To a Native English Speaker, this idiom is as old as Methuselah (or the hills, if you prefer.) This has been drummed into our vocabulary right from pre-school. ‘Is an owl really wise?’ is NOT what we are going to discuss here. Piqued your curiosity anyway? You could check this link on that topic.
What we ARE going to talk about is the dilemma #translators, particularly in a few Indic languages, have to face when asked to #translate this idiom. ‘Mr. Z is as wise as an owl. He seems to know everything” might not go down too well with Mr. Z if this was said in Hindi or Kannada. The equivalent word for owl in these and a few other languages is used as a slang to mean ‘a fool’!
Daniel Mendelsohn in a recent post in the New York Times wrote: “Every text is, to some extent, a bafflement to its translator, because every language, like every writer, has characteristics that can’t be “carried across” — which is what “translate” means — into another tongue, another culture. (Think of words like “chutzpah” and “chic.”) Traduttore traditore, the Italians pun: “The translator is a betrayer.” Yet translations must be made.” Yes, despite these challenges translations must and are being made. Translation Studies have brought out a number of techniques of which we can discuss three today:
Adaptation: This is a technique by which a phrase or term having cultural connotations exclusively understood in the Source language is replaced by a phrase that has a corresponding cultural connotation in the Target language. Did you know that Tintin’s dog Snowy is originally named Milou in French? Milou was a contraction of the name of the author’s first girlfriend. Imagine Snowy named as Marie-Louise! Anyway, Snowy named after his snowy white coat is easier to comprehend to the English audience.
Reformulation or Equivalence: In this technique, you completely change the phrase or term to reflect the true context. A classic example is the movie “The Sound of Music”. In Spanish the name of the movie was rendered "La Novicia Rebelde" (The Rebellious Novice). No Sound, no music (albeit only in the name)! But it definitely fit the plot of the movie.
Explicitation: This technique does increase the word count in the target text, but most often this is required for the meaning to be conveyed clearly. In this technique, you would have to introduce an explanation into the Target language text to convey what is said implicitly in the Source text.
These are some techniques that you can use. Drawing from these, you could either eliminate the use of ‘owl’ and replace it with an object that is culturally better suited in the target language, reformulate the phrase completely and add in something that conveys the idea of how wise Mr. Z is or you could leave out a comparison altogether. A #Hindi linguist suggested we keep it plain and simple: “Mr. Z is extremely wise. He seems to know everything”
I would be glad to know how you would tackle this sentence. Write back!