Adventures in translation

Between my own (ahem) vast accumulated knowledge and the marvels of the internet, it's rare that I find myself genuinely stumped by a line in a book I'm translating, but when I came across this particular panel in the Joost Swarte book Is That All There Is? that will (yes, it will!) be coming out later this year, I was mystified:

Joost Swarte panel - Dutch

Jopo de Pojo is trying to slip out of a movie theatre midshow, and while the latter two patrons' comments are are self-evident enough (an irate "hush!" and a complaint about Jopo's trademark quiff, mistaken for a hat), the first one baffled me, as it seemed to say "would you let out the goat?" or perhaps "are you going to let out the goat?"

As it happens, there exists an English language version of this story created by the Dutch publisher, which Joost himself once referred to as a "hippie translation" (meaning somewhat erratic). And yes, the hippie translator in question had rendered the line with strict literalness: "Are you going to walk your goat?" Which was of no help whatsoever.

Now, I did suspect it might be some Dutch expression I didn't know (Dutch is not my strongest language by a long shot), but a Google search yielded nothing but a series of (admittedly very cute) photos of goats.

As I was flailing around, I started wondering if this was an insulting reference to Jopo's trademark foot-tall quiff (earlier in the book someone else had referred to him as "that idiot with the shark-fin on his head")… but fortunately, like Woody Allen pulling out Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, I had access to the unimpeachable prime source and so I cut to the chase and just emailed Joost and asked him.

Turns out "letting out the goat" is Dutch slang for going to take a pee. Aha! (And Duh!)


Joost Swarte panel - English

I always loved that phrase. One big satisfaction of working as a translator is being able to drop in some of your pet expressions.

I went back and checked the French version of this story, and it turns out that translator also literally translated it as "letting out the goat," which I'm pretty sure is not a French expression for urination, or anything else. So I was apparently neither the first nor the second to fall into that particular trap; I was just the first to confess my bafflement to the author. Sometimes confessing one's ignorance is the wisest thing one can do.

…Unless Joost is just fucking with me. (Or, as the English would say, taking the piss out of me.)

PS: Talk about burying the lede: Yes, four years after we announced it, Joost Swarte has finally delivered the files for this book, and all I can say is that given how wonderful this book is and how utterly meticulous his (and his assistants') work on reconstructing the pages (from a rat's nest of originals, negatives, photostats, etc.) has been, that now seems like an entirely reasonable wait. You will not be disappointed.