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The Art of Translation

Recently, one of our subscribers wrote into us, alarmed by the following translation:

Parece mentira

It's unbelievable

Caption 7, Café Tacuba Mediodía

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As the literal meaning of Parece mentira is "It seems like a lie," he didn't understand how the translators at Yabla could have so terribly missed the mark. Long story short, translation is not always literal, and there are many occasions on which the same word, expression, or text could be translated in more than one fashion. There are many factors that come into play at the moment of translating, including idiomatic speech, differences in dialects, the format or genre of the translation, and even the audience for which it is intended.

 

Since much of the art of translation involves making actual choices, rather than simply translating each word literally, the audience for a translation and its intended purpose come into play. For example, someone might hire a translator to translate a legally binding contract into layperson's language if the purpose of the translation is simply for that client to be able to understand what is being said in everyday terms. On the other hand, were that same contract to be presented by a lawyer at a trial in a Spanish-speaking country, the translation would need to match the high register of the original document and contain exact equivalents of its complex legal terminology. This is further complicated by the fact that sometimes the laws of one country are so different from another's that there simply is no equivalent terminology. 

 

On the other hand, literary translation can be quite complicated with genres like poetry or children's stories that employ rhyme. The translator is then faced with the choice between translating the literal meaning of the poem and completely losing this literary element or employing rhyme while inevitably altering the meaning (as little as possible, of course!). Again, either one of these translation styles could be legitimate, depending upon the audience for the translation and/or what the translator considers more important in terms of maintaining the essence of the original literature. 

 

In the case of Yabla, our audience consists of language learners. As our goal is to translate in a way that facilitates language learning, we are basically left with two choices in our aforementioned example: to literally translate the phrase, Parece mentira, as "It seems like a lie," which sounds a bit awkward in English, or to translate the actual meaning of this idiomatic expression, which is indeed utilized to convey the idea that something is "unbelievable," indcredible," or "hard to believe." Over time, Yabla has transitioned from more literal translation to a style that expresses actual meaning and/or the way in which a native speaker would express him or herself whenever possible

 

To illustrate a very simple example, the concept of "black and white" (movies, for example) in Spanish is expressed in reverse order as blanco y negro. While in the past, Yabla may have opted to translate this as “white and black” in order not to confuse learners (perhaps leading them to believe that Yabla's translators need to brush up on their colors!), these days, we would most likely go with the more common manner of expressing this in English. This can be seen in the following clip. 

 

Son los vari blanco y negro,

They are the black and white ruffed lemurs,

Caption 34, Animales en familia Un día en Bioparc: Lémures

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Of course, as this is also a proper name, the translator should always choose the real name by which something is known in the target language (in our case, English) rather than the source language (Spanish), even when the literal translation would be completely different:

 

Bueno, en las costa se pueden, bueno, observar pingüinos, lobos marinos.

Well, at the shore you can see penguins, sea lions [literally "sea wolves"].

Caption 49, Buenos Aires Heladería Cumelen

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Interestingly, the very same animal, the sea lion, is literally referred to as a "sea wolf" in Spanish. However, translating it in this matter would only serve to confuse English speakers, perhaps causing them to wonder whether the speaker could be referring to some alternative species (or maybe a fantastical creature!). Whenever possible, Yabla also employs brackets to indicate the literal translation in such cases. 

 

To further demonstrate the complex nature of translation, let's examine a few additional examples:

 

¿Qué te parece San Sebastián, Matías?

What do you think of San Sebastian [literally, "How does San Sebastian seem to you"], Matias?

Caption 29, Clase Aula Azul El verbo parecer - Part 3

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The literal translation of ¿Qué te parece San Sebastián? is "How does San Sebastian seem to you?" However, although there is nothing grammatically incorrect about that English sentence, the translator must again put him or herself in the shoes of a speaker who, for example, is inquiring about the visitor to a particular city's opinion of it. In this case, "What do you think of San Sebastian?" would be a much more common utterance. Once again, since the intention of this video is to teach Yabla students grammar, you will note that the literal translation has additionally been provided in brackets. 

 

Let's take a look at an example in which two completely different idioms are used to express the same idea in Spanish vs. English:

 

El arreglo, un ojo de la cara.

The repair, an arm and a leg [literally "an eye off my face"].

Caption 19, Confidencial: Asesino al Volante Capítulo 1 - Part 1

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Amusingly, to say something costs "an eye off my face" has the same meaning as the English expression, "to cost an arm and a leg," and the translator should thus choose the equivalent idiomatic expression in the target language. 

 

Let's look at one last example:

 

Sí, gorda, ya lo sé.

Yes, honey, I know that already.

Caption 32, Muñeca Brava 45 El secreto - Part 8

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As gorda literally means "fatty," the translation "honey" might initially seem off. However, terms such as gordo/a ("fatty"), flaco/a ("skinny'), and negro/negra ("blackie") are frequently employed in many Spanish-speaking countries (regardless of whether the person actually has these physical characteristics!) as terms of endearment equivalent to such English words as "dear," "honey," or "sweetie." This additionally demonstrates how a term deemed perfectly acceptable in one country could, in another, be misunderstood at best and offensive at worst. This becomes extremely important when translating, for example, advertisements targeted at specific audiences. 

 

That's all for today. We hope that these examples have shed some light on a few of the countless challenges and choices that translators face regularly, and don't forget to  leave us your comments and suggestions

 

 

 

Translation

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