The issue of a translations has come up before, most notably in the analysis of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. When examining a work originally created in a foreign language, the accuracy of translation comes up. Today, a look at how language barriers go into adding complexity to adapting.
Translations aren’t cut-and-dried. Languages have quirks, some of which might not translate to another. Add in cultural differences and getting the idea presented in a paragraph or even just a sentence. Idioms grow from language and culture and may not have a proper translation. Expletives are an extreme example; the movie Bon Cop, Bad Cop shows the difference between swearing in English, which tends to use bodily functions, and swearing in Quebecois French, which tends to use elements of the Catholic Church. In a more family friendly vein, puns – plays on words – fall apart between languages. A French pun based on how close cheval (horse) and cheveux (hair) can’t be repeated in English. Going the other way, the werewolf/where wolf pun from Young Frankenstein can’t be translated well into French; werewolf translates to loup garou while where wolf becomes où est le loup.
It is possible to work around the limitations. The various English Asterix comics managed to keep the gist of most of the puns without accurately translating the names. Obelix’s dog has a near perfect replacement name despite not being a perfect translation; Idéfix, after idée fixe or a fixed idea, became Dogmatix, after dogmatic, which can involve fixed ideas, and adds in a quick extra pun. The druid, Panoramix, after the wide view parnorama, became Getafix, since everyone went to him for magic potions. The blacksmith, Cétautomatix, from c’est automatique or “it’s automatic” became Fulliautomatix, “fully automatic”. The bard, Assurancetourix, after assurance tous risques, or “comprehensive insurance”, which what he needs when he tries singing, becase Cacofonix, after cacophony, which accurately describes his singing. The goal in the translations was to maintain, if not the exact pun, a pun based on the character. The characters haven’t changed, just the names only because puns are very much language based.
That still leaves the nature of the language. English doesn’t really have an equivalent to either tutoyer or vouvoyer, using the informal or formal you, respectively. Likewise, the levels if formality in Japanese honourifics don’t always translate well, leaving a character sounding stiffly more formal than intended. A blind-idiot translation, where words are translated without a sense of context, creates a mess. The translator needs to understand the originating culture; fortunately, most do. At the same time, the result also depends on the translator’s own culture, and, sometimes, this results in a more formal approach even when the original wasn’t.
The above problem occurs in older works. Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, the source of several movies and a blockbuster stage musical, was originally written in French. The English translation is very formal, having been done in 1911, when most novels were written in a more formal manner than today.
What this means for adaptations of translated works is that the goal may not be to preserve the language but the intent. Language changes over time. English is constantly mugging other languages for new words. Spoken language varies from written. Today, audiences expect the dialogue in a film to reflect how English is spoken now. Studios typically aren’t going to release a work that is inaccessible to the general audience. Yet, older works, no matter the original language, bring expectations. King Henry VIII won’t sound like a Bronx storekeeper except for comedic purposes; the audience won’t put up with the change.
In short, a foreign language work adds an extra degree of complexity to adapting it. Unless cultural biases are taken into account, subtleties could be lost, and the adaptation will feel flat.