German to English in 3 Not-So-Easy Steps

I’m spending most of the week translating the Zaide dialogue, revisiting what has become a familiar 3-pronged approach.

1. What Does It Mean?

Accuracy first, of course.  For this phase, my Berlin Correspondent is invaluable.  I crash through the text, dispatching a chunk of it fairly easily, churning out multiple options for other sections, then getting hopelessly shipwrecked on a handful of idioms and maddening syntax puzzles.  Thank heaven I can send German gibberish across the ocean at night and have it land in my InBox the next morning, sparkling and clean.

2. Would S/he Really Say That?

Of course, figuring out what the words and phrases mean is only the first step.  They have to come convincingly out of the mouths of actors.  The English needs to flow in a fashion similar to the way the vernacular German text would have for Mozart’s audience hundreds of years ago.  The characters need to have their own voices, with word choice and syntax consistent with their place in the society of the story.

And finally,

3. Would I Understand That if I Heard It?

It’s all for naught if the correct translation delivered in a distinctive voice doesn’t make sense in real time to the audience.  It doesn’t matter if it looks good on the page – it must tell the story in a way that doesn’t require the audience to work too hard.

And of course, none of this is linear.  Sometimes, in pursuit of #3, #1 gets lost, and you have to work your way backward to the beginning again.  And yet time marches on and deadlines loom..

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