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Advice to Translators

A few hints for my fellow translators whom I have sometimes pictured  pondering.

Sometimes when Nabokov uses the common name, the translator just will not find an equivalent in his language. If for stylistic reasons he may not simply slip in the scientific one, he will have to resort to invention. All such inventions, however, should be carefully considered and scientifically enlightened. The worst choice would be to literally translate the English name regardless of whether there are any insects of that name in the target language, and what they are. 'Sulphur' is 'Schwefel' in German all right, but the butterflies called 'sulphurs' certainly cannot be termed 'Schwefel' and not even 'Schwefelfalter'. The least one can do is to just use the word descriptively and speak of 'schwefelgelbe Falter', 'sulphur-colored butterflies'. This solution, however, may not be satisfactory as there may well exist accepted common names for all the yellow butterflies among the pierids. In German, the correct translation would have to be 'Gelbling'.

Faced with a species that has no common name in the target language, one possibility would be to check whether the particular genus has one and then to affix the species' name to that. For instance, if one is confronted by the Bryony White (Pieris bryoniae), one may find that the genus Pieris, being very common all over the world, will have a vernacular equivalent in almost any language ('whites'); and that bryoniae stands for the plant that species is fond of (Bryonia, English 'bryony'). So it would be feasible to combine the language's common word for bryony with that of whites in general. In German, for instance, this would lead to 'Zaunrübenweißling'. If the species' name is that of a person, it can easily be converted into a common name in any language, just by translating it literally from the Latin form. Thus Agrotis pilgrami would be 'Pilgram's Agrotis' in English or 'l'Agrotis de Pilgram' in French, and if the Latin generic name has to be avoided as well, 'Pilgram's Noctuid' or 'Pilgram's Owlet Moth' ('la Noctuelle de Pilgram') would probably do. Sometimes all or many members of a genus share one distinctive common name, like 'Windmill' or 'Jezebel' or 'Oakblue'. If that's the case, this name may be used instead of the scientific generic name. For instance, as many members of the genus Agrotis are called 'Dart' in English, Agrotis pilgrami could also be rendered as 'Pilgram's Dart'. If the specific name refers to a geographical locality, it is equally easy. The hawk moth Laothoe amurensis may be rendered as the equivalent of 'Amur Hawk Moth'.

Some of the seemingly simplest vernacular terms may pose the toughest problems. How to translate 'fritillary', 'ringlet', 'brown', 'grayling' or 'tortoiseshell'? These names do not correspond to scientific taxa but rather are traditional ways of grouping butterflies according to some of their conspicuous features which the English language has happened to hit upon. Fritillaries are nymphalids with characteristic dice-like wing markings; in the United States they correspond to the nymphalid tribe Argynnini, in Great Britain they don't. Ringlets are satyrines with small ringed eyespots along the margin. Tortoiseshells are nymphalids whose mottled pattern makes the underside of their wings resemble tortoiseshells. If there is no term in the target language, one possibility would be to go up the ladder to the next higher scientific taxon (like nymphalids or satyrines) and add to that the feature that has given rise to the English common name in a purely descriptive way. This would lead to something like 'tortoiseshell-like nymphalines'. It would be awkward but correct – better than the other way around.


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