Of Knights and Knaves on f5 … or Why Translations Will Never Be Automated

by admin on May 19, 2012

On a free day for the chess match, some musings about translation…

If you ever want to think deeply about a language (even your own language, or perhaps I should say especially your own language), you should try translating something into it or out of it.

The most interesting puzzle for me in translating GM Shipov’s comments from games 4 came when Shipov described a knight as a “naglets.” I knew right away that I was going to have to be creative about this. In Russian, a “nagly” person is a person who offends you in some way — insolent, impertinent. It might be someone who is making a scene at a bar or something. The “ets” ending makes it a noun.

The first step, when I am not sure how I want to translate something, is to check with Google Translate. It often leaves a great deal to be desired, but it’s a starting point.

Google offers three possibilities for “naglets.” The first is “squirt.” No, that’s ridiculous. The second is “insolent fellow.” Well, that is exactly what the word means, but to me it was lacking the raw emotional energy of the word “naglets.” You don’t go to a bar and run into an “insolent fellow.”

So it occurred to me that the way to translate this word was to look for an English word that evokes exactly the same feeling in me as “naglets.” In other words, I had to translate with my gut and not with my head. I wanted just one punchy epithet, not two words.

I tried various ideas and then hit upon “jerk.” It’s a common word, and it’s exactly how you would describe someone making a scene at a bar. So this is how I translated the sentence: “There is no point putting up with this jerk on f5.”

Of course I can’t spend hours agonizing over my translations, and I think the word I chose was fine. But I did continue to think about whether I could have found a better word, and in fact I subsequently came up with two other possibilities. One would be “lout” and the other one — the one I really wish I had thought of — is “knave.” That would have been a nice little bit of irony, referring to the knight on f5 as a knave. However, from another point of view it would have been putting a meaning into Shipov’s sentence that wasn’t originally there.

Later I noticed a comment on Colin McGourty’s website, Chess in Translation, where a reader said that he felt that my version of Shipov was different from Colin’s version. He thought my translations were too “bantering,” while Colin’s were more “dignified.”

Now to me that’s almost a compliment, because one of the things I like about Shipov’s commentary is that he’s not some stuffy academic type; he is always making jokes and expressing strong opinions. Like Altoids mints, he is always “curiously strong.” If my translation highlights that aspect of his writing, it’s a good thing. If Colin’s version of Shipov seemed more dignified, I think it may just be because Shipov didn’t really unleash any zingers in the first couple of games.

Still, I think that one little word can set a tone — translating “naglets” as “jerk” sets a different tone from translating it as “knave.” And this got me thinking about the different shades of meaning behind words that ostensibly mean the same thing. Why is “knave” milder and more whimsical?

It occurred to me that there is a difference between a derogatory word and an insulting word. An insulting word is one that you actually use to hurt somebody. A derogatory word is not necessarily malicious. (Or so I think. Maybe I’m wrong.) On the continuum between derogatory and insulting, “jerk” might have been just a bit too far towards the insulting end. Of course, what’s being “insulted” here is an inanimate object, so I think there is no harm done, and in fact this may have been the comic effect intended by Shipov.

Also, there’s a difference between a literary derogatory word and a conversational derogatory word. And this really gets to the heart of why “jerk” may not have been best. People call other people “jerks” all the time… orally. But it doesn’t quite look as good in print. It’s just not very clever. If for some reason you want to speak ill of a person in print, you at least want to do it in a way that elevates the discussion above mere insults. So you use words like “lout” or “knave” that would sound too stilted in conversation.

It was fascinating to realize things like this about my own language that I had never thought about before! Unfortunately, I don’t know Russian as intimately as English. If I had to guess, I would say that “naglets” is more insulting than derogatory, and that it’s not particularly literary … but these shades of meaning are so subtle that I’m really not sure. To understand two languages that well, you’d have to be a genius or spend a lifetime learning them.

Now imagine a computer trying to translate this and set the right tone! Forget it!

P.S. By the way, I think Shipov’s comment was interesting because it shows that even a strong grandmaster can have a visceral reaction to an individual piece. Another really good example of this — coincidentally, also a knight on f5! — can be found in Alekhine’s My Best Games of Chess, in his comments on the second Euwe-Alekhine world championship match. In the 24th game, Alekhine plays 37. … Rxf5! and writes, “At last the most hated knight of the match can be eliminated with decisive effect.” (My italics.)

Just think about that the next time you put a knight on f5…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Splane May 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm

Maybe “pest” is the right word.

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chandler May 21, 2012 at 3:01 am

Great article; contains many of the points that invoke my admiration for translators (the tough decisions a sincere one has to make).

It’s possible that “jerk” contributed heavily to Shipov’s persona; I do feel that that word is unlikely to be uttered by Colin’s Shipov.

Already in game 7 I see a more familiar (Colin’s) Shipov.
(btw I’ve read all of Colin’s translations of Shipov over the past few years so my feeling wasn’t only based on first few rounds here).

Enjoying your work, thanks!! (a wider player/text area is the only thing lacking compared to Colin’s site.)

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