12 April 2012

Spotting the translation

In the case of English and American authors I avoid reading their works translated into Spanish, in the same way I avoid watching dubbed films. Call me a snob if you will*, but as a translator I understand the limitations of the task at hand. Besides, reading in English for me is a ‘must’: a language, like any other skill, is easily lost if not practiced regularly.

There are exceptions of course. I’m looking forward to reading Julio Cortázar’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe, which was given to me a while back but haven’t got round to reading yet. I guess I can trust a great writer to transfer the setting, the darkness surrounding Poe’s words, choosing the right words and expressions for every nuance in the original.

Anyway, I’ve occasionally read translated novels which have been given to me as a gift. One of them was “The Informers” by Bret Easton Ellis. The translation in general was fine. Not great, but at least it captured Ellis’s dynamic style of writing and so was easy to read. However, I suddenly read something that made me want to burn the book. I’d ‘spotted the translation’, or rather a mistranslation (if such a word exists).

 I don’t remember the details right now, the exact expression; it would have been something like suddenly reading “eligió pavo frío” and being certain that the original text would have read “he went cold turkey”, with regard to a drug habit rather than with choosing a cold turkey sandwich for lunch…a bit like reading “calluses” in a menu and knowing that they meant “tripe” (I’ve seen it!). This hasn’t been the only case, but is one I remember vividly.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens? I know I have my own limitations as a translator, but things like that really bother me. I find it disrespectful of the author and of any possible readers. If you’re not sure about something, if something just doesn’t seem to scan, please ask other translators or a native speaker of the language, the author even!!!

For my first ever translation job as a freelancer, before I had Internet at home, I visited the first cable DSL Internet café in Madrid. I was trying to locate priests and linguists online, hoping they could help me with a few words and expressions I couldn’t find anywhere else. There was an expression in that book which I’m still unsure of to this day. No one was able to give me a meaning for certain, though a good friend of mine gave me what seemed like a plausible answer. Given that those words didn’t seem to constitute a linguistic expression for something else, I opted for a literal translation, leaving it as ambiguous as the original. If my mind serves me right, those words were “black oak shop”.

Can you tell me of other instances of "spot the translation" you've come across?

*I wonder if the use of “will” in this expression has anything to do with the fact that ‘want’ in Dutch is “willen”?


  1. I love the cold turkey anecdote.

    Regarding "Call me a snob if you will", I always thought this expression came from "Call me a snob if you will call me a snob." or "call me a snob if you will do it anyway".

    Language, it's a joy, innit?

  2. I have similar problems with the subtitles on the films... There is another challenge to translate, I guess, (I'm not a professional translator) and it is the local or regional popular knowledge. In French, for example, most of the films are very, very local, I mean that there are a lot of local references (word games with local realities, which is highly usual in France). See the last film we saw "Intouchables", I was really eager to know what spanish translator had said from a lot of expressions that just have a sense in Paris ... How do you translate in those cases?
    I like the blog, congrats!

  3. Welcome Pilar and Sra. Mamá! Thank you for your comments.

    Pilar, the cold turkey anecdote is completely made up, although considering we're talking of a Bret Easton Ellis book I wouldn't be surprised if it was something of the kind. And thanks for pointing out the "call me a snob if you will call me a snob", it makes sense. Since I started learning Dutch I keep trying to find similarities in vocabulary and grammar! :-)

    Sra. Mamá, there is so much that can't be translated in words, not only local expressions. However, local expressions are indeed tricky and require thorough knowledge of both cultures to transfer them from one language to another. Sadly, my knowledge of French is close to non-existent so although I've seen "Intouchables", I don't know what the subtitling was like to this regard.

    With regard to things that can't be translated I remember an anecdote from when I was watching an Almodóvar film during my time in the UK...but I guess I'll leave it for another post, sometime soon! :-)

    Again, welcome and thanks for opening the debate!

  4. Talking of films, remember the names jokes in Shirley Valentine? That def lost a lot in translation... I won't explain it here or you might start to get the wrong kind of traffic!