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Unit A2: Translating into Lapine

Curled minion, dancer, coiner of sweet words!
(Matthew Arnold, Sohrab and Rustum)

I've had a number of requests to translate things into Lapine over the months, and while I always enjoy the challenge, some readers might like some guidance on how to go about it for themselves. So what we'll do in this (rather long) Appendix is to look at a complete poem that I was asked to translate. The poem, Devotion, is by Whitney Nellé, who has kindly given permission for me to use it here. It's not, by Whitney's own admission, anything exceptional, but it's interesting enough to present a challenge. I've added line numbers for easier reference later on.

Please be aware that I have no qualifications whatever in the field of translation - doing it professionally is an extremely skilled and difficult job, and I'm nowhere near that standard. I'm merely trying to give a basic idea. The poem seemed to me to have something of the air of a myth about it, and so I felt it would be best rendered into Naylte Éan.


1 No better lovers than each other,
2 Jeptum and Harrow run together,
3 Their devotion so great.
4 The kittens they raise
5 Are to rule too.
6 A devotion so great
7 Will not be broken.
8 Jeptum and Harrow
9 Own the sky to the sea.
10 Without Frith
11 This still would be.
12 A devotion so great,
13 Not only to each other,
14 But every breathing individual.
15 Owls to snakes to foxes:
16 Everything belongs in their devotion.

Title: Titles can be very difficult to translate, especially when they include puns or concepts which don't exist in Lapine. I don't have that problem here, though: the title is a single word, so it's best to try to translate it as exactly as possible. The closest approach Lapine has to "devotion" is bralusi, which literally means "together-feeling" (usi is "together"), so I used that.

Line 1: This is where we come up against our first real difficulty. Whitney has used the word "lovers", but the concept of romantic love is simply absent from lapine society, so no direct translation is possible. The closest approach, it seems to me, is the idea of being a good mate, so I decided to use émaril, "mates". The word "than" doesn't need to be specifically translated - the different word order in Lapine to that in English ensures that there is no confusion. There is a special word, etha, meaning "one another", and "each other" is pretty much the same concept.

Line 2: Our first verb, and this being Naylte Éan (NÉ), it has to start the line. Names always present a problem - should they be "Lapinised" or not? If the rabbits involved are well-known characters such as Hazel or Clover, it's clear what to do, but here there's no such precedent to go on. In the end, I felt that they should be left as they were, partly because I didn't have a clue what "Jeptum" meant! *cough*.

Line 3: The big issue here was how to translate "great". Literally, it should be rah, but as we've seen throughout the course, that word is far more restricted in usage than in English, so here I interpreted "great" as "big", and used nos. I also reversed the order from "their devotion so great" to "so great their devotion".

Line 4: NÉ's general strangeness comes into play here. "To raise/grow" is hlathe. But we can't just say *Laythai u roolil, ai layth hlathe, because... well, because it looks bad. And in NÉ, such things matter. What we do is to inflect hlathe as well, and move ai to the end of the line. Except that we then have a line ending in hlathai ai. That's just asking to be contracted, but we can't lose ai entirely as we need to know who's doing the raising. So we use hlathai'i. You'll never hear such a word in ordinary speech, but it does happen here.

Line 5: Another bit of quirkiness. Usually, the word for "too" in the sense of "as well" is asith, but as you may remember from Unit 13, there's something of a prejudice against it in NÉ, on the grounds that it's ugly. Why this word should have been singled out, I don't know, but there we are. Casting about for an alternative, what presents itself is sithile - it means "second", so the kittens are the second rulers after Jeptum and Harrow themselves. Rah as a verb means "to lead, rule", but there was a slight hiccup with working out the relevant inflected form. Rahathai seemed slightly easier to pronounce than rahthai, but the latter might occur.

Line 6: Very straightforward, except that the "will" from the next line has to be moved to the start of this one for NÉ reasons.

Line 7: I had a difficult choice to make here. Normally, nahl precedes the verb it modifies - so it might have preceded laythe in line 6, but here I've left it with zyhl (which I used because "broken" was used in the sense of "ended"), as I think the aesthetics of the line work better that way.

Line 8: Koiai looks somewhat strange, because you would never get four successive vowels in a word in the colloquial language, even though it's really two sets of double vowels, and pronounced as such. Koi, "to own, possess, have", is a common word, so this often crops up in NÉ.

Line 9: "Sky" is hlafalt, literally "upness". "Sea" is a word I had to fiddle a bit, as it's clear from Watership Down itself that before the arrival of Kehaar the Watership rabbits had no comprehension of the concept. Still, it's pretty obvious what to use - losnos, literally "big water"!

Lines 10-11: Here, I bent the rules a bit, as one is surely entitled to do in poetry. The "to be" in line 11 should, strictly speaking, have been inflected and put at the start of line 10, but I felt that this would have robbed this section of its impact and necessitated compressing two lines into one (something like laythe um layth nahl Frith, which personally I think looks horrible). Instead, I changed the English words a bit to "even without Frith, this will be". (Not "would"? No, because Lapine doesn't have conditional tenses.) Putting Um layth as a line on its own seemed effective.

Line 12: In English, this is exactly the same as line 6, but here we don't have a verb to mess around with, so the lines are slightly different when translated.

Line 13: A very straightforward line - the only point of any note is that an can mean "only" as well as "but". (As it can in English - "he was but a child.")

Line 14: I inserted a "to" before "every" to make the line a little more balanced. "Individual" is simply "one", or eth. "Every" is oten translated as hrair in Naylte Hyao, but in NÉ you don't get that choice, and hraeth it is.

Line 15: "Owl" in Lapine is "night-hawk". That's nildeléao, then. Of course, the Lapine words are (except for hombil) longer than their English equivalents, so the line was in danger of overbalancing the whole poem. The way I got around that was to remove the two occurrences of "to", and replance them by commas.

Line 16: The final line of a poem, like the title, always needs a good deal of thought, and I tried several possibilities here. After careful consideration, I decided that I would turn the English order about - rather than say "everything belongs in their devotion", I would render it as "their devotion owns everything". That's a less attractive line than the original in English, but much better in Lapine - one of the things that makes translation so difficult is the need to appreciate the cultural differences involved as well as the merely linguistic. And it means we get to use lots of vowels again - in this case, koie! Note that the line could be read as "everything owns their devotion" - from context, it's clear that it doesn't mean this, but I found the slight air of uncertainty a rather attractive note on which to end.

So, having done all that, we now have a complete Lapine poem, ready to be published. And here it is:


[LISTEN] Émaril nahl voir vao etha,
Hrayai Jeptum a Harrow usi,
Rul nos bralusi mai.
Laythai u roolil hlalthai'i
Rahathai u sithile.
Laythe bralusi rul nos
Nahl zyhl.
Koiai Jeptum a Harrow
U hlafalt il u losnos.
Ulé nahl Frith,
Um layth.
Bralusi rul nos,
Nahl an il etha,
An il eth hraeth anisth.
Nildeléaoil, silisil, hombil:
Koie hraeth u bralusi mai.