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  • Writer's pictureAngela

Good Stories, Beautifully Told

"To be a person is to have a story to tell."

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), author of Out of Africa

Stories are not only embedded in our hearts, they're the mode through which we communicate and relate to the world around us. In fact, story telling may be the oldest art form in human history.

The bible is certainly full of stories and storytellers, including Jesus himself. He knew the power of story in teaching and communicating with audiences of thousands.

Many of the same stories are found across vastly divergent cultures - the Cinderella story, for example - and each culture and language tells their story differently.

That's why narrative discourse analysis is so important to the work of translating stories across languages.

What Makes a Good Story?

Here is a traditional Waja folktales translated into English. You may recognize some marks of literal translation below.

'Story story falls on what? It falls on Lion with that bush. A time that Lion does rules in forest somewhere. As he does rules, this Lion oppresses animals of forest, kills them well-well. When does this in that forest, there was Squirrel lives there also. Squirrel not enjoys this with rule which this Lion is doing. Likewise all animals of the bush all not enjoy. Day turn, when will arrest Squirrel because kill him. Squirrel he comes himself late not quick. Squirrel he tells (cutcut) lies he tells Lion that, "There is animal somewhere he rob me on road later he brings some sweet things which people give kings." He says that, "In this forest who is able to collect my property?" He tells Squirrel that, "We go you show me where he is-there inside." But Squirrel knows there is another water, animals forest they know that well place. He tells Lion that, "Let him come." Lion comes they go one company. They go place water in it. He says that, "Let him come you see." Lion bends head he sees his shadow inside that water. He very well angry because he sees like his fellow who passes him with power. Squirrel says that, "He who collects your property is this." Lion he bends head well-well, Squirrel he tells animals there there together with him that, "You come with pushing water." They join themselves they carry its legs they push Lion inside water. Lion he dies. That kingdom evil is finished in forest there. Animals that bush they have themselves happiness, because that evil rule is finished. The story's end is there.'

Because this story has been translated literally, it's lacking all the story-telling markers we would use in English. It's difficult to follow the events, participants, and know where the exciting part is - and what actually happened? As English speakers, it's hard to say. We might walk away wondering what on earth we've just heard!

But in its original Waja, the hearers would appreciate a good story beautifully told. They'd even be able to tell you the lesson learned and how this story relates to the world around them.

That's because even though this translation is in English, it's still using Waja discourse markers. These markers in the language tell the hearers which parts of the story are main events vs. background information, who or what is the focal point, and what is suspenseful, delightful, or tragic.

You Tell Stories Every Day

When we're speaking our first language, we do this without thinking. For example, if I run up to you and gush, "Guess what just happened!!" I don't literally want you to spend time guessing everything that could have possibly happened to me. You have no idea what happened or what I'm about to tell you. I say it make you as excited as I am, and to elicit your response, "What?!!" Then I know you're listening and eager to hear what I'm so excited to tell you.

In a recent discourse analysis workshop I had the privilege of facilitating, one student summed up what she'd learned this way:

"Now I know what makes our language beautiful. It was always happening and I never saw it!" 

Knowing what makes our languages beautiful is an essential piece of good storytelling, and consequently, of good translating. It takes a lot of time to sit down with a collection of stories in a source language - folktales, personal accounts, histories, even novels - to analyze each piece and determine how to tell stories well in that language. It's a necessary step in training translators to see how their language does this so that they can in turn produce beautiful, memorable translations.

What Happened to the Lion?

I won't leave you hanging. Here's my meaning-based version of the Waja story with some English discourse markers for your story-listening pleasure.

'This story is about a Lion living outside the village, back when he ruled the forest. During his reign, this Lion oppressed the animals of the forest even to the point of killing them! At the same time, there was a Squirrel living there in that forest too. Squirrel did not enjoy the Lion's reign, and neither did any other animals of the forest. One day, when the Lion was looking for Squirrel to arrest and kill him, Squirrel arrived late, not hurrying. He told Lion a clever lie, saying, "I was on my way to bring you some sweet things which people usually give kings, but there was an animal somewhere back there who robbed me on road!" Lion roared, "In this forest, who can steal my rightful property?" He ordered Squirrel, "Let's go! Show me where this animal was hiding!"

But Squirrel knew about a well, and that the other forest animals knew the place he was thinking of and would follow. He told Lion, "Come, sir." Lion followed him and they all went off together. When they arrived at the well full of water, Squirrel said, "Come, sir, you'll see." Lion bent his head to look and saw his reflection in the water. He was enraged to see what looked like his fellow surpassing him in power! Squirrel said, "This is the one who stole your property!" As Lion bent his head lower in the well to get at the reflection, Squirrel gestured to the other animals, "Come and push him in water!" They all joined together and pushed Lion's legs until they pushed him right into the deep water where he drowned.

Thus, Lion's evil reign was ended in that forest. The animals there lived happily ever after because the evil was gone. The end.'

This version of the story gives a little more emotion than the literal one, right? Whereas we may have been confused before, now our reaction to this story is much stronger. You're probably likely to remember this version better too!

The difference is all because of discourse markers - once upon a time, following participants and events, emphasis on different words to give foreshadowing or suspense. These particular markers are unique to English, and what a difference they make!

One of my favorite things about linguistics is how each language communicates differently, but we all have the same human love of a good story beautifully told. I love working with speakers of different languages to discover what makes a story beautiful to them, especially when they are seeing it for the first time too!

And what a privilege to be part of the best and truest story of all, by the author of all of these languages, the God who listens, speaks, and loves each one.

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