Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Ker-splatt! Krunch! Ba-doingggg!!!


I've been thinking recently about onomatopoeia: the sound words we use to describe actions. Words like Splat! KruuuuunNCH! Ker-bang! My thoughts were triggered by a German friend of mine, when I overheared him describing a rooster making a characteristic noise. My friend enunciated the noise as 'kikeriki', rather than the English 'cock-a-doodle-do'.

Thinking about this German word, it occurred to me that the various languages of the world might have their own intriguing sound-words. A bit of research told me I was right; more intriguingly, my Googling told me that these sound-words might be dying out, because global English is, apparently, duffing up the less muscular languages of the world.

First, let's analyze the world's onomatopoeias. It's a splendidly varied and very tasty stew.

Some sound-words are different in different lingos, simply because of the different pronunciation of letters. For instance hee hee hee in English is ji ji ji in Spanish; the Swedish for a car's toot is tut. And Russian cows say muu.

Other differences are more subtle, and traditional. The orthodox cat's miaow in English is always nyao in Japanese. Someone drinking wine in french makes a glou-glou sound, rather like our glug-glug; French steam trains go tchou-tchou; the Swedish for splash! is plaska!; Korean cuckoos go ppu-kookk ppu-kookk.

But a number of onamotopeoias vary strongly, or simply do not have foreign equivalents. French guns go papop! Danish ambulance sirens go barbu barbu. Chinese bees don't buzz they say weng; Swedish cockroaches make a cackerlacka noise; and Burmese saxophones go eBa. Meanwhile, in Japan, the first raindrops in a storm go potsun-potsun; a rich head of hair makes a fusa-fusa noise; and poka-poka is the 'sound' something makes when it is nice and warm (these last examples may seem outlandish, but think of the bling bling of our garish jewellery).

It other words, as I mentioned above, it's a wonderful world of variation. So how and why is English taking over?

The first reason is comic books. That's where many onomatopoeias are invented and perpetuated - and the most internationally successful comic books are largely English-speaking. Just think of Peanuts, Garfield or the Marvel superheroes, or the new British strips like Tank Girl and Judge Dredd.

This result of this domination has been a mass penetration, by Anglo-American kid-lit, into foreign markets. Recent figures show that Germany alone translates some 40,000 pages of comic books every year: mostly from English. Countries with stronger, native comic book traditions - like France - have been a little more resistant to the takeover; they are the exception.

But, given that these comics are being translated, what's the problem? The difficulty is that many of the onomatopoeias within the comic books are usually left un-translated. Viktor Janis translates British graphic novels into Czech. He explains one difficulty: 'When you are translating comics, you have got to be very careful. You have got to almost count the letters in your sentences because everything has got to fit in the bubble, in this space.'

And there's the rub. In comic books, translations of the characters' words have to fit in the speech bubbles, which makes comic book translation expensive and time-consuming. Consequently there is often little time and no money to do the less necessary tasks: like translating any Ker-plunks! or Creeeeeks! printed outside the vital speech bubble.

Janis explains what then happens. 'Words like boom and bang are now common in German comics translated from English, even though, when pronounced in German, they do not correspond to the sounds they represent; the German equivalents would be bum and pang. But the prevalance of boom and bang means that German readers have now become accustomed to reading the English onomatopoeias.'

A second problem is that the equivalent onomatopoeias in the native tongue may not fit the overall cartoon frame. Put it another way: if Judge Dredd drives his Lawmaster Bike into Judge Death with a triumphant Ker-rash!, the foreign translator of this Ker-rash! may look for the best equivalent in his own language and find that it is nine letters long. These letters may not squeeze in the frame. Result: the poor time-pressed hack opts for the original sound-word, unchanged. And so the Lawmaster Bike of global English rides roughshod over the local lingo, again.

But tere are further difficulties still. There may not even be a local sound-word equivalent, especially if you are translating from a flexible and fecund language like English, which is rather rich in onomatopoeias. Eva Martina Fuentes is a Spanish linguist. She says: 'Research has proved the comparative wealth of English sound-words compared to some other languages: a 1979 Spanish survey, El Lenguaje de los Comics, showed that English sound-words outnumbered Spanish, for example, by about two to one.'

And the result of all this? 'Many sounds that should seem strange to non-English speakers have been adopted and even naturalized in different countries, Spain among them. Today we can see English words in any Spanish comic, even if the comic is not a translation but a Spanish original. And this internationalisation of English onomatopoeia has occurred to varying degrees throughout the West.'

All this may seem trivial. So what if cowboy-playing kids in Vienna are saying bang! instead of pang! So what if money-making teens in Malaysia say a gleeful ker-ching! rather than their own equivalent? The problem is that some of the world's languages are just as rich in their own sound-words as English: and it would consequently be a terrible shame if this treasure of sound-words is lost.

A good case in point is the group of East Asian languages, most particularly Japanese. This language has a wealth of onomatopoeias, which are the bane of English translators trying to turn all those manga comics into English. From the ­doki-doki of Japanese lovers' heartbeats, to the heta! of the exhausted Japanese housewife, from the gwahaha of a Japanese villain's cackle to the iku-iku of someone nearing orgasm to the gocha-gocha of nagging in nearby Tokyo apartments, the Japanese tongue outpaces even the most caffeinated Marvel comics writer with its onomatopoeic inventiveness. Interestingly enough, Japanese is also one of the few languages so far largely uncolonised by Anglo-American sound-words. In which case, maybe Spiderman will one day meet his match in Godzilla.

And there ends my linguistic sermon, as my erudite and articulate blog kicks the smaller, stupider blogs into the dust. Ker-powww! Thwack!! Dohhh!

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