenos Aires and as unique to that city as Cockney rhyming slang is to London. Sometimes translating feels like detective work and sometimes it’s like solving puzzles. So it was gratifying to learn that the renowned translator Anthea Bell, who died in October, and worked on the Asterix stories among other works, was also daughter of the first compiler of the Times’s cryptic crossword.
Of course, translating isn’t only the business of people who get paid to do it. Around 300 languages are used daily in London, and New York may be home to as many as 800, according to the Endangered Language Alliance. Children routinely interpret for…