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More repetition in translation

August 23, 2012

As I slowly work my way through ten wonderful years of Languagehat, I have come upon a 2008 post that deals with the same issue in translation Boris Dralyuk was just discussing: repetition. LH finds a passage in War and Peace where Louise and Aylmer Maude translate five closely packed forms of the verb виднеться ‘be visible’ four different ways, with no repetitions at all, as they combine the second and third instances into one verb in English. I’m entirely convinced by LH’s point that the repeated bland verb lulls the reader into expecting a bland bit of landscape description, with the end of the sentence “delivering a sucker punch” in the word неприятель ‘enemy,’ which abruptly takes us out of visual description and back to war.

File this as an example of how removing repetitions and adjusting word order normalizes the English style of the translation, but has costs. I’m sticking to my belief that preserving repetition shouldn’t be a rule for translators any more than avoiding it should be, and that it’s also a problem to change language that is unmarked in Russian (where certain kinds of repetitions are tolerated) to unusual and inelegant language in English (where substituting synonyms is obligatory in much writing, and Germanic/Romance pairs of words can frequently be found – like in this clause, where I mechanically changed the second occurrence of “synonyms” to “words”). Of course, if you can keep the repetition without making the resulting text stranger than the original, it usually makes sense to do so, and in this case LH and commenters found several attractive options.

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