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Constructed Languages in Translation

By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris, Toby Smollet and Kate Williams


Literary translation is no mean feat; not only do translators transpose a source text into another language whilst remaining faithful to its original style and spirit, but cultural differences and semantic nuances further complicate this task. What happens when translators are challenged with books that include the use of fictional languages, constructed by the author to illustrate a political idea or to add depth to the world they are creating? Do they leave the constructed language as it is, or would this result in the losing of some meaning to readers who don’t speak the source language? This week, we look at three different examples of fictional languages in translation to explore this idea further.


Newspeak from Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell


Newspeak is a version of the English language with simplified grammar and reduced vocabulary from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). This dialect eradicates some linguistic nuance, by only keeping basic terms. Translators are faced with a challenge for this, as they need to construct Newspeak in the target language whilst retaining the meaning and impact of the original. Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into at least 65 different languages.


Translators will have various approaches to translating Newspeak, even for the same target language. For example, there are three different French translations from 1950, 2018, and 2020 and the translators have all made contrasting choices. Newspeak is a different word in each edition: novlangue (that has since entered the French language), néoparler, and néoparle. Philippe Jaworski, the translator of the 2020 edition, said he struggled with it because “Newspeak is a monster, where speak is neither a verb nor a common noun.” He said it is “an absolutely barbaric language” and his approach with the translation was “to find the most repulsive words.”


Similar to French, there are five different official Russian translations. The translator of the newest edition in 2019, Leonid Bershidsky, said that translating Newspeak into Russian “requires difficult linguistic choices” and that “each version also reflects its time and its purpose.” This is particularly true with the Russian translations as Nineteen Eighty-Four was banned there until 1988.


Translating A Clockwork Orange’s Nadsat:


The English author and translator, Anthony Burgess, wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1962. It has since been translated over fifty times and into more than thirty languages. This dystopian novella is set in the near future recounting the ultra-violent acts of debauchery, murder and gang-rape perpetrated by the teenage protagonist, Alex, and his gang. It also narrates Alex’s experiences with state authority as they try to reform him. The book is partially written in a constructed language Burgess created called ‘Nadsat’, referring to the Russian suffix added to numbers one to nine, which creates the numbers eleven to nineteen, which is roughly equivalent to the English “teen.”


Unlike LOTR or Klingon, both fully fledged constructed languages, Nadsat is more of an in-group secret slang which, although largely based on Russian, is built around an English framework. Nadsat’s composition also combines English expressions, Cockney rhyming slang, German, Malay and Romani. How does a translator recreate the function Burgess would have assigned to Nadsat originally? It’s all about thinking about the degree of integration a source-language neologism has, and its potential status in the target language, compared to the effect(s) Burgess would have wanted to create for his readership by using this term. Turkish translations even omit Nadsat completely, one Italian translation simply rendered Nadsat into Milanese dialect, and its first Russian translator, upon finding Nadsat was mostly Russian anyway, opted to not use Nadsat. Check out the Ponying the Slovos blog page for more on Nadsat in translation!


Post-apocalyptic language in Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban


Set thousands of years in the future, after humanity has suffered from nuclear warfare, the language used in Riddley Walker is “fractured,” a decayed version of a modern language (English in the original work). Given that this language is a distortion of one that already exists, the challenge is to find a consistent approach that mirrors the linguistic pattern of the original novel.


In the Spanish translation (Dudo Errante), the translators understand the fracturing of language as an attempt to deconstruct language in the Derridean fashion. This translation was, in fact, the first to be permitted by Russell Hoban, as he had previously declared that no translations would be allowed.

The original English novel presents an unfamiliar language, one which often requires great effort to interpret and understand. The distorted language reflects the distorted world of Riddley Walker, where institutions, such as church and state, still exist but in alien ways. With the understanding of language as something which is used to construct reality as it is perceived, the original English therefore had to destroy and rebuild language in a way which mirrored this difference.

This difference is then carried over to the English translation in a similar fashion – syllables are dropped, spellings are more phonetic, grammar is less present (for example, “escucha” becomes “squcha”). A challenging translation, but one approved by the author himself, and worth a read for any Spanish reader.


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