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.
Lost in Translation has focused mainly on adaptations of English language works, primarily because a foreign language work would not be understood as well. Translating a work doesn’t involves just the words but the culture behind the work. Little details that are taken for granted in one language can throw a reader or viewer with a different native tongue. Even when a language is shared, such as between England and the United States, there’s still a cultural barrier. In England, a hundred miles is a long distance while in the US, a hundred years is a long time.
The above makes this week’s analysis a bit of a challenge. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was written by Swedish author, Stieg Larsson. Larsson was, prior to his death in 2004, the editor-in-chief of Expo, a Swedish magazine, and had written and delivered the manuscripts for what is now known as the Millenium trilogy before his fatal heart attack. The cultural differences begin with the titles. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was titled Män som hatar kvinnor, or “Men who hate women”. The second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, had its title properly translated from Flickan som lekte med elden. The third and final book Larsson wrote was Luftslottet som sprängdes, “The air castle that was blown up”, but titled The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest in English, following the title scheme established with the previous books. The choices reflect an editor working out what would draw attention and sales. “Men who hate women” is a little too on the nose for the book in an English market.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows Mikael Blomkvist, the owner, publisher, and a contributor to Millenium, a financial magazine that often tasked other outlets for their poor coverage of financial news. After Blomkvist is found guilty of libel against a market speculator, he receives a request from Henrik Vanger, retired CEO of Vanger Industries, to do two things; first, write Vanger’s biography and, second, solve a forty year old cold case, the death of Henrik’s neice, Harriet. With the libel verdict hanging over his head, Blomkvist agrees and starts digging. At first, the investigation hits the same dead ends that the police and even Vanger found, but Blomkvist gets his first break on close examination of a photograph of Harriet the day of her death. The deeper he digs, though, the more sordid the details of the Vanger family get.
Elsewhere, Lisbeth Salander, the girl of the title, has done her own investigations on Vanger’s behalf, though through an intermediary, the company lawyer. The first investigation was on Blomkvist, to get an idea of how to approach him. Later, though, when he reads the report on himself. Blomkvist realizes that Salander is a hacker, and asks for her help. Together, they discover what did happen to Harriet and clear Blomkvist’s name. Salander, for all the billing she has in the book’s title, has a supporting role in the book, an artifact of the title change. Blomkvist is the primary character, thiough Salander tends to take over scenes that she’s in. It’s a minor quibble at this point.
In 2011, a film adaptation of The Girl of the Dragon Tattoo* was released. Directed by David Fincher, the movie starred Daniel Craig as Blomkvist, Rooney Mara as Salander, and Christopher Plummer as Henrik Vanger. The film doesn’t change the setting, leaving most of the action in Sweden. In fact, the movie hits all the major beats of the book. Parts that were removed, such as Blomkvist’s jail time, were more to maintain the flow of the investigation and keep the pace of the movie going. What works in one medium doesn’t necessarily translate to another. The Vanger family tree that was listed in the book as a chart becomes too much info to be able to track in a film where flipping back becomes problematic to the narrative flow. The movie needed to be tight to fit in its running time, which is a shade over two-and-a-half hours as it is. Key clues get highlighted, allowing the audience to follow, though the biggest sleight of hand of the novel is still in the adaptation. The ending and the reveal of what happened to Harriet Vanger takes the most liberties with the source, but still remains in the spirit of the novel, if not the actual events. Again, narrative flow for a movie already over 2.5 hours long necessitated some changes here.
To say that there was an effort to keep to the events in the novel is an understatement. Filming took place primarily in Sweden, having Stockholm play itself and a manor in Hofsta portray the Vanger home in Hedeby. While the main cast – Craig, Mara, and Plummer** – aren’t Swedish, the supporting cast mostly is. Salander has a more prominent role, though given that she is the girl of the title, that makes sense. The result is a film that, while Hollywood produced, feels authentic. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as perfect an adaptation as seen here at Lost in Translation.
* To show how the title changes by language, the Quebecois French release was called Millénium: les hommes qui n’aimaient pas les femmes, or, “Millenium: men who didn’t love women” following the original Swedish title of the book and the name of the trilogy.
** Daniel Craig is from England, Rooney Mara is American, and Christopher Plummer is a veteran Canadian actor.