Translating vernacular: how to overcome one of the toughest challenges in literary translation

translating vernacular

Nowhere else is the diversity of a language as present as it is in literary prose. In addition to standard language, literary fiction often features vernaculars: slang, everyday speech, unique dialects and registers. Marked language – in other words nonstandard language – indicates that characters come from certain places and belong to distinct social groups.

Usually, all is well when a novel with multiple language varieties is read in the original language. The reader tends to be immersed in the local culture and is aware of the relationship between the vernaculars and the standard form of the language.

However, problems arise when speakers of other languages want to read the novel too. Translators are then faced with the following questions: whether, how and to what degree language should be marked in the translation?

Should vernacular be translated at all?

Even if the source text features nonstandard language, it is not always necessary for the target text to do so too, says Kersti Unt, Estonian translator and literary scholar. In many cases, a translation will be comprehensible and enjoyable even without the nonstandard elements. Besides, a vernacular tends to only truly work in the source language, because the corresponding social group usually does not exist in the culture of the target language.

However, she also points out that there are instances where speech does need to be marked – for example, when it is explicitly mentioned in the text that a character has a different manner of speech.

translating vernacular

A good example of this occurs in Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, where Minny’s mother scolds her daughter for not speaking properly. Part of their conversation is as follows:

‘I ain’t eaten all day, when can I have my cake?’

‘Don’t say ain’t, you speak properly now. I didn’t raise you to talk like a mule.’

In the novel, Minny speaks the African American Language, a vernacular where the nonstandard ain’t is a typical feature. Without marking the speech in the translation, it would be difficult to convey why Minny’s mother is upset with her.

If the translator decides that language marking is important in regard to the plot, another question arises: how  should the vernacular be translated?

Discouraged practices

Many translation scholars such as Antoine Berman believe that a dialect of the source language should not be rendered into an existing dialect of the target language. Using a local vernacular in the translation makes it seem like the character lives within the target culture.

For example, translating Lunfardo, slang from Buenos Aires, into Parisian slang might lead a French reader into thinking that the character has roots in France. This is the issue with rendering vernacular – the character might be associated with an entirely different cultural and historical background than what the author intended.

Ilukirjanduse tõlkimine

Another potential pitfall in translating vernacular is writing grammar mistakes into the speech of the character. Writing your instead of you’re or should of in place of should have in order to convey the nonstandard aspects of the character’s speech might make them seem unintelligent, which was most likely not the original intention.

Recommended strategies

According to Unt, a common and widely accepted approach for marking a character’s speech in a translation is combining elements from different dialects and registers.

This strategy appears in the Estonian translation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In the original, Tom, a black man living in Alabama in the 30’s, speaks a nonstandard language variety. To mark Tom’s speech in Estonian, the translator, Valda Raud, took features from both South Estonian and coastal dialects, blending them with archaic words and speech patterns.

Incorporating elements from separate dialects conveys the uniqueness of the character’s speech, while preventing them from being associated with a certain region or subgroup in the target culture.

However, it is important to keep in mind that in translation, every case is unique and needs to be evaluated individually. According to German linguist and translation scholar Hans Vermeer, the key is to determine the purpose of the translation: what kind of an effect does it need to achieve in the target language? Based on this question, the translator will decide on the most appropriate course of action.

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