Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Translating Forceful Language



A recent post on this blog dealt with the translating of emotional language (to retrieve it, enter affective in the Search box on the right.) Among the less studied attributes of language there's another that can pose a problem for translators: its force. The same information, even the same emotion, can be imparted with varying force.


The most obvious modulators of force are the so-called intensifiers, of which the most frequent in English is very. But very also shows us that there are different degrees of force. Compare he is rich / he is very rich / he is extremely rich / he is a billionaire. Literal Spanish translations are possible, e.g. es muy rico / es extremadamente rico or (perhaps stronger because more compact) es riquísimo. Simple cases like this one are not a problem for the expert translator, so let’s turn to something more subtle.


In Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion there’s a famous scene in which the transformed flower girl Eliza blurts out, “Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi.” At the first night of the play in 1914,”Not bloody likely” on the lips of the famous actress Mrs Patrick Campbell brought the house down. It had a shock effect on the Edwardian audience that it wouldn’t have today – which also illustrates how force of language changes over time. But Shaw’s wording was deliberately chosen for dramatic effect, and a translation that’s not equally forceful and shocking could be said to betray him. So Miguel Cisneros, the most recent Spanish translator of Pygmalion, instead of  a relatively inoffensive translation like puñatero, opts for puto coñazo. Puto is very vulgar.


Don’t think, however, that language force comes only from vocabulary. Consider the most famous passage in the most famous speech by Winston Churchill, a speech that inspired a nation:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…


The linguistic force of the passage comes from its syntax, its short simple sentences, and from the hammering of the parallelism. This structure can be reproduced in French:

Nous irons jusqu'au bout, nous nous battrons en France, nous nous battrons sur les mers et les océans, nous nous battrons avec toujours plus de confiance ainsi qu'une force grandissante dans les airs, nous défendrons notre Île, quel qu'en soit le coût, nous nous battrons sur les plages, nous nous battrons sur les terrains d'atterrissage , nous nous battrons dans les champs et dans les rues, nous nous battrons dans les collines ; nous ne nous rendrons jamais… 


Indeed it’s a structure already used by Georges Clemenceau in a speech he gave in Paris in 1918 and which Churchill had heard:


Oui les Allemands peuvent prendre Paris, cela ne m'empêchera pas de faire la guerre. Nous nous battrons sur la Loire, nous nous battrons sur la Garonne, s'il le faut, et même sur les Pyrénées ! Si nous en sommes chassés, on continuera la guerre sur mer, mais quant à faire la paix, jamais ! 


However, notice too Churchill’s use of shall, which is stronger as an indicator of intention than the more everyday will. This distinction can not be reproduced in French, so it poses a problem.



George Bernard Shaw, Pigmalión, ed. and translated by Miguel Cisneros Perales. Madrid: Cátedra, 2016.

We shall fight on the beaches. French Wikipédia, 2021.


A scene from the original 1914 production of Pygmalion. Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza on the left.

Source: The Times.