Human and machine translation of occasionalisms in literary texts: Johann Nestroy’s Der Talisman and its English translations

Waltraud Kolb, Wolfgang U. Dressler and Elisa Mattiello

Literary occasionalisms, new words coined by writers with a particular poetic aim in view, often pose a great challenge for translators. Given recent advances in machine translation (MT), could literary translators benefit from MT when it comes to the translation of occasionalisms? We address this question by considering the work of Austria’s most important nineteenth-century comedy writer, Johann Nestroy (1801–1862). We compare how human translators and two generic neural MT systems (Google Translate, DeepL) translated occasionalisms (compounds, derivations, and blends) in Nestroy’s play Der Talisman into English. While human translators largely refrained from creating new target expressions, the two MT systems generated a number of viable new coinages, most of them by literal translation procedures. In an interactive human-computer environment, using MT output as a repository from which to retrieve novel target solutions or derive inspiration might open up new avenues in the practice of literary translation.

Publication history
Table of contents

In an interview on being awarded the most prestigious Austrian literary translators’ prize in 2019, the renowned German translator of Russian literature, Alexander Nitzberg, compared languages with treasure vaults (Nitzberg 2020), an intriguing image. We can imagine how authors and translators dig deep into these vaults whenever they create a literary work. One of the many treasures of a language is its ability to allow for the formation of new words. Writers coin new words to introduce new ideas and concepts in many fields of science and technology, but also use them creatively as a stylistic or literary device, as did writers like Lewis Carroll or James Joyce. For translators, such newly created words pose a particular challenge, even more so in the field of literature, where new words are not only used to create meaning, portray characters, or achieve humorous effects, to mention just a few possibilities, but contribute to the very literariness of a text.

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