Monday, February 18, 2008

Imitation Translation: a Challenge (or Two)

Here’s a challenge to any of you reading. Translate the following simple English language phrase into any other language. And/or translate the joke I’m about to tell you below. Then post your translation in the comments here, and help us out with reading the other language(s). (Now I’ll play the linguist who explicates beforehand various English meanings of the words, both in the phrase and in the joke).

I.A. First the phrase:

"imitation translation"

Dare you translate that phrase?

I.B. Now the linguistics (plays on the words) of the phrase:

1) There’s a sound play (i.e., phonological alliterations and rhyming). The spelled-out “-ation” gives away the rhyme. And, if you’re from Texas (or another Southern part of the USA), then you get more alliteration: the “m” in the first word and the “n” in the second make a nasally sound for both words. And the vowel sounds are pretty close together. Now if you’re British, then the first two vowel sounds in “imitation” are much higher and much more to the front of the mouth for you than they are for Americans saying the word; as a result, the two words don’t sound as much the same for you when you say them.

2) The first word, imitation, as an adjective in front of the noun translation, can mean “cheap,” or “pretended,” or “artificial,” and so forth. Not a great meaning.

3) Without much of a stretch, you can also imagine “imitation” to be the sort of act that Wayne Leman over at Better Bibles Blog writes about today. “Be readers of this post” is his playful title, which imitates what he’s arguing is a bad-sounding English (e.g., “be imitators of God”) for a Greek clause. Wayne’s bad-sounding title is an imitation clause; that is, his clause mimics or imitates the bad-sounding clause in English that seeks to imitate the “natural word order” or “syntax” of the Greek. He also helpfully provides a transliteration of the Greek (e.g., “ginesthe oun mimetai tou theou”) and has us look at other ways to translate (i.e., to imitate the Greek word meanings without being stuck to the Greek word “literal” grammar). It’s fun stuff, because Wayne offers real life natural English examples of using “imitate” (and not “be imitators of”) as an imperative, or a command. (He doesn’t say it, but one reason “be imitators of God” sounds so odd is because English speakers don’t usually tell anyone else to “be something” very often. I mean we might hear, “Be a man,” which is a command to another person to be more “man-like.” When we use “be” as a command, we’re usually wanting the other person to change their quality, to change what they’re like. We say,“Don’t worry, be happy,” and to rowdy children or domestic animals, “Be quiet” or “Be still” or “Be nice.” You should find helpful Charity's comment on “Be imitators” and “be readers.”)

4) You may add a #4 here as to what “imitation translation” means.

Now, how much of 1), 2), 3) or 4) can you bring across in your translation?

II.A. Here’ the joke in English:

How did the turtle cross the freeway?

[Let me just interject quickly here to warn: this joke is rated PG. One of my daughters brought it home from her private Christian school. Let me also warn that I’m spoiling the joke.]

[When the person you ask the above question to can’t answer, then offer this “help”]:

To figure out the answer, take the “F” out of “free” and the “F” out of “way.”

Okay, you’ve taken the “F” out of “free.” Now take the “F” out of “way.”

[If the person’s a native speaker of English, then he or she will eventually answer this way]:

There’s no F in way.

[When everyone around is laughing, the person will then start laughing after realizing the awful, unspeakable pun].

II.B. Now the here’s linguistics (plays on the words) of the joke:

1) There’s sound play (i.e., a pun): “no F in way” is the same set of sounds in “no f-in way” but the meanings are different.

2) “There’s no F in way” is the retort the one falling for the joke gives. But the same person has just uttered a clause with the abbreviated expletive “freaking.” This is funny for another reason: it’s an answer to the original question of sorts. How did the turtle cross the freeway? Well, the turtle didn’t cross the freeway; there’s no freakin’ way the turtle can make it across the freeway.

3) The other funny thing is the social shock of the joke. Everyone else is anticipating the answer; everyone else is laughing first; and then, when the one falling for the joke finally gets it, everyone laughs all over again together. Saying an F-word (and almost saying other F-words) is often funny. (But if English isn’t you’re first language, then you won’t fall for it so easily. You see, we English speakers to introduce a new idea will use what linguists name “the existential there.” That’s “There + BE.” We say, “There is a no business like show business.” Or, “There is no letter F in the word way.” But, of course, we contract the words in speech. Now, the reason you won’t fall for the joke if you are not a “native English speaker” is this: you haven’t internalized the “existential there” rule. So you’ll say what my wife’s coworker from El Salvador said: Way has no F in it.”)

4) You may add a #4 here to explain how linguistically the joke is funny.

Now, how much of 1), 2), 3) or 4) can you bring across in your translation? Will your listeners laugh in the other language(s)?

III. Your Turn

Would attempt to imitate the phrase or the joke by translation into another of your languages? Would you share your translation (and explanation) in comments here?

Or would you just care to explain why translation doesn't work?

There will be prizes for the winners!


Charity said...

I'm thinking about it, I'm thinking about it... but for the moment I'm too busy and it's too difficult! So I may or may not be back...

J. K. Gayle said...

Charity: Yes, yes...yes and yes! Please visit again...

Caridad: ¡Sí, sí... sí y sí! Por favor visita otra vez...