The king’s speech — and how to translate it

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had a speech-flavoured working week.

Translating a speech is a good opportunity for translators to provide added value for their clients. Not only should our translated text read fluently and naturally, it should also be easy for non-native-speaking clients to read aloud (and for their audience to listen to).

Your client might be delivering the speech in their own language, of course, with the translation provided in the delegates’ pack or for the interpreters. Try to find out. If they’re delivering the translated version (for the purposes of this post, I’ll talk about translations from Italian to English), try to find out how well they speak English.

When you’re working on the translation, remember to keep sentences short and simple in construction. If the sentences in the original version are long (as they often are in Italian), when you divide them you might need to change the order not just of the words but of the phrases too. If so, make sure you retain the intended emphasis.

Don’t be afraid to use a more rhetorical style of writing than you normally would (rhetoric, as defined by Merriam-Webster, refers to “writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion; skill in the effective use of speech”). You’re translating for impact, after all.

Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who helped King George VI overcome his stammer, used annotated drafts of the King’s speeches and drew lines between words to indicate when to insert pauses. Click on the image (inset on the left) in Ben Zimmer’s The King’s Tongue Twisters article from the New York Times to see an example.

As translators we might not be able to annotate our texts to that extent (although we could ask our clients if they’d find such guidance helpful). But we can and should use punctuation liberally for the same purpose.

And, like Lionel Logue, we should avoid words that might be problematic. For example, if I’m translating an Italian foreign-policy speech I might want to avoid a sentence like: “We will make a thorough-going effort throughout our three-year mandate to overthrow the forces of terror and through that effort thwart those forces in their attempt to throw the world into the trough of despair”. I know, you might want to avoid a sentence like that regardless of who’s pronouncing it. The point is that all those “th” and “ough” sounds would be problematic for most Italian-speakers.

Read the translated speech to yourself (in your head or aloud). Listen to its rhythms and adjust your translation if necessary.

And end the speech on a strong note.

By Marian Dougan

4 responses

  1. Another great post Marian. My burning question – and forgive me for digressing yet again – is: what did you think of The King’s Speech?

    On the subject of translating speeches, well it so happens I’m doing one right now to be delivered by an ambassador at a D-Day commemoration event. I’m just disappointed it’s so short because speeches are amongst my favourite jobs. Especially the emotional ones, those delivered at war monuments etc. They are so meaningful and require so much thought from the translator, and more than thought… sensitivity and an understanding of the events and the audience, more so maybe than the actual speaker. The danger in emotional texts however, is in using your own words rather than the words best suited to the author’s intent. The same goes for politicians’ speeches which I find particularly exciting, even when the politics in question are not my cup of tea. I agree entirely with every point you make about the choice of language but I’d add to that the need for the translator to think very carefully about whose words he or she is using, especially when translating on a subject he or she feels deeply (I was going to say passionately!) about. The same goes for most translation but to varying degrees. In speeches, I’d say it’s paramount.

    1. Thanks Anne for another great comment – so thoughtful. On the film: I loved it. Not just the acting but also the feel for the period — the costumes, sets and so on. I liked the Queen Mother’s character (although I’ve no idea how true-to-life she was). The fun and affection in their relationship was a surprise to me as I never think of the Royals as actually caring for and being affectionate with (loving, even) each other. Which is stupid of me, I know.
      On translating speeches: yes, sensitivity and an understanding of the events and the audience are so important. And I so agree about the need for us as translators to think about whose words we’re using and not allow our own preferences or prejudices to intrude. Especially as speeches are so often used by politicians and others to convey important policy messages — just think of all those analysts poring over the texts and examining every nuance!

  2. For Italians the ‘th’ sound is VERY difficult – I’m a blues singer/guitarist working in Italy – and I have heard ‘The Trill is gone’ just too many times!!

    Finally, try this for a size. A young Italian musician friend asked me to ‘check’ his English lyrics. How do I deal with the following?

    “Every fall the cold freezes my feet,

    But your warmth, I heat up to sweat my pants”

    Yup . . . . .

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