All the words that I've been reading
Have now started the act of bleeding into one,
So I walk up on high, and I step to the edge,
To see my world below.
And I laugh at myself, while the tears roll down,
'Cause it's the world I know, it's the world I know.
—“The World I Know,” Collective Soul
What do they say? “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Neither does the subject justice.
Why wouldn’t the earliest arriving Aboriginal Australians have encountered, among other megafauna, “a species of bat bigger than a cow” (“una especie de murciélago mayor que una vaca” —“La plaga humana,” El País, June 8, 2001)? Well, first of all, a bat that big probably would have trouble even getting off the ground to fly. And secondly, the translator into Spanish of that Reuters article skimped a little on research when deciding how to translate “wombat.”
Traditionally, and in most but not all cases, translators are presumed to do better translating into their native language. The pitfalls of any language for a non-native speaker are numerous and treacherous. The wombat example, though, demonstrates an under-appreciated danger even when translating into one’s own native language: not comprehending the meaning of the original language.
There is no way to win.
Well, there is. But it requires exceptional preparation (sorry, education) in both languages, thorough research, and enough self-doubt to do all the necessary research.
I was once chastised by a supervisor for taking an hour to translate one word. In my defense, I did not realize they were electronically tracking everything I typed(!) and, more importantly, it often does require an hour to find the best translation of a term, when one is translating well and properly.
Despite the experience of most foreign-language students, who learn a simplified version of a language, in which the textbook glossary provides one foreign-language equivalent for each English word (and one English word for each foreign one), the truth is not at all so straightforward, nor clear-cut.
There is a story about a Spanish speaker who wanted to invite his English-speaking guest to “come in, come in, and take a seat” (“entre, entre, y tome asiento”). Consulting the dictionary he looked up entre, y, tomar, and asiento. After much practice, when his guest arrived, he proudly exclaimed: “Between, between, and drink a chair!”
He was suffering what I call small-dictionary syndrome. Each word only has as many meanings as will fit in the size of the dictionary. Your school textbook or a Langenscheidt’s Lilliput dictionary offers one, maybe two, equivalents for each word; an “unabridged” dictionary may offer twenty translations for the same words. One can be forgiven for thinking meanings that don’t appear in a smaller dictionary don’t exist. One also can be misled by the meanings that do appear. Entre is between, but is also the polite command form of to enter. Tomar is to drink, but it is also to take.
Even languages with common roots developed mostly independently, used mostly among native speakers and having limited contact with other languages. A word and its other-language equivalent may have many of their meanings in common, but the seven meanings of one (first definition, second definition, etc.) and the twelve meanings of the other may align only in four of the meanings. A competent translator will be aware of where they agree and where, and how, they disagree. A novice assumes that they truly are equivalent.
The trickiest traps, and the bane of lazy language learners everywhere, and even of lazy linguists, are the false friends, the faux amis, the false cognates, those words that do not mean what you think they mean, as inconceivable as that would seem. And it can be difficult to convince someone that crimen is murder (not crime, [except to say organized crime]), intoxicado is food-poisoned (not drunk), embarazada is burdened with child (pregnant) and not burdened with shame (embarrassed), that retomar is to pick up where you left off (not retake), that colegio is school (not college), but however adamantly someone insists otherwise, they are under-informed. Or they live somewhere the languages overlap so often that they have forgotten, or never knew, how these words are used in more strictly Spanish-speaking or English-speaking countries.
Personally, I don’t translate for bilinguals to understand my translations. I translate for monolinguals, educated in a single language, to understand me correctly in that language. Although most bilinguals could use my help more than they realize, most are unaware of it, and would deny it, and that is not where any appreciable market lies.
Machine translators fit my grandfather’s definition of computers: fast idiots. Imagine looking up a word in the dictionary, finding the first translation and just using that, without considering whether the second translation would be a better fit. Fortunately, it is slightly better than that. Now there is apparently some statistical analysis that goes along with, indicating that this word, when next to that one, is more likely to be translated with this translation. Still, it is basically a numbers game: the odds are that this is the right translation to use here.
The computer, though, can’t likely recognize that I was alluding to the movie The Princess Bride earlier (“Inconceivable!” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”), so it likely won’t consult the existing Spanish-language versions of that scene to make sure it is alluded to correctly in the translation. In President Biden’s inauguration speech, a machine translator will not hear “the last full measure of devotion” and recognize it as a phrase from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which should be handled also with care, accordingly.
Even dictionaries cannot possibly catalog the full richness of a language, nor keep up with its recent changes, so what chance do machines have? And computers cannot think, and have no understanding of culture, nor of language. Human translators can and do.
Just at the level of terms, human translators frequently have to go beyond even the best dictionaries. I recently encountered a PowerPoint slide titled “Welcome and Grounding.” By grounding the presenters meant being comfortable, not being embarrassed by one’s circumstances, and having the confidence to chime in with any questions. That is not a meaning grounding has in any dictionary, so the translations offered do not fit. In this case, the meaning seemed best covered by the idea of self-acceptance, so autoaceptación. That is not in the dictionaries, either. But it is used, and widely, with this meaning of being comfortable in oneself.
On the sentence or even paragraph level, the best translations veer considerably from the original word choices and sentence structure. And the worst translations hew so closely to the original sentence that the only way to understand the translation is to know the original language well enough to recognize the translation’s meaning. A mere native speaker of the language of the translation would have no hope of understanding it.
So why is practically ignoring the original wording and sentence structure virtually a requirement of a well-done translation? It is because, although you may have learned that dog is perro and cat is gato, that does not mean that there is a one-to-one, word-to-word, syntax-to-syntax correspondence between two languages. As I once read about some conference interpreters, they would greet each other by saying “The words be damned!”
And it is true. Translation is not about words. It is about meaning. It is about communication. It is about conveying the same meaning, with the same impact, and the same results in a different language, with different cultural references and different rules. Take in the meaning in one language, do away with the original words and structure, and focus on communicating that meaning in a way that is clear and sounds natural in the other language. If you keep the words and structure of the first language when reproducing the idea in the second language, sure, it will ”back translate” well, but it will sound clunky or not be clearly understood. And the point is to be understood, isn’t it?
If you understand that you want to be clearly and well understood, don’t leave it to a fast idiot, someone who “knows Spanish,” or the cheapest translator you can find (which can be what you get even when you pay a lot to a big agency; that money does have to be split). Don’t skimp on being clearly and well understood. You invested this much. The result is important to you. Leave it to a professional human translator and get it done right.
(And, if you need an ATA Certified Translator [certified for translations from Spanish to English and for translations from English to Spanish], you can feel free to contact me: email@example.com Gracias.)