Overlexicalisation as a problem for translators

We’ve talked elsewhere about Nadsat’s function as an anti-language or the language of an ‘anti-society’, a group that sets itself up as in opposition to society and its norms (Michael Halliday first wrote about this phenomenon in 1976 while Roger Fowler drew attention to Nadsat as anti-language in 1979). What we didn’t go into was how Burgess’s understanding of this social phenomenon shows through the way Nadsat is organised and the types of words it includes.

Burgess was a great admirer of Eric Partridge’s fascinating Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and knew that words in anti-languages tend to group around a fairly limited set of specific meanings. Partridge’s Dictionary is just one in a long line of works – stretching back at least to 16th century glossaries of thieves’ cants – that  have tried to demystify the strange words used by outsiders, labelled by insider society as rogues and scoundrels.

[For a feminist view on slang and how it has been misrepresented by male commentators, see this really interesting recent post on Debbie Cameron’s excellent blog].

Groups like Alex and his droogs have certain topics they like talk about and when they are talking about them they don’t want others to understand what they are saying. This is the essence of what an anti-language is. Halliday says we can expect these topics to be categories of words such as criminal acts, classes of criminal / victim, the police/law enforcement, and so on. Sure enough we can make a similar sort of categorisation of Nadsat words. But the important thing here is that there won’t just be one word for a particular meaning but many different ones (of course there’s a term for this: overlexicalisation) and different words will have different connotations. This overlexicalisation was something Burgess was more than happy to replicate, not least because it gave him the chance to make use of the sorts of wordplay that he loved.

Burgess particularly went to town on Nadsat words referring to women/girls, with 10 different words used (listed here in descending order of frequency in the book): ptitsa, devotchka, baboochka, sharp, cheena, forella, lighter, dama, soomka, zheena. Of course, we also see standard English words (woman, girl, lady, wife) in the book, though these are far less frequent than the most common Nadsat words.

This overlexicalisation of words referring to women and girls should also be seen from the perspective of Nadsat as the in-group language of a gang of dysfunctional and disaffected adolescent males. The meanings of most of these words (see below) reflect the rampant misogynism of the group.

Of course having so many words with similar meanings creates a bit of a headache for translators. In this post we’ll look at how the translations into French (tr. Georges Belmont and Hortense Chabrier) and Spanish (Aníbal Leal [chapters 1-20] and Ana Quijada Vargas [chapter 21]*) handle this problem.

* We’re very grateful to our friend (Burgess scholar and archivist) Yves Buelens for providing background information on the Spanish translation.

One way into this is to work out where these words all came from – how did Burgess create them. Nadsat words for women/girls in fact show a range of methods of lexical creation:

1. Transliteration of standard Russian: devotchka, baboochka, dama, zheena

These are all more-or-less faithful transliterations of standard Russian words with a few changes to sounds, apparently for aesthetic reasons (e.g. baboochka would normally be transliterated babushka): devotchka is ‘girl’, baboochka ‘grandmother’ (or just general word for ‘old woman’), dama is ‘lady’ and zheena is ‘wife’.

2. ‘Calque’, i.e. direct translation into Russian of an English slang term: ptitsa, forella, soomka

These words show Burgess’s love of wordplay but also have quite a sexist slant. They involve reference to words which are not acceptable in normal use today for referring to women (‘bird’, ‘trout’ and ‘bag’, respectively, the latter two being commonly associated with ‘old’) in their Russian translations (the point being that they don’t have these secondary meanings in Russian). Since they have quite strong negative connotations in English, which are also not obvious, we can see how they make things pretty much impossible for translators. How does one translate soomka into French while conveying the idea of ‘old bag’, for example? This is even more difficult when we consider that the word for ‘bag’ in French (sac) isn’t even a feminine gender word, so could hardly be used to refer to a woman!

3. Rhyming slang: sharp

There aren’t many Nadsat items that use rhyming slang (e.g. luscious glory, twenty-to-one, pretty polly), and they are almost always written in full, probably because Burgess simply made them up for the book. In this case, though, writing sharp and blunt in full would lead readers to the taboo rhyming word (I’ll leave it to the reader to work out what word is referred to here), and it seems that Burgess preferred to err on the side of decency this one time. As with calque words, it is hard to see how rhyming slang can be translated (though Belmont and Chabrier had a good go with pretty polly, coming up with the rather inventive joli lollypop).

4. Russian word truncated: cheena

Truncation is a method used quite a lot to create Nadsat words (another example is veck, short for chelovek, ‘person’). In the case of cheena, Burgess seems to have taken the Russian word zhenshchina (‘woman’) and lopped off the front of it, then played a bit with the transliteration.

5. Unknown strategy: lighter

While from looking at how the word lighter is used in the book it’s clear that it refers to (old) women, it’s less clear where this word actually comes from. We’ve been unable to find out the word creation process that Burgess was relying on when he came up with lighter.

We don’t how aware the French and Spanish translators were of the (far from obvious) connotations arising from some of these word-creation methods, but it is interesting to consider the lengths they went to to preserve these apparently important distinctions. The temptation for any translator faced with this rather complicated situation has to be to reduce the number of different words in order to make their job a bit easier. But have the French and Spanish translators succumbed to this temptation?

The table below shows a comparison of these words between A Clockwork Orange and the two translations. If we look at the results just in terms of frequency of equivalents, the two translations seem have managed fairly well, particularly if we consider the overall frequencies of words; Nadsat words for women/girls are slightly less frequent in French but the raw frequency in Spanish is actually slightly higher.

[It may be of interest to note that the relative lengths of the texts are English: 59747 words; French: 73376 words; Spanish: 55379 words]

If we look at the number of different words used in each language, we can see that there is some decrease, though the situation here is reversed.  The French translation has 9 different terms, only 1 down on the English, while the Spanish translation only has 7 different words (the * next to dama is because although this word appears in the Spanish translation, it is already a Spanish word with the same meaning). So the French has done pretty well, while the Spanish hasn’t got quite the same level of overlexicalisation. Awareness of this may have led to the extra instances of débochca and ptitsa – the Spanish translators perhaps compensating for failings elsewhere.

One obvious pattern suggested by the table is that the less frequent a word is, the more likely it is to be omitted, particularly in the Spanish. It would be interesting to know if this pattern is repeated in other translations in other languages.

Another pattern seems to relate to the method used to create the word. Both French and Spanish translators sensibly decided to stick with sourcing ‘core’ Nadsat words from Russian – (this isn’t a given – e.g. the Italian translation, which has been explored by Brigid Maher for some reason uses inventions based on Italian dialect and slang words). So it is not all that surprising that it is the words that are based on Russian (categories 1, 2 and 4) that typically survive. The exception here is zheena, which doesn’t make it into Spanish (either because the translator thought it was a misspelling of cheena or because he couldn’t be bothered).

What is quite interesting to note with respect to word-creation methods is that the words that present difficulties seem to be those that weren’t sourced from Russian. The obvious word here is lighter, which we couldn’t find an etymology for. Both French and the Spanish translations use standard words for the translation of lighter (copine and harpía / dama, respectively). The image below shows the two instances of lighters in the original and the corresponding sentences in the Spanish translation, partly to show how the word is used in the original and partly to give an example of what’s termed ‘parallel concordancing’ which helps track how specific words are translated.

The French option, copine with its connotations of having some sort of shared experience sort of works (the lighters in question are about to be bribed into providing the droogs with an alibi). However, the Spanish translation here is not good. Neither harpía (essentially ‘harpy’) nor dama (‘lady’) gives the sort of connotation intended by lighter in the context of the story and they are also at odds with each other – can you be a ‘harpy’ and a ‘lady’ at the same time?

Unsurprisingly, the other item that creates problems is sharp. We can have some sympathy for someone trying to translate a rhyming slang reference to a taboo word. The French option, gironde (based on an adjective informally used to mean something like ‘good-looking‘, apparently in French noir books, as the quotation from Le Breton’s Rififi, pinched from the TLF definition, suggests: Il était pas girond, le p’tit mec) has the virtue of being consistently used but makes no attempt to replicate the rhyme, perhaps because it was missed. It’s also not really that obscure for French readers, which sort of misses the point of Nadsat. The Spanish translation, in contrast, is not at all consistent when it comes to sharp, but the most frequent word used, filosa, is itself a sort of calque, in that it literally means ‘sharp’ in Spanish. There’s a whiff of suspicion that the translator was simply a bit lazy here, but the effect would at least be to obscure the meaning for Spanish readers.

It is perhaps inevitable that something will be lost in translation, particularly when it comes to the sort of overlexicalisation we see in Nadsat. Nevertheless, at least as far as words for women/girls are concerned, the French and Spanish translators come out of this relatively well (with some exceptions). This way of looking at Nadsat in translation seems to offer some interesting insights into how translators go about their task and how much effort they put into it – we hope to take this further in some forthcoming posts.

3 thoughts on “Did you mean ‘forella’ or ‘soomka’?

  1. As the part of language the slang and idioms enrich people’s lives, while thanks for your article to let us know the development history of some vocabulary and slang.

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