Mr Blair’s blood count translated

le sofa blogger, under the heading Heute wollen wir mal nicht pingelig sein (Let’s not be too fussy today), links to a Guardian article by A.L. Kennedy called Mr Blair’s blood count. The article appeared in a very good German translation by Matthias Fienbork in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today (available online only at a price).

The blogger, Peter Praschl, is unhappy at A.L.Kennedy’s use of metaphor in the original English. Kennedy refers to 92,811 pints of blood ‘on Blair’s hands’ (the translator uses ‘kleben’). Praschl then quotes another ‘mixed metaphor’:

bq. “Obviously, we shouldn’t take the phrase “blood on his hands” terribly literally, because that wouldn’t be fair – Blair’s only our prime minister, sitting at the centre of a complex and sophisticated network of advisers and in possession of global influence and serious investment capital.” Sie kann es also wirklich nicht.

I wonder about this. I know when texts are translated into German, it’s necessary to be much more careful with metaphors. Does ‘kleben’ sound odd in German (because such a large quantity of blood can’t be ‘on your hands’)? (Praschl: ‘Bin schon gespannt, ob ich im nächsten Urlaub beim Schwimmen denken werde, dass das Meer an meinen Händen klebt.’) If it does, maybe the translation should have been freer? I wonder what other translators into German think about this?

The translation looks good to me. It did strike me that the irony didn’t come across:

bq. Of course, it’s tricky to establish the true levels of civilian injury and death in Iraq, due to it being a very big place and looking all the same because of the sand. Estimates of the completely dead vary between 37,137 and the much more comfortable 6,118. Your average person contains around eight pints of blood, but Iraqis have suffered various medical difficulties caused by starvation, stress and speaking Arabic, so let’s guess there are seven pints in each Iraqi adult. And many of the casualties – say 3,000 – will actually have been kiddies, whom we’ll average out at three pints each.

Note those words and phrases: tricky; due to it being; because of the sand; your average person contains; kiddies; whom we’ll average out. Here is the German:

bq. Das Ausmaß der zivilen Opfer im Irak läßt sich verständlicherweise nicht genau errechnen, weil das Land so groß ist und wegen des Sandes überall gleich aussieht. Schätzungen der korrekten Todesopfer schwanken zwischen 37137 und der sehr viel beruhigenderen Zahl 6118. Der menschliche Körper enthält im Schnitt viereinhalb Liter Blut. Da die Iraker aber (aufgrund von Hunger und Streß und weil sie Arabisch sprechen) diverse gesundheitliche Probleme hatten, sollte man vielleicht vier Liter pro Erwachsenen berechnen. Und viele Opfer (sagen wir: dreitausend) waren Kinder, bei denen wir 1,7 Liter ansetzen.

It’s not completely gone, and it may be that so much irony would not be acceptable in the German press.

16 thoughts on “Mr Blair’s blood count translated

  1. Very interesting, especially “it may be that so much irony would not be acceptable in the German press.” I hadn’t realized before that differing levels of ambient cultural irony (so to speak) could actually impede translation. How to translate an irony-filled text then? What are your thoughts?

  2. Margaret Marks of Transblawg has a post about a German translation of a Grauniad article whacking Tony Blair about the head and shoulders with the usual heavy doses of British ironizing (“Doesn’t it all impregnate you with confidence and pride?”)….

  3. Actually, I didn’t express myself very well. I meant ‘normal’ rather than ‘acceptable’. Of course, one could say this is being displayed as a British article, so there’s nothing to stop them going the whole way. Perhaps the real question is: does German use language in the same way for irony? Perhaps I should ask a German, in fact I will.
    I don’t want to come down heavily on le sofa blogger, but I find he sees the metaphors through German glasses. What do you think of those two passages – are they written in an inferior style?

  4. The irony is, I think, perfectly recognisable in the German translation and also perfectly normal – in the sense that German readers would recognise this as an ironic text.

    If I understand praschl correctly, the point is simply that the author doesn’t realize her metaphor is badly chosen – while she knows it’s a metaphor, she doesn’t realize it’s a bad one. It doesn’t seem to me that there are any particularly German glasses involved here (German as in “German language user”, which would of course include such beings as Austrians).

    In my understanding, to have blood on one’s hands means that one is responsible for a crime (or something horrible), and that’s that.

    If one wanted to express not that somebody is responsible for a crime in principle, but more specifically that a person is responsible for a large quantity of crimes, then the metaphor doesn’t fit – as praschl suggests, when you’re wading through an ocean, you’d hardly say that you have water on your hands. That’s where the metaphor fails, in English and in German.

  5. Well, my feeling is that it doesn’t sound inappropriate in English. A problem in the comparison is that I would never say I have water on my hands – I would say my hands are wet. To have blood on your hands has a literal and a metaphorical level. You can say, ‘How much blood has he got on his hands?’ and I see no problem with what this text does. The ‘German (-language) glasses’ comes from my memories of translation classes into German for Germans that I attended before I did a translation exam in Germany, where I had the impression the collective wisdom was constantly to be very strict with the metaphors. Of course, metaphors won’t work in the same way in two different languages, but I did have the impression the German language was stricter in its approach. However, it’s just my feeling. I would be interested in what other native speakers of English think.

  6. I think “kleben” is quite ok for “blood on his hands” (not for water, as in English), it only sounds strange in connection with a quantity. I agree with you that the translation (or what you quote of it) is very good, though in the last paragraph you quote “the completely dead” is rendered “die korrekten Todesopfer” instead of “die ganz Toten”. I wonder if this was done on purpose to avoid a painful degree of irony.

  7. The German speakers seem to object with the way the metaphorical sense of ‘blood on his hands’ is enlarged. It seems they want the metaphorical sense to be treated as carefully/narrowly as the literal sense (although you could certainly say, joking, ‘I’ve got about five pints of coffee on my shirt’).
    As for the kleben (40,000 litres of blood stuck to his hands), it works well for the general idea and less well with the huge amount. But this is a translation problem in general: if the article in English is wholly based on this idea, then the translator has to do something approximating the English. It may be that the article would never have been written in German, but it has to be translated into German.

  8. To bw: yes, I think they have avoided a painful degree of irony. I think the bit I quoted is deliberately less joky, probably because it might sound anti-Iraqi if it went all the way. The idea of Iraqis having less blood is clearly directed against Blair, but I still think it would come over as tasteless in German.

  9. Sorry, but I find the original article preposterous. The very idea of converting numbers of dead into pints of blood seems to me to be in very poor taste. The article ought to have been rejected by the Guardian editor and was not worth translating. Somebody might just as well try associating each road death with the make of car that caused it and then calculate how much blood the CEO of each car manufacturer had on his/her hands. Moronic, but typical of the Guardian.


  10. I take your point, Derek. I don’t particularly like it myself, either, although I don’t feel as strongly as you do. I’ve never read anything by Kennedy. The FAZ was extremely positive about her.
    However, the reason I wrote about this was because I was intrigued that her use of metaphor should be criticized. I can’t see anything wrong with it, and I think I’m rather fussy.

  11. But I don’t see it as metaphor at all – this is not metaphor, it is what is called hyperbole (overstatement), extravagant exaggeration to achieve a certain effect, in this case to unfairly blackguard Tony Blair. The reference is obviously to Macbeth who in the play really does have King Duncan’s blood on his hands and is horrified at the sight of it:

    “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather
    The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
    Making the green one red”
    (Macbeth, Act 2, scene 2)

    This cannot be applied as a metaphor to Tony Blair since there is no reason to believe that he is horrified at what he has done, quite the contrary. In the article, the author is using it as a totally exaggerated picture to convey an impression that is not justified by the facts.

    These can be no reason to claim that Blair is directly responsible for any of the deaths in Iraq, far less all of them. What happened in Iraq would have happened with or without Blair’s cooperation.

    What I find so tasteless is the implication that a human life can be equated with an arbitrary quantity of blood. This is trivializing the tragic consequences of war for some cheap journalistic effect. A pox on the Guardian!


  12. Derek, it’s the Guardian, not Foreign Affairs. If that bothers you so much, you must not read newspapers very much. Journalists (especially UK ones) adhere to very different standards of writing than scholars and serious-minded pundits. There’s nothing to distinguish this particular piece of heavy-handed ironic metaphor from any other product of the Fleet Street hothouse.

  13. Had the “blood-on-hand” reference been used as a metaphor for guilt then it would still have been inappropriate because, correctly used, it is a metaphor for guilt felt by the owner of the hands and not for guilt that is attributed to him by others. Followed as it is by the protracted and tasteless attempt to quantify the exact amount of blood in question, it ceases to be metaphor and becomes rabid hyperbole. I am quite aware, language hat, of the intellectual level of the British gutter press, what I question is the decision to translate that kind of trash and publish it in the FAZ.

  14. I’ve had an email on this topic that I’d like to quote here, from a German-speaker who translates from English.

    Derek: one could argue that the ironical or satirical exaggeration is directed at the language of politics and the media. Phrases such as ‘escalating bloodbath’ (which seems to have been overlooked in the criticism) can be seen as mocking the kind of media language used by Blair. The mention of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson in the first sentence support this. This would also explain why a high-quality paper such as the FAZ would take this text.

    languagehat: my correspondent says he/she would have gone all the way and conveyed all the nuances in the text. It is mysterious, as Bettina said, why ‘the completely dead’ becomes ‘the correct dead’. In answer to your question as to how to translate irony: the figurative language and the images may have to be ‘localized’ – they have to work in German too, or (as is the case in this text) deliberately not work (the ‘escalating bloodbath’ becomes ‘das eskalierende Blutbad’), but the level of satire or irony must be retained: the translator owes this to the author and the reader. (I would add that a well-known tip for translating humorous texts is, if one word can’t be made funny in the target language, then the translator should choose another word – that would be ‘localizing’).

    It remains and probably will always remain a mystery why the metaphor is bad / badly chosen / inappropriate.

  15. scribe at comments:
    My feel for it as a native U.S. speaker is that “blood on one’s hands” is such a commonplace — indeed, veering toward cliche — that its metaphorical implications are lost on me. Indeed, I must admit that I had to pause for a moment simply to pick out what was mixed about the metaphor, so in-grained is that phrase in
    my mind as a native speaker. The fact that Kennedy uses an entire column to tease out the meaning of “blood on one’s hands” doesn’t even make much of an impression on me. Thus I would agree with your feeling that German is fussier here. Indeed, had the column not been so resolutely focued on this commonplace as a trope, I would recommend a translation that simply
    rendered it literally and that didn’t necessarily respect the metaphor.

    What struck me more about Kennedy’s piece is the savage, almost hysterical irony which, to my mind, is at the fringes of mainstream US journalism. To my mind, only Maureen Dowd of the NYT seems to reach an equivalent pitch with even moderate regularity; otherwise, this sort of piece strikes me as foreign.

    I completely agree with you that this is a tricky piece to translate; I only wish I had more German than I do to read the translation. But I assume
    the outrageousness simply of “medical difficulties caused by…speaking Arabic” would have made the tone clear enough to any reader, no matter whether the studied casualness of “Your average person contains around,” “so let’s guess,” and “kiddies” was lost. (One side note: the unironic, unquoted use of “pisspoor” would have been excised as a vulgarity in almost every major U.S. newspaper. How was that translated in German?)

    MM replies: pisspoor was rendered as ‘miserabel’ (very bad). I think the irony would be felt to be just as savage in Britain, but there would be more tolerance for obscene language.

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