Translating Halloween: Curses!

Happy Halloween! In the spirit of the season, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at translation theory in the context of something spooky - curses. Read on…. if you dare.

Why are there no translators in horror films?

Those of you who know me outside of LinkedIn know that I am a sucker for ghost stories, even though I am, in my soul, a massive wimp with an overactive imagination. My interest in horror means that I have seen a plethora of horror movies, from the spine-tingling, toe-curling good to the “the-real-horror-is-that-this-actually-got-made” bad. My academic background in translation means that whenever I watch these films and see someone rattle off an on-the-spot translation of a Book of the Dead, in both impeccable modern-day English and in perfect rhyming couplets, I can't help but raise a sceptical eyebrow.

As someone who spent at least two days of every week of my bachelor's degree pouring over my Old Norse glossary and trying desperately to make sense of a description of the layout of a farm currently under invasion (I'm looking at you, Egils saga), my brain absolutely cannot and refuses to accept seeing anything less in films. Everyone's suspension of disbelief has limits and this is mine - not vengeful ghosts of little girls in wells or Nazi zombies who are very possessive of their treasure, but a perfect translation of an ancient curse without so much as a dictionary in sight.

Therefore, since it is the spookiest time of the year, I thought it would be appropriate to examine the theoretical considerations that a translator may need to take into account when translating curses, so that they are both understandable (though not necessarily in perfect rhyming couplets) and fulfil their purpose (aka they also curse people in the target language).

Image of a tumblr thread of people discussing the absurdity of perfect translations in movies

(Note: I do not believe in curses - this is a purely hypothetical post.)

Who killed the canary?

In some old tombs in Egypt, the walls would be inscribed with curses, threatening that whoever broke into them would have some awful misfortune befall them, often resulting in their death. We accept today that these were mainly meant to deter would-be robbers at a time of very poor security, rather than actually curse people (a practice that I'm all in favour of bringing back for social media accounts).

When Tutankhamun's tomb was uncovered by Howard Carter in 1922, no such curse was found on the walls. Yet, the subsequent deaths associated with Tutankhamun, including that of Carter himself on 2 March 1939, strengthened the public's belief that they were victims of a “pharaoh's curse”. In this case, presumably, it did not even matter that the curse had not been technically translated; the meaning had still been transferred and understood, despite remaining firmly in the source culture. An example of this would be the death of Carter's canary, which died on the same day Carter uncovered the tomb, after a cobra entered its cage. People viewed this event as proof of a curse as cobras have long been considered symbols of the pharaohs, and two rearing cobras are even featured on the headdress of King Tutankhamun's coffin.

Image of the headdress of King Tutankhamun's coffin

Understanding a text's meaning is considered key for translators, in order for them to make the appropriate translation decisions. However, a difficulty with some texts, particularly ancient ones, is discerning what the original authors actually meant. This leads us to our first consideration:

1: What does the curse actually mean?

Imagine you're exploring an ancient Norse burial mound. You've just come across some runes etched into the walls and have roughly understood it to mean: “Be warned, all ye who enter here. Proceed and Thor will strike you dead” (or something like that). Would you translate that symbolically as a warning that you'll be crushed by falling rocks when you enter the next room? Or would you translate it literally as a promise that the god of thunder himself will come down and hit you on the head with his hammer?

There may even be some cultural context required in order to truly understand the meaning. As there's no way of asking the source audience, you might also need to attach a footnote explaining the cultural context for other readers. On the other hand, it may be enough to just understand and convey the general idea of “entering = death”.

2: Does it matter if you change the words?

In English, “choose your words carefully” is a very common saying, meaning “think about what you say before you say it”, which is fairly sensible advice. There is no reason that this shouldn't apply to curses as well, particularly considering the supposed power of the words used. Perhaps the specific words have been chosen and arranged in a specific order for a reason, and any disruption to this formula would negate any magical effects. If you thought this was the case, then the text should ideally be translated as closely as possible. However, this strategy would undoubtedly open a Pandora's box of problems, as very few individual words have a completely equivalent translation, let alone grammatical structures, idioms, etc.

3: Does it relate to the source and target audience in the same way?

On the other hand, there may be some cases where the words need to be changed in order to have the same impact or effect on the target audience. Imagine you're in a haunted building in China, and there's a sign on the door that reads: “death awaits you on the 4th floor”. In China, this sign gains an extra, ominous layer as “4” is an unlucky number due to its pronunciation “sì”, which is similar to the pronunciation of the word for death “sǐ”.

If you put the same building and same sign in the UK, it is likely to lose that ominousness as “4” is just a number and not too scary at all. In order to incur the same feeling of dread in the reader, the sign might be changed to read: “death awaits you on the 13th floor”, as “13” is considered to be the unlucky number in the West.

Image of two pumpkins, one with a pawprint carved on the front, the other with a smiley face

A new job opportunity for translators?

Just to reiterate, curses are obviously not real and this blog post is mainly a way for me to rant about one of my pet peeves of my favourite genre through the medium of translation theory. However, if curses were real, then the same considerations and problems that apply to normal translation activities would be magnified due to the “magical” nature of the effect that you're trying to replicate. Due to the cultural specificity of curses, you would probably need to base your translation strategy on the beliefs of the culture that the curse originated from as well as its lexical content.

If anything, I would argue that all this blog post has proven is that if you do come across a curse in your translation work, you're probably safe from accidentally cursing yourself and others. That and the fact that there's clearly a niche for translators as consultants for horror film script writers just waiting to be filled.

Happy Halloween!

Note: if you feel like watching some foreign-language horror films this evening, my top 5 recommendations are “Train to Busan” (Korean, 2016), “Marianne” (French, 2019), “Ju-on” (Japanese, 2000), “I remember you” (Icelandic, 2017), and “Eerie” (Filipino, 2018).

Originally posted to LinkedIn on 31 October 2019.

Jessica R. Scott
Professional Translator, Writer and Editor

Jessica is a British translator, editor and writer who translates from the Scandinavian languages into English. Her passions include coffee, communications and TV dramas, which conversely means she finds nothing more frustrating than characters in TV dramas refusing to communicate over miniscule misunderstandings (often in coffee shops).