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Friday, October 17, 2014

Part Two: Translation

Italians say “traduttore, traditore” (translator, traitor?) which in my opinion means, and this is where we already start to see how expression gets lost so easily in translation, that some type of betrayal to the meaning of the original message may lie concealed behind any translation, as pieces of language equal in shape and form can’t always be found from one tongue to another. 

Many years ago, when I was still a student, there was a rumor going around the University of Granada that students majoring in translation could expect to have to translate chapter 68 of Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela from Spanish to their language of study. The chapter includes writing in Glíglico, a language invented by Julio Cortázar himself and which can only be described as a language of implied meaning. Trying to read Cortázar’s Gliglico literally is something of an impossible task, but if you allow yourself to give in to the implied meaning that the made-up words evoke, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the text.

All this makes me think that sometimes, and especially when working with intermediate to advanced level students (B2 and above let’s say), we place too much importance on the literal translation of our learning material, which in my opinion is a big mistake, since terms don’t always have exact counterparts in different languages.

It’s often been pointed out that the Inuit have many words for snow, the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest have many adjectives to describe different shades of the color green, and that in the Spanish region of Andalusia, four different levels of heat intensity can be described with the noun “calor”: el calor, la calor, los calores, and las calores.

There are words that are particularly tricky to translate. What Spanish word would you use as an exact translation of the English word “cozy” for example? What about the German word gemütlich? Cómodo, agradable, acogedor, campechano, bueno, amistoso, íntimo, confortable… whoa, all that! This is why translation should always be done by professionals.

We also have some words in Spanish that have been known to drive English speakers crazy; just try to come up with a literal translation of this sentence: Me llené de vergüenza ajena durante la merienda en casa de mi concuñado porque el consuegro de Marta, que estrenaba teléfono, empezó a decir que no podía comer fiambres porque al ser friolero, le molesta la comida que no está caliente

Just thinking about all this, and coming back to Cortázar’s wonderful example that I mentioned before, I have to wonder if the use of this type of invented language, of these jitanjáforas, can sometimes produce words and/or expression which, despite not existing in an ordinary language, can accurately express a specific sentiment in a specific context.

Imagine that, during a party, you’ve had to make the acquaintance of a person whose character is unfortunately quite incompatible with yours, someone whose behavior you find downright unpleasant and who dresses in a way that almost offends you. When talking with a friend about the experience, you could say: "Ayer me presentaron a un tal Marcelo, un tipo insorrible" (INSORRIBLE here would be a nonexistent mix of INSOPORTABLE + HORRIBLE).

Anyway, when it comes to translation, we have to remember that it’s not so much about translating texts word for word (wouldn’t it sound funny if someone said: “I will take my umbrella, for if the flies”?)

We must admire the skill of the determined professionals who successfully translated the earlier mentioned chapter of Cortázar’s Rayuela into English, French, German, etc. We must praise and learn from those who’ve had the courage to translate into Spanish the Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. To translate is to read, to integrate, to understand, to feel, and to restyle what’s been read, integrated, understood, and felt so that others can do the same without losing the fundamental message, even if an entire sentence is needed to express the meaning of one word.  

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