Icelandic for Dummies

From Branislav Bedi on Facebook on the 31st, passed along to me by Arne Adolfsen, this mock art by Glenn Barkan, said to be available for sale at Café Babalú in Reykjavík (looks like an interesting place, from the photographs):

Cast as a volume in the X for Dummies series, this is a 4-panel cartoon set in a café, depicting a service encounter between the server and a customer. The dialogue is what’s often known as homophonic translation, with the “translation” (in nonsensical English) in the speech balloons in the cartoon and the “original” (in unremarkable, coherent, Icelandic) in the panel titles — plus, in side balloons, straightfoward genuine translations of the Icelandic, panel by panel. (If your Icelandic and your English are both very good, and you’re clever at word puzzles, then you don’t need the side panels.) The whole thing is a joke, and a puzzle.

Background: the Dummies books. Back in 2006, I wrote on Language Log about “Avoiding Passive for Dummies”:

Diane Steele, publisher of the Dummies series (over a thousand titles beginning with DOS for Dummies in 1991), explains to Rachel Donadio (“Dumbing Up” in the NYT Book Review, 9/24/06, p. 31) how the books are put together:

… “We try to be funny, or at least lighthearted.”  Furthermore, Steele said: “We don’t use future tense, we don’t use passive voice, we don’t have long chapters.”

That posting was mostly about the passive-avoidance silliness, but it also provided information about the X for Dummies beginner-friendly books. The books are now published by Wiley, and there are now over 2,300 titles. As far as I can tell from the Dummies website, self-directed language instruction isn’t on the Dummies menu; that’s covered by, most notably, the UK series Teach Yourself X.

Homophonic translation. On to the actual content of Barkan’s strip — a service encounter in which the server gives his coffee to the customer (panel 1), the customer thanks her (panel 2), the server wishes him a good weekend (panel 3), and the customer, leaving, replies in kind (panel 4). The speech balloons in each panel reproduce, not the unremarkable Icelandic (that’s in the panel titles), but rather the Icelandic as it would be wrenched into similar-sounding English expressions by someone who understood no Icelandic at all (Takk fyrir! ‘Thank you!’ as Duck fairy!, for instance); the effect is of massive unintentional bilingual punning.

This sort of pairing of texts — an original unremarkable text paired with a “translation” into a sequence of similar-sounding words that makes no sense in the context (or, many times, no sense at all) — is known as, among other things, homophonic translation. The translation can be between texts in different languages (bilingual homophonic translation, as here) or between texts in the same language (monolingual homophonic translation, as in texts like “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut”, in a posting by Heidi Harley here).

Now, there are are number of somewhat similar, but distinct, phenomena in this domain, and people have used a variety of names for some of them. Before you start objecting to what I’ve just said, read Heidi’s posting, and remember that names are just handy labels pointing to things, and not definitions; no name is perfect.

In the case of homophonic translations, the “translation” is more like word-for-word substitution based on phonological similarity than like ordinary semantically based translation, and the word-to-word relationship is not full homophony but something more like the imperfect puns in jokes, which are often quite distant phonologically.

There are several ways to go in naming. The name homophonic translation uses technical or semi-technical labels in (at least partially) transparent combination; but it’s fairly long and kind of clunky. It can be abbreviated by the initialism HT — brief and snappy, but not at all transparent. Or we could go for an exemplar as the name of the phenomenon: say, Mots d’Heures (from “Mots d’Heures, Gousses, Rames”) for bilingual HTs and Ladle Rats for monolingual HT’s (compare eggcorns for a type of mistake) — but at the risk of obscurity. Like I said, no name is perfect.

In any case, Icelandic for Dummies is a nice contribution to the world of HTs, combining as it does the play of HTs with the conventions of the comics.


3 Responses to “Icelandic for Dummies”

  1. Glenn Says:

    Hi, I am Glenn Barkan…the artist who made this postcard (and the owner of Babalu!) I really enjoyed this blog, and found it very interesting. I didn’t know that this type of language pun had a technical term!

  2. ahimsa Says:

    I love these kind of bilingual puns. I remember reading some Hindi/English puns like this in Shashi Tharoor’s book, The Great Indian Novel. At one point a British officer explains how he has to say, “There was a cold day” to get the servant to open the door (in Hindi the sentence would be दरवाज़ा खोल दे = “darwaazaa khol day” ).

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