Thursday, February 23, 2012

Translation Time


I studied Spanish in high school. I remember just enough of it to order lunch from the tolerant wait staff at a local Mexican restaurant. Should I ever find myself lost in Guadalajara, I could  ask a helpful native for directions to the library. I would not, however, be able to understand the answer.

Back in those high school classes, we used to recite little practice dialogues, like this one related to time.

¿Qué hora es?
Son las ocho menos cuarto.

A very literal translation of that dialogue would be:

What hour is [it]?
They are the eight minus [a] quarter.

While the Spanish is perfectly acceptable, the English is not so great. This is because Spanish has different idioms for time-telling than English. Put on your translator’s hat and think for a moment about how you would render that dialogue into good English.

While I think that the question “¿Qué hora es?” would almost universally be translated as “What time is it?” several options present themselves for the reply “Son las ocho menos cuarto.”

It is seven forty-five.
It’s a quarter of eight.
It’s quarter to eight.
Or, where I grew up:
Quarter ‘til.

In each case, the basic meaning of the reply is unchanged. How is a translator to choose among these possibilities?  Context might be a guide. Formal writing has different requirements than informal speech. If the dialogue is spoken, who is the speaker? Would a BBC broadcaster reply in the same way as a Jersey Shore cast member?

One reason that we have so many English versions of the Bible is that there are so many ways a given word or phrase can be translated. Here, for comparison, is 2 Corinthians 5:16 in four translations. Each has something to commend it:

New King James Version
Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.

New International Version
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.

New Revised Standard Version
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

Common English Bible
So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now.

Does one of these translations speak to you more clearly than the others? Is there another translation that you like better? If so, why?

I am going to try to blog more regularly during Lent. We’ll see how that goes. I’m still trying to give away a copy of the Common English Bible through this post. Doesn’t anyone want to play?

The illustration is Salvador Dali's 1954 painting Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion. I chose it because Dali is Spanish and it's about time and...well...I just think it's cool, that's all.


  1. Did you know Salvador Dali worked at Disney for a short time... yes! It's true! Talk about surrealism! But I guess they didn't like his melting Mickey!

    I am appreciating your highlighting the difficult job a translator faces... then factor in it is usually done by a COMMITTEE... well, it's a wonder it gets done at all!

    For me, the fun of writing is trying to find the perfect words to convey whatever it is I am writing about, whether it is an event, or experience, or idea. You come to realize that the possibilities are endless.... change a word.... change the phrasing... change the punctuation (add all kinds of ellipses and exclamation points - that's my solution!) - and every change makes for a slightly different meaning.

    And NONE can perfectly capture the original idea or reality!

    But the impossible goal is to bring the reader as close to "being there" as possible - as if they were experiencing that idea or reality themselves.

    So you have THAT layer of fuzziness... and then you add the further layer of translation!

    Definitely tricky business!

  2. Hi StoryGuy:

    I did a "limited amount of web-based research" and learned that Salvador Dali and Walt Disney collaborated on a cartoon in 1945-6, but it was not produced until 2003. The finished product, Destino, can be seen on YouTube:

    It's not my favorite work of either Dali or Disney, but it's not the worst 7 minutes I've spent either.

    I'll be posting more on the subject of translation soon.


  3. I think I like "101 Dalmations" way better!

    ... and I am thinking the description of the video had to have been run through a translator too!

    For me, the classic Disney features are amazingly well drawn - the newer ones, not so much. The old animators had a wonderful sense of volume and weight that the newer ones just don't seem to have. In the newer movies, characters bend and stretch as if there is nothing INSIDE them.

    Though I do like "The Emperor's New Groove." I now can speak a fluent squirrel!

  4. I agree. In Destino, the best parts are clearly Dali. The worst parts are latter-day Disney.

    Give me Steamboat Willie any day. Great animation, plenty of surrealism and SOUND!

  5. Yeah... a mouse piloting a steamboat is pretty surreal!