Most of us are accustomed to thinking of Nadsat in one way only. After all, most of us only read the novel in one language, whether Burgess’s original, or else in one of the more than fifty extant translations. But of course, each of those translations represents a variant of Nadsat. Some languages have hosted multiple Nadsats, sometimes even by the same translator, as our colleague Patrick Corness has noted in relation to Robert Stiller’s multiple Polish-Nadsats.

So, we can think in terms of French-Nadsat, or German-Nadsat, or Spanish-Nadsat, and depending on the language, sometimes multiple variants thereof. Thankfully from the point of view of comparing them, there is really only one French-Nadsat and one Spanish-Nadsat to date.

We’ve previously discussed some of the features of French-Nadsat, as represented in Belmont & Chabrier’s 1972 translation, L’Orange Mecanique here (and our full academic analysis will be out in Meta soon). We’ve also looked at the complications of translating in terms of the overlexicalisation of Nadsat. Recently, we’ve been looking at the Spanish-Nadsat of Aníbal Leal (and Ana Quijada, somewhat belatedly.) But with a new chapter out soon (in Science Fiction in Translation edited by Ian Campbell and to be published by Palgrave), we thought it would be a good time to revisit English-Nadsat, French-Nadsat and Spanish-Nadsat.

Also we should start with a shout out to our friend and colleague Niall Curry who did the heavy lifting with the Spanish translation and whose fascinating findings on the differences between the two translators’ treatment of Nadsat will be the subject of a forthcoming post.

The French L’Orange Mécanique (LOM) and the Spanish La Naranja Mecánica (LNM) are two of the longest-established translations of A Clockwork Orange (ACO). In the case of the French version, brought off with élan by Georges Belmont and Hortense Chabrier, this longevity seems to derive from the enthusiasm and understanding of Burgess’s vision Belmont and Chabrier brought to the job. [Incidentally, the French translation came out around the same time the film was released but the translators of the film script were not aware of Belmont and Chabrier’s work and so developed an entirely different French-Nadsat – but that story will have to be the subject of a future post.]

In the case of the Spanish, the work initially of Aníbal Leal and, much later, Ana Quijada Vargas (commissioned to translate the final chapter 36 years afterwards, creating some unique issues – more on this soon), the reason the translation has been around so long seems more to be that no-one’s been bothered to re-do it, since the general consensus is that it isn’t that great.

So why do these two translations, both approaching their 50th birthdays, have such different reputations? Sometimes it’s easier to show than to tell. Let’s discuss the relevant translations of a particularly well-known extract from the book. In the slider below you’ll see the original extract (i.e. from ACO) and the translations of this same extract in LOM and LNM, respectively. Nadsat words are in bold so they’re easy to spot. This extract, as we’ve mentioned before, seems to get chosen a lot because it has so much concentrated Nadsat and occurs right at the start of the book.

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Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts.

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On avait les poches pleines de mouizka si bien qu’on n’avait vraiment pas besoin, histoire de craster encore un peu de joli lollypop, de toltchocker un vieux veck au fond d’une impasse et de le relucher baigner dans son sang tout en comptant la recette et la divisant par quatre ni de faire des ultra-violents à une viokcha ptitsa, toute grisaille et tremblante dans sa boutique, pour vider le tiroir-caisse jusqu’aux tripes et filer en se bidonskant.

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Teníamos los bolsillos llenos de dengo, de modo que no había verdadera necesidad de crastar un poco más, de tolchocar a algún anciano cheloveco en un callejón, y videarlo nadando en sangre mientras contábamos el botín y lo dividíamos por cuatro, ni de hacernos los ultraviolentos con alguna ptitsa tembleque, starria y canosa en una tienda, y salir smecando con las tripas de la caja.

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The difference between the approaches taken by Belmont/Chabrier and Leal (since he was the translator of this extract) can be seen in comparing what happens to the different types of Nadsat words in the original extract. According to our categorisation of Nadsat, the original extract contains 10 Nadsat items, eight of which are ‘core’ Nadsat (deng, crasting, tolchock, veck, viddy, starry, ptitsa, smecking), one is rhyming slang (pretty polly) and one is a compound word (ultra-violent). The high concentration of Russian-based core Nadsat words makes this extract really hard to understand for most readers, especially this is early in the book before we’ve had a chance to get handle on the argot.

In the French translation of the extract, all of the Nadsat items are translated into French-Nadsat (rather than, say, being omitted, realised by a pronoun or translated using a word from standard French). But the balance between ‘core’ Nadsat and other (more easily comprehended) categories of Nadsat is not the same. Four of the French-Nadsat words count as ‘core’ Nadsat (craster, toltchocker, veck, ptitsa – note the French verbal endings). The other four ‘core’ words from the original – deng, viddy, starry, smecking – get a special Belmont/Chabrier treatment involving adding an affix or infix to a French word to make them sound more ‘Russian’; they become mouizka, relucher, viokcha and se bidonskant, respectively. To take one example, mouizka, French-Nadsat for deng (“money”), comes from la mouise (“poverty, misery”) + zk (our article in Meta goes into more detail about these transformations). While ultra-violent is unchanged (it sounds a bit odd in French too), Belmont and Chabrier also find a creative solution for translating the untranslatable pretty polly, coming up with joli lollypop, which is a clever attempt to incorporate internal rhyme and refer to the original referent.

These efforts by Belmont and Chabrier reflect a general pattern across the book of i) consistently translating Nadsat items ii) not being happy to simply take the English-Nadsat term but adopting creative ways of rendering it into French to capture some of the wordplay of Nadsat words like horrorshow (see here for discussion). The result of this is a more accessible text (mouizka is not as obscure to a French reader as deng is to an English reader) but one that has arguably captured the flavour of the original.

When it comes to the Spanish translation of the extract, we find that all the ‘core’ Nadsat items have been retained with adaptations in line with Spanish morphology (so deng becomes dengo, for example). Ultra-violent is rendered as ultraviolentos in a similar way to the French translation. The difficult to translate pretty polly is, however, simply elided (any more pretty polly becomes in poco más, in other words ‘a little more’).

At first sight, then, pretty polly aside, this seems to be a more ‘faithful’ rendering than the French. But is it as effective or does it suggest a more mechanical approach? There are a few indications here as to why the Spanish translation is not as rich as the French. We’ll start with the omission of pretty polly; this is part of a more general pattern of omitting non-core Nadsat and items like this that are quite hard to translate. We’ve found the other aspects of Nadsat just don’t feature so much in LNM so readers are sold short a bit in this respect.

Looking more closely at the ‘core’ Nadsat in the Spanish translation of the extract reveals patterns that are repeated across the whole book. This can be shown through the translation of veck, which, for some reason, becomes cheloveco here. This is strange since Spanish-Nadsat echoes English-Nadsat in having two closely related but distinct forms, veco (English-Nadsat veck ,“person” – possibly more casual) and and its longer form cheloveco (Eng-Nadsat chelloveck, straight from the Russian for “person”). So why not use veco here? It just seems that Leal just isn’t as careful as the French translators. But why does this matter? And what wider patterns can be seen by looking at the use of veco / cheloveco throughout LNM?

In fact, this anomaly points to wider issues in the Spanish translation not obvious from looking at just one extract. Looking at all instances of veco/cheloveco and comparing them to relevant places in ACO reveals some inconsistencies. [Incidentally, this comparison is facilitated by the creation and use of a parallel corpus of ACO and LNM created in Sketch Engine]. Both veco and cheloveco (including vecos and chelovecos) are more frequent in LNM than veck and chelloveck are in ACO. This is partly because they are used in LNM in places where the English makes do with pronouns (so he in English is translated as veco). Another reason is that both veco and cheloveco are used to translate a different English-Nadsat word, moodge (from the Russian word for ‘man/husband’). So what we see here is an increase in the use of some words to compensate for the loss of lexical diversity by not including an equivalent for moodge in the Spanish-Nadsat lexicon. Leal appears to be sort of covering up the loss of certain items by adding in other items where they weren’t used in the original text.

This reduction in the diversity of Spanish-Nadsat is also seen in words used to refer to women and seems to offer at least part of the explanation for why LNM is not as highly regarded as LOM. Another part of the explanation is the general lack of wordplay – at least as far as Nadsat is concerned. What we have in Spanish-Nadsat is largely a mechanical transliteration / adaptation of core Nadsat items to Spanish morphology without the adaptation of Russian forms to suggest other meanings, something seen in English-Nadsat items like horrorshow (“good”) and bugatty (“rich”). This seems to make LNM a less rewarding/enjoyable read.

What this brings us round to is a consideration of the concept of fidelity or faithfulness in translation, which is a much-disputed and long-running issue of debate within translation studies. At least as far as ‘core’ Nadsat is concerned, it can be argued that Leal is being faithful to the words of his source by taking them straight from English-Nadsat, even if some are lost along the way. In contrast, Belmont and Chabrier are more concerned with replicating the spirit in which ACO was written by creating new items for French-Nadsat which are inspired by Burgess’s wordplay processes.

Which is ‘better’? I think we’ve made our position clear in this case but you might disagree, in which case, do tell us why!

4 thoughts on “Three versions of Nadsat: English, French & Spanish

  1. My own feeling is that Nadsat, taken as an ostensibly real concept, would develop differently in each context, thus making the translator’s job a bloody nightmare. As such, the differing Spanish and French approaches might both be equally valid. How would a Fench Nasdat evolve, or a Spanish one for that matter? Probably – almost certainly – too many cultural specificities to be certain. Indeed, would a Nasdat even derive from a mix of Russian and Spanish / French? Edward James Olmos’s character in Blade Runner would be an example, using a similar construct based on Hungarian influences. In fact, please do that as a follow-up post.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Adam. It’s interesting to consider French- and Spanish-Nadsats as sort of organically developing idioms; why indeed should Russian be the base? The translators surely faced a difficult task – that’s of course what drew us to this in the first place. The Italian translator went in a totally different direction, basing Nadsat on Italian dialect words; not sure that that really worked. But the most difficult task falls to the Russian translators, who haven’t really cracked it yet – but that’s another story (Windle 1995 is an interesting account: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40870674?seq=1). Blade Runner’s an interesting one. I might have to leave that to Jim.

  2. ‘Cityspeak’ in the Blade Runner movies is a really interesting case. It’s more of a set of macaronics than anything, and was Olmos’s own invention (ie it’s not in PK Dick’s original story, nor was anything more than “Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you” required by the script.)
    Olmos was apparently very into providing a backstory for Gaff, and that included fleshing out the ‘cityspeak’ lingo, for which he apparently went to the LA Berlitz school and learnt a range of phrases in different languages, including as you say, Hungarian.
    I’m not sure Olmos had any specific methodology for how this was all supposed to hang together, and I don’t think he has any particular linguistic experience in inventing languages or pidgins.
    I get the sense that there wasn’t a huge amount of thought put into it, other than that Ridley Scott wanted a linguistic mishmash as a kind of futuristic signifier. Perhaps there’s a distant Clockwork Orange influence in that. I’d need to research this a little, I think.

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