Translation showcase

In this final blog post about StAnza I’m going more in depth about curious things we ran into translating each other’s work. As an example I picked out one poem, that is Selkie by Rachel Plummer. The others participating in the Showcase were Stewart Sanderson, Sigrid Kingma, Robin MacKenzie and Tsead Bruinja.

First of all, here is the original and the Frisian translation:



The first thing we ran into was the title. Most people in Scotland know what a ‘selkie’ is, but we don’t have such a mythological figure in Fryslân or The Netherlands. A selkie is a seal who can shed her skin when she comes onto land and can transform to a woman. In principle she can put it on again to submerge under water. The tale goes that a man hides her skin, so she is forced to stay with him. The poem draws inspiration from this mythical creature as it is written for a project combining LGBT-issues with Scots folktales and myths. The Selkie then is a perfect transgender reference.
To come back to the title itself. I chose to keep the typical ‘selkie’, knowing that it would have to be introduced in Fryslân either way. I did changed the ‘ie’ into ‘y’, since every word with that corresponding sound ends in an ‘y’ in Frisian. Like ‘taksy’ (‘taxi’) or ‘anty’ (‘anti’).

‘The secret me is a boy.’

I translated the first line into ‘De geheime ik is in jonge’. Very literal, but it is a bit forced in Frisian. We came up with ‘Stikem bin ik in jonge’. Sounds good, but a bit off compared to the original. ‘Stikem’ is more ‘on the sly’, thus not completely what is meant here. We had to have that ‘secret’ in, which is ‘geheim’. But then we had an explicit ‘I’ (= ‘ik’) in the translation and not in the original. We had to have the third person singular in it and therefore we chose for the comma at the end of the sentence and then beginning the second line with ‘dy’t’ which is referring back to ‘in jonge’ (‘a boy’). After that we could easily use ‘hy’ ‘er’ (‘he’ when it’s net stressed) and ‘him’ and we would be back to the third person singular. The problem could thus be solved in a very natural way.

‘the big fish’

Swimming with the big fish is a figure of speech in English. Not in Frisian. But the English expression is well known in our region. When a reader wouldn’t know it, the meaning in Frisian is still the same. That he/she wants to be part of it all, but in all its frailty is different, ‘he swaggers / like a mermaid’. So we could keep this beautiful line without it losing meaning in Frisian.

‘He’s whiskered’

Doing a translation sometimes plays tricks on you: you are thinking too hard and you’ll miss the obvious solution. At first I translated ‘He’s whiskered’ into ‘Hy hat burdgroei’. You have the facial hair, but not the meaning that he has whiskers as a seal. Tsead cleverly came up with the most evident solution of using ‘snorhier’ which means both ‘whiskers’ as ‘having a moustache’. Beauty in its simplicity.

‘Thick-skinned / Quick-finned’

The doublet ‘Thick-skinned / Quick-finned’ couldn’t be translated straightforwardly. ‘Thick-skinned’ became easily ‘Tsjokhûdich’, but ‘Fluchfinnich’ would be very artificial. I lost the rhyme, but I hope I gained something with the alliteration. The indefinite article ‘in’ is assimilated when you would read it aloud, so the rhythm would remain.

‘always turning tail’

The line ‘always turning tail’ is ingenious because of its double meaning. By just translating it with ‘sturtswaaiend’ or ‘swaait mei de sturt’ would only have the literal meaning of the sort of flapping motion the tail does. Sigrid came up with the even inventive ‘sturtswyljend’ which has a second figurative meaning to it: to do the last bits and pieces of ones work, to do some last things. So the word has the movement in and a deeper meaning of getting done and out and be out of the way.

‘Rough-voiced / Black-eyed’

Then on to the last one. Another doublet: ‘Rough-voiced / Black-eyed’. The ‘-ed’ couldn’t be translated like that without sounding forced. But the black eyes were interesting. Having a blue eye in Frisian has the same figurative meaning as in English, it means that someone has punched you in the face. Of course, seals have black eyes, not blue ones. That’s a little freedom we took here, since we thought the figure of speech was equally important, not to say more important.


This blog may be quite different from my regular travelling blogs, but I hope I could take you on a different journey in the world of languages. I hope I have showed you what great puzzles there can be with words, meanings and sounds when you translate. And of course, how much fun these puzzles are when you have found a way to lay all the pieces together.




One thought on “Translation showcase

  1. Pingback: Translation Showcase | ensafh

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