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HitchHiker's and hypocrisy - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
HitchHiker's and hypocrisy

For a lack of new books to read and being unable to access local libraries easily, I took my copy of The HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy off the shelf. This is a nice hardcover anthology edition that incorporates the first four books and a short story. Actually, its full title is The More Than Complete HitchHiker's Guide, Complete & Unabridged.

The first thing I noticed was that the pages had become severely yellowed. This is a sign of high paper acidity and general paper crappiness. Which is annoying, since if they went through the trouble of making it hardcover you'd think they'd use decent paper for it. I tried the three-fold test, which is a subjective test that rare book librarians use to tell if a book has become so brittle that it needs rescuing immediately. You fold a corner of a page back and forth three times and see if it breaks off. This book came very close. It was published in 1989.

I hadn't looked at the book for a long time, and when I received it I had thrown all my paperback copies away, as they were pretty moth-eared at the time (and one had sustained heavy water damage). Now I'm grumpy because this book won't last. I won't eventually give it as a gift to my nephew as I had planned.

Anyway. The other thing that happened was that as I was reading it, I noticed words here and there had been changed. For the most part they had changed Anglicisms to Americanisms - perfectly understandable. Like "car park" to "parking lot", and "biros" to "ballpoints". The biros line (when I first saw it) had confused me for years until I figured it out from reading another book.

Other passages seemed to be... off, but I couldn't be sure. Douglas Adams' prose in HitchHiker's has a very nice flow and cadence to it, which is what makes it so delightfully quotable. So when words are changed, it's like... you have a favourite piece of classical music, except a few random flute notes have been removed and replaced with the same notes being played very softly on a trombone.

Now, however, I'm sure it's undergone alteration, at which point the phrase Complete & Unabridged loses some of its veracity. Anyone have a older edition they can compare against? The scene is in the third book during the flying party, right before the robots arrive. I'll quote it at the end of this post, because now I want to talk about being a hypocrite.

While I'm getting all upset at the changing of text, I'm changing someone else's text. One of my long-term projects is to make myself a copy of Lars von Trier's The Kingdom. I bought the first four episodes on DVD at one point, only to find out that it had been re-edited into five episodes, with lots of bits cut out and the pacing ruined. This alternative edit had obviously been planned at the start, because the director made little speeches at the end of all five episodes. (In the four-episode edit, he only speaks at the end of two.) I, however, considered the four-episode version to be the more artistically accurate, and I was so disgusted with the DVD that I gave it away. I couldn't even watch it all the way through.

So now that I've got all the episodes on my computer and subtitle text files, I'm re-wording them. The audio is in Danish, which I don't understand, and the subtitles were obviously done by someone British. So I too am changing some of the phrases ("Take a seat" instead of "Take a pew"), while subjectively leaving other things in, like the exclamation "Bloody". And some lines I'm completely re-wording.

But aren't I changing the artistic intent of the original work when I do this? Can intent even be preserved if I have no idea what it is or even how true the first subtitler was to the original? It's obvious that when people are speaking very fast, things are being left out. The same thing happens in the film Amélie. (In which the subtitling is entirely appropriate, if lacking in nuance here and there.) Altered text in The Kingdom's subtitles is also obvious from the fact that for some episodes, I have two different subtitle files that agree on some phrases and vary wildly on others.

In one case, something very culturally-specific to Denmark was spoken. It was so untranslatable that both subtitlers have tried to replace it with something competely different but hoping to preserve the spirit. One character has inappropriately called his superior by his nickname, "Bob". Apparently this has some other connotation in Denmark. The two subtitlers treat Bob's response as follows.

(1) Bob is a game of wooden rings. At this hospital, the CEO is to be addressed as DG. [Director General]
(2) Bob was an attempt at a graphic user interfact [sic] for half-wits. At this hospital senior management is addressed by title!

Number (2) is obviously written by someone more amateur with an axe to grind. Anyway, now I'm not sure if I can validly have an axe to grind about HitchHiker's when I'm doing something similar.

[And now, the text.]

"Okay, he said, "all right. I'm just telling you, right? Good night, good luck, win awards."

"What?" said Arthur, who was beginning to flounder seriously at this point.

"Whatever. Do what you do. Do it well." He made a sort of clucking noise with whatever he was chewing and then some vaguely dynamic gesture.

"Why?" said Arthur.

"Do it badly," said the man. "Who cares? Who gives a swut?" The blood suddenly seemed to pump angrily into the man's face and he started to shout.

"Why not go mad?" he said. "Go away, get off my back, will you, guy? Just zark off!!!"


"Oh," said Arthur, "oh, well, I'm sorry I didn't. What was it for?"

"The Most Gratuitous Use of the World 'Belgium' in a Serious Screenplay. It's very prestigious."

"The most gratuitous use of which word?" asked Arthur, with a determined attempt to keep his brain in neutral.

"Belgium," said the girl, "I hardly like to say it."

"Belgium?" exclaimed Arthur.

A drunken seven-toed sloth staggered past, gawked at the word and threw itself backward at a blurry-eyed pterodactyl, roaring with displeasure.

"Are we talking," said Arthur, "about the very flat country, with all the EEC and the fog?"

"What?" said the girl.

"Belgium," said Arthur.

"Raaaaaarrrchchchchch!" screeched the pterodactyl.

"Grrruuuuuurrrghhhh," agreed the seven-toed sloth.

"They must be thinking of Ostend Hoverport," muttered Arthur. He turned back to the girl.

"Have you ever been to Belgium in fact?" he asked brightly and she nearly hit him.

"I think," she said, restraining herself, "that you should restrict that sort of remark to something artistic."

"You sound as if I just said something unspeakably rude."

"You did."

In today's modern galaxy there is of course very little still held to be unspeakable. Many words and expressions which only a matter of decades ago were considered so distastefully explicit that, were they merely to be breathed in public, the perpetrator would be shunned, barred from polite society, and in extreme cases shot through the lungs, are now thought to be very healthy and proper, and their use in everyday speech and writing is seen as evidence of a well-adjusted, relaxed and totally un****ed-up personality.

So, for instance, when in a recent national speech the Financial Minister of the Royal World Estate of Quarlvista [...] that they quite failed to note that their entire five-thousand-year-old civilization had just collapsed overnight.

But even though words like "joojooflop," "swut," and "turlingdrome" are now perfectly acceptable in common usage there is one word that is still beyond the pale. The concept it embodies is so revolting that the publication or broadcast of the word is utterly forbidden in all parts of the Galaxy except for use in Serious Screenplays. There is also, or was, one planet where they didn't know what it meant, the stupid turlingdromes.

"I see," said Arthur, who didn't, "so what do you get for using the name of a perfectly innocent if slightly dull European country gratuitously in a Serious Screenplay?"

"A Rory," said the girl, "it's just a small silver thing set on a large black base. What did you say?"

Current Mood: confused confused

3 comments or Leave a comment
From: pobig Date: March 6th, 2005 06:45 am (UTC) (Link)
That is just an oddly-written bit in general, I think. I recall being rather puzzled by it. I don't have my copy of Life, The Universe, and Everything any more, but as I recall it was "Fuck", instead of "Belgium", and pretty much left it at that. In later editions Adams may have changed it back to "Belgium", including the explanation from the radio series pretty much word-for-word as far as I can tell.
From: pobig Date: March 6th, 2005 06:46 am (UTC) (Link)
And regarding your translation perplexity, if you haven't read Douglas R. Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot yet, you should, you should.
porsupah From: porsupah Date: March 8th, 2005 12:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Regrettably, my library's vanished over the years, through the many various moves and assorted storage units - else, I'd be able to check my reasonably early editions of the books. (Yes, I admit it.. even as a kit, I had the ringtail shininess gene in full swing: it was Hypgnosis' funky false color cover which led me to pick up the Guide. It didn't take long to realise this was a book I would have to buy)

Odd that they'd feel it necessary to translate to American English, but, so it goes. That would seem to muck up the cadence of "A car park." "A car park? What's he doing there?" "Parking cars, what else!", ne?

As for re-translation - well, this is another instance. Ultimately, this is what sets apart a good translator from the rest - being able to maintain faithfulness to the original, whilst managing to also carry across culturally specific idioms and puns; you've doubtless enjoyed many an Asterix and Tintin (one would hope!), the former particularly reliant on somehow managing to translate the various jokes scattered about.

Of course, there can be times where I'll just disagree with even the creator, as with a particularly haywire anime, Fairy Princess Ren. When it was finally licensed, its title became - with full approval by the original artist/writer - Elf Princess Raine. A tiny difference, but, she's quite clearly a fairy, not an elf.
3 comments or Leave a comment