Translation Questions

I received an email from a reader, Olga from Poland, today. Olga and I were emailing a lot a few months ago when she first read my books.

She actually won a signed copy for spotting a typo and sent me this photo to let me know that Probability Angels had found a good home.

Probability Angels goes to Poland

During the course of those emails she asked if it would be okay if she were to translate Probability Angels into Polish for practice; translating books is what Olga wants to do for a living.

My response was to jump up and down with excitement like a cartoon because that’s freaking COOL and then reply to her email with a kind, “Yes. And please send me any questions you come across.”

So today she sent me a couple of questions. I found them interesting and I thought I would share.

First question:

“You know, it’s been twenty-two years”, Matthew said, “you think it might be time for you to give me a little credit?” – it sounds silly, but did you mean credit literally – as if he wanted Epp to give him some currency, or credit as trust? I would go for the trust one, but I’m a little confused by Epp’s answer (“The smile disappeared from Epp’s face. “Not a chance”). Sounds kinda harsh if it’s about trust…

I can’t imagine how much trouble synonyms and homonyms and puns and all of that must cause for translators. I guess the larger phrase would be idioms? Words and phrases that have taken on whole new meanings from their original intent are extremely common and they are often used with zero thought given to the phrase’s original meaning. So when someone who is unfamiliar with the phrase hears it…it must just sound bonkers.

This is not an extreme example, Olga understands the nuances of the word credit, but it still got me thinking about idiomatic language.

I constantly try to purge my writing of idioms. They are lazy and they are easily misunderstood and whenever I find one I erase it and say what it means in original and plain language. But it’s difficult. Like I said, many idioms are so fixed in our heads that they don’t even register as idioms anymore.

The one exception here is dialogue. There are no rules for what comes out of a character’s mouth. None. That has always been my philosophy because in the real world there are no rules for what comes out of peoples’ mouths. Spoken communication is a baffling, mysterious, fluid, and amazing thing. I try to respect that.

Anyway, in this case Matthew is not using the word “credit” literally. He just wants some recognition for his 22 years of work. Epp, who knows that Matthew has not even begun working yet (he is still a newbie and not a tester) and who has been working for over 2,000 years, does not opt to give Matthew a whole lot of respect.

Second question:

2. “Epp shrugged, cool eyes never leaving Matthew. “They keep me in Zegna.” Epp extended a hand with the clipboard in it”. I have no idea what’s this Zegna. Couldn’t find it on the net either. Some help, please? 🙂

I’m actually amazed how many people don’t ask about this. I think maybe that Epp is so mysterious at this point that readers gloss right over this, expecting him to talk about things they don’t quite get. Maybe?

That’s all good, too, because I didn’t really mean for most readers to understand this.

These sorts of things, slipping in little bits of dialogue that aren’t meant to be grasped instantly, are one of the ways I entertain myself while writing. I’ve usually read and written and reread and rewritten a book so many times while working on it that I will literally start adding inside jokes with myself.

And with Probability Angels? Well, the incredibly quick pace at which that book was written resulted in some passages that appear astoundingly stark to me when I look them over today. At times I would barely scatter enough clues into a line of dialogue to let the reader know what was being discussed, let alone understand it, and then move on with zero explanation or rehashing of the topic.

I can remember when Matthew first asks Epp about being a slave and Epp responds, “My slave name, which I kept, is Epictetus, not Chicken George.”

And that was all I said!

Chicken George (to the best of my memory) is the name given to Kubla Kinte from the book, Roots, when he is first kidnapped from Africa and enslaved by Americans.

My point in this line of dialogue from Epp was to explain to Matthew that he was not an American slave, but a slave from ancient Rome.

This is gone into more later on in the book, but it is not really touched on much again during that initial conversation.

Even the notion that slaves were often renamed by their owners was never explained.


So, Zegna. Zegna is Epp referrering to Ermenegildo Zegna, an upscale men’s designer. When I was first creating Epp I wanted him dressed in an absolutely stunning suit. I asked around about who made the best suits in the world and was told about Zegna, and then once I looked at some of his stuff online I knew I had found Epp’s wardrobe.

If you want a sense of the man’s work, go here. Unfortunately it is hard to find photos of his stuff in the real world instead of on the runway. I can assure you, though, that Epp had zero trouble wearing Zegna’s clothes into Central Park and making them look good.

In that sentence Epp is telling Matthew that the work he puts in is enough to earn him very nice clothes. The connection between a tester’s work, their energy, how they can manipulate that energy, and their wardrobe, is gone into in much more detail later on in the books. Frankly, with Epp’s mastery of this world and the work he has put in as a tester, producing a nice suit is probably a trifling for him. But in this scene Epp is treating Matthew as the newbie he is and opts to gloss over the finer points of Matthew’s question and put it into material terms that Matthew will understand.

That was fun. And to think, I hated translating things in high-school…