Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Look. It. Up.

I assigned my students an interview with an author as one of their texts. This passage was in it:
Эфиру и посвящён мой роман, хотя там вполне чёткий сюжет: история «литературного негра», который из Москвы переехал в маленький приволжский город и пытается приспособиться к новым условиям жизни. По сути, это плутовской роман, то есть один из способов сделать философские понятия доступными для неподготовленного читателя.

It is the aether that my novel is concerned with, although it does have a rather clear plot: it's the story of a "literaturnyy negr" who moves from Moscow to a small town on the Volga and tries to get used to a new way of life. In essence it's a picaresque novel, which is one of the methods available for making philosophical concepts accessible to the lay reader.
A bit later in the interview, talking about how devalued the concept of literature has become in modern Russia, he says
Потому и получила такое распространение профессия «литературного негра»: многие известные люди, политики, спортсмены, актёры и даже писатели не признаются в том, что за них пишут. Я дам тебе содержание, а ты, негр, придашь ему форму.

This is why the profession of "literaturnyy negr" has become so prevalent: many famous people, politicians, athletes, actors and even writers don't acknowledge that someone writes for them. I'll give you the contents and you, negr, will give it a form.
Without exception they have translated литературный негр as "literary Negro". There might be some excuse for that in the first passage - he might be writing about a black author from Moscow (could be an interesting novel), but in the second? There's a profession of "literary Negro"?

No. The fact is that Russian took the term "nègre littéraire" from the French in the 19th century, and in both of those languages it means "ghost writer". And another fact is that this is extremely easy to find out. So why don't they even try?


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At 1:35 PM, October 29, 2013 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Even the idiotic machinery of Google Translate recognized "литературный негр" as "ghostwriter," in both sentences! And without having ever seen the expressions "literaturnyy negr" or "nègre littéraire" before, I was able to guess the correct meaning merely from context (as it evokes a shadowy literary presence). BTW, I can't seem to find a comparable term in Portuguese, just the loan-word "ghostwriter"!

At 2:08 PM, October 29, 2013 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

It is actually from "Negro", not just shadowy - someone who works very hard for little or no money and no respect. Perhaps the Portuguese are too polite to use it?

I was going to put a poster from the Russian version of the Ewan MacGregor film up, but alas! They used the word Призрак (Prizryak) - ghost, spectre - instead (it is the more common term for a ghost writer - plus it allows them to play with the movie and make you think it might be a supernatural thriller instead of a political one).

At 4:20 PM, October 29, 2013 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

In Portuguese, "negro" can mean either black and dark -- depending, of course, on the context (ba-dump-dump!). I used "shadowy" in my comment in the sense of a ghostwriter being a dark presence lurking (or hiding, as you prefer) in the shadows.

At 6:53 PM, October 29, 2013 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Yes, I read an article once called "What the guys said, the way they said, the best we can" by a man called Danilo Nogueira, in which he said:

Let me give you an example. A black dress is um vestido preto in Portuguese. However, I know several translators who would never accept such a pedestrian rendering. They would say something like um vestido de cor preta, for instance.
Now, I firmly believe that any English-language author who wanted um vestido de cor preta in Portuguese would have chosen to write a dress black in color in English, for the choice was there all the time and the two English forms correspond to their Portuguese counterparts both in style and frequency (the de cor / in color is far less frequent). The translation is latent in the original as the statue is latent in the stone, as Signor Buonarotti is said to have claimed on some occasion or the other. So, if the text says a black dress¸ it is up to me to translate it as um vestido preto, thus respecting the stylistic choice made by the author.
However, sometimes the target language offers a choice that was not present in the source language. For instance, black can be translated both as preto and negro in Portuguese and, if you know Portuguese, you will know that there is a world of difference between um vestido preto and um vestido negro, although both translate a black dress. So, here the translator has to make a choice and that is dictated by context, not by whim or a concern with a hypothetical need to prettify the text.
In short, a black dress can be either um vestido preto or um vestido negro¸ but not um vestido de cor preta or um vestido de cor negra.

At 10:18 PM, October 29, 2013 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

The "cor-de-____" construction is standard usage in Portuguese only for pink ("cor-de-rosa") and orange ("cor-de-laranja"); unlike all other colors, it has no plural form.


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