The Mysterious Case of the Missing Nadsats

Ponying the Slovos began as an attempt to define Nadsat, the invented language at the heart of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and then examine how translators dealt with it. We believed that by isolating and examining the translation of an invented language, which does not emerge from an organic culture, it would help to reveal translator’s various strategies for translation more obviously.

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Did you mean ‘forella’ or ‘soomka’?

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.

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Bon, alors ça sera quoi, hein?

Cette traduction surprendra peut-être d’abord le lecteur par certaines curiosités du vocabulaire.

This translation will perhaps at first surprise the reader due to certain oddities of vocabulary

You have to love the understatement with which Georges Belmont and Hortense Chabrier start their translators’ note which prefaces the French translation of A Clockwork Orange (our translation).

The Belmont/Chabrier translation is an astonishing piece of writing, and the fact that it has remained in print since first publication almost fifty years ago bears evidence to that. We have looked closely at what they have achieved, and how their “French-Nadsat” compares with Burgess’s original, in a new peer-reviewed article in Meta journal, volume 65 (3).

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