GUEST POST: Boris & Mikhail on translating BOOK OF HOURS into Russian

Disclaimer: Weather Factory is a two-person husband-and-wife team. In the following guest post, the two localisers translating BOOK OF HOURS into Russian are incredibly kind about AK’s writing. Because we are Extremely English we’re both touched and slightly embarrassed. Please note we didn’t write this ourselves under the pretense of being two other people we just made up. 

First, a… warning? This is going to be a series of longish weekly (?) posts with no TL;DR takeaways. But we are confident that the core Alexis Kennedy audience doesn’t mind a bit of reading.

But I seem to be forgetting my manners! An introduction is in order: my name is Boris, and whenever I say we, I mean me and my colleague Mikhail. We are a two-geek team of Alexis Kennedy aficionados dispatched by Riotloc (of Baldur’s Gate 3 fame) to help Weather Factory localise Book of Hours into Russian. (Because OF COURSE a team whose forte is handcrafted localisation of narrative-rich videogames is bound to have its own chapter of the Alexis Kennedy fan club!) 

So, what can I say? Book of Hours is, without a doubt, a unique gig. At a minimum, unique in terms of how we go about localising it. As funny as it may sound, with Alexis’s prose we often find ourselves spending inordinate amounts of time on a single sentence, writing, and rewriting the translation – only to realise a couple of days later (usually during a lunch break or a family dinner) that there is a still better way to phrase it (which we HAVE to write down that very instant!).

I recently asked Alexis whether his writing routine looks like Mozart effortlessly transcribing his music, or like F. Scott Fitzgerald endlessly rewriting his masterpiece until it reads just right. He quoted Hemingway by way of an answer: ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket’.

By the way, it is no random thing that I mentioned Fitzgerald. I vividly recall an episode from my Translation Studies where we were given different translations of The Great Gatsby and told to argue which of them was better. I distinctly remember poring over one such translation genuinely wondering why on Earth did the translator make so many lexical departures from the source material?

The answer is, there are more things to meaning, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your strict literal translation orthodoxy (or something like that; sorry, Shakespeare mate). Things like flow; prosody; visuality; alliteration. The Great Gatsby had them in spades, and, translated literally, would have lost most of what made it so, so beautiful.

Well, thus appropriately humbled, I try to go about reading Alexis’ prose in a more nuanced manner, always on the lookout for things beyond mere literal meaning. And things beyond mere literal meaning there are!

Take the following description:

“There in a smoothed hollow at the altar’s foot – something coiled like a serpent, but stiller by far.”

Seems straightforward enough, eh? You can probably Google Translate it into another language, and the meaning will be there, right? Right?

How about we arrange the phrase’s presentation a bit differently:

“There in a smoothed hollow at the altar’s foot –
something coiled like a serpent,
but stiller by far.”

Unless you are a chatbot, by now it should be pretty obvious that this looks suspiciously like poetry. Not strictly haiku verses, no – the same principles apply to things like rhetoric, speeches, etc. This particular technique is called a descending tricolon: when the phrase is arranged in lines of decreasing length.

Here’s a famous example from Churchill:

“(Never in the field of human conflict)
has so much been owed
by so many
to so few.”

There is also a reverse, or ascending, tricolon. Churchill once again:

“Now this is not the end.
It is not even the beginning of the end.
But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

So, with that in mind, one will probably think twice before treating the following line of Kennedy’s as mere prose:

“Here, impossibly preserved, enfolded in the scars inflicted by the former prisoner’s energies.”

Let me arrange it for you:

impossibly preserved,
enfolded in the scars inflicted
          by the former

And this isn’t us philologists discussing arcane minutiae of the English language. These are incredibly potent tools that help poets, writers, and politicians charm their audience. To lose this aspect of a text would make it powerless, neutered. It simply won’t do.

And this is where we break off. Next time I will continue with my story of the eldritch horrors that lurk beneath Alexis Kennedy’s prose (kidding). Stay tuned!

on GUEST POST: Boris & Mikhail on translating BOOK OF HOURS into Russian

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