The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess

Just a brief plug for this book which is authored by one of the investigators on the Ponying the Slovos project.

Though it doesn’t directly address issues of invented languages, as the first text on Anthony Burgess’s fiction in a generation, it may well be of interest to those who enjoy and study his work.

How do you order a pizza in Dothraki?

We thought we’d share the symposium press release here on the blog too.




Researchers from three continents will gather in Coventry later this month to discuss invented languages.

Scholars from as far afield as India, Italy and the United States will convene at Coventry University on the 18th March to debate the curious process of translating invented languages.

With an estimated 5,000 existing natural languages on the planet, the idea of creating new ones can seem alien (and indeed, one of the main sources of invented languages historically has been Science Fiction.) However, amateur linguists have for centuries attempted to invent their own languages, sometimes with the intention of ‘perfecting’ natural languages, other times with the aim of simplifying them for learners, and occasionally just for the sheer fun of creating a way of communicating differently.

Evert since J.R.R. Tolkien invented a whole imaginary world to justify his compulsive creation of languages like Elvish, as seen in the Lord of the Rings movies, writers have been at the forefront of language creation. In some instances, as with George Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984, these languages have been created to convey the dangers of allowing political ideologies to control communication.

A team of researchers based at Coventry University and the University of Birmingham have now come together to examine what happens when an invented language is translated. Using Nadsat, the teen slang from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, they hope to discover what happens during the translation process.

“The great thing about A Clockwork Orange is that it is a classic which has been translated more than fifty times,” explained Dr Jim Clarke who is heading up the research.

“Each time a translator encounters Anthony Burgess’s original novel, they are forced to make crucial decisions about how to translate all these words and ideas from a slang which has never actually existed,” he added.

“This helps us build up a picture of how translation actually happens. By comparing as many translations as possible using cutting edge linguistics techniques, we can see what happens when languages clash with each other.”

At the Ponying the Slovos symposium later this month (the title comes from Nadsat, and means ‘Understanding the Words’), experts in the area of language invention, corpus linguistics and translation studies will gather to discuss not only Nadsat, but also Tolkien’s invented languages, Klingon from Star Trek, Na’vi from the movie Avatar, Orwell’s Newspeak and Dothraki, the language of the fierce horse lords from hit TV series A Game of Thrones.

“Some of these languages have a surprisingly large number of speakers,” said Dr Clarke. “More than 300,000 people own the Klingon dictionary, which suggests that this alien language may have almost as many speakers as Welsh.”


* “Fichas anhaan hadaen anni ki nhizosi.” It literally translates as “Bring me my food by raven.”

How do you translate a dialect?

In our project using corpus linguistics methodologies to analyse the invented language of Nadsat in Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, we have discovered that there are significant grey areas demarcating the borders between language, creole, pidgin and dialect.

Is Burgess’s ‘Nadsat’ a language? Is it merely, as some glossary compilers and editors have suggested, a lexicon of slang appended to English? Is it somewhere in the hinterland between – a creole, perhaps? Is it maybe even just the protagonist’s own dialect, an idiolect? Whichever it is, it is certainly not formal English.

While the process of translation already offers problems to translators dealing with formal versions of established languages, such as how to translate idioms or culturally specific terms, this becomes even more complex when dealing with less formal examples of language.

Students challenged with Old English texts, such as Beowulf, often struggle with the idea that they are, in fact, still dealing with the English language, and desire a modern ‘translation’ to ease comprehension. This can even be encountered among students dealing with later texts again, such as the works of Chaucer, or even the Elizabethans.

Similarly, people who speak strong dialectal versions of a language may struggle with comprehending a different dialect of the same language. I recall a Glaswegian friend asking a barman in Cork whether the local customers were speaking Irish when in fact they were communicating in their local heavily accented and dialect version of English.

So all sorts of issues can arise when a translator is faced with dialect or similarly informal versions of a language. Luigi Bonaffini has written intelligently of the many challenges faced by translators when they are confronted with dialectal language. As he correctly points out, the problems begin with perceptions that dialect is a “subaltern, marginal” form of language which diminishes the validity and cultural role played by dialect.

Some translators seek a kind of metaphoric or analogous transformation, rendering dialect in one language into a comparative dialect in the target language. For example, the poems of Giacomo Belli, a 19th century sonneteer in the Roman dialect, have been variously translated into Scots, “Tyke” (a Yorkshire dialect), “Strine” (1960s Australian dialect), Mid-Ulster Hiberno-English and many more regional dialectal variants of formal English. In each case, the translator has been forced to render the unique cultural environment evoked by Belli’s 19th century Rome into analogous cultural environments located within the 20th century Anglosphere. This can quickly lead to significant semantic differences opening up between the source text and the translation.

Obviously, when the dialect involved is an invented one, with no existing penumbra of culture upon which to draw, the translator is faced with an even more exacerbated problem. How can one translate a culture which doesn’t really exist beyond the pages of a slim novella?

As a team, we’re looking at various translations of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in order to see what is happening in them, and to compare the translation strategies and processes, in the hope that this may shed useful light upon the translation process in general.

We’re therefore interested in hearing from other scholars who have an interest in how components like dialect come to be translated, and we would urge anyone with an interest in this area to look at our call for papers and consider presenting their perspectives at our symposium in March.

Closing date for abstracts is 29th January.

Happy new year!