Friday, September 21, 2012

Problems with Miss Translation

Unless you never go to such places and haven't seen it, these days McDonald's has a Spanish translation for each of the chirpy catchphrases on their signage around the counter area.  This would give one a quick chance to brush up on his creaky school Spanish, except that they are mostly different phrases and not translations at all.  That is because idiomatic or colloquial expressions in one language are just about impossible to render in another.  But, bless 'em, people keep trying. 
Now, these McDonald's signs make me cringe a little, because they bring back an old memory, and those are almost always cringeworthy.
Within the great blur that was thousands of days of school, I remember one most clearly:  in Spanish IV (I like to stick with some things), we were assigned to write a mini-book of ten stories, poems and/or essays in Spanish; only two could be translations.  Having to hurry up this end-of-semester surprise (don't big homework projects always come at the same time?), I started the translations first, thinking them to be the easiest, with selections from The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. 
I have to mention that what syntax is, its definition and how essential its mastery is to translation, was never gone into in class.  So endeavoring to translate quirky American humor into correct Spanish (you're being graded on what you don't even know!) in such a fog of ignorance was like trying to repair a car without even knowing what the tools are.  So all ten efforts, when done, looked and sounded just like the English sentences I had in my head being replaced, word for plodding word, with ones sloppily covered in a Spanglish veneer.
Words and phrases from the Bible are often puzzling, because after going through Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Latin and English, they really make no sense.  Take the statement about John living in the desert having only "honey and locusts" to eat.  True, they eat grasshoppers in Africa and Asia, but that is a strange combination, considering how difficult it is to get honey and how plentiful date palms are where he was.  Scholars have finally sorted it out, though:  the "honey" was probably pressed from dates, and the supposed insect portion of the menu was actually flour made from grinding the seeds of locust tree pods (still done today).
Of course, misunderstandings due to spotty education, visual error, ongoing changes in languages, original meanings lost and modern connotations attached should be assumed.  Often, as manuscripts were copied by hand, things were changed intentionally by individuals with an agenda.  Those people nicely referred to as "servants," for example, might more accurately be called indentured or slave laborers.  Incidentally, the Greek word for "servant," DIAKONOJ, has been transliterated as "deacon."  One word in Proverbs (26:10) has been translated ten different ways.  A ball of confusion, as the Temps sang.
He whom we call Jesus was either Yesh'yahu, Yeshua, Joshua, or even Isaiah.  Some say not Isaiah; some say Yeshua was never the Hebrew spelling.  Translating Semitic languages without vowels -- oy vey!
On a less cosmic level:  as General Motors found out to its corporate chagrin, the name of the Chevrolet Nova means "does not go" in Spanish.  The closest sound to "Coca-Cola" in Chinese, the Coke people found, was ko-kou-ko-le, which nicely means "happiness in the mouth."  McDonald's "I'm lovin' it" can only be put into Chinese as "I just like it."  Not quite the same punch.
I recently finally read the Roman Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, in which he regrets that he cannot express new scientific ideas in his limited "native tongue."  And you know how much the French hate to adpot an English term that can't be expressed in their Latin-derived language (but they can say many things we can't; and elegantly, of course).
I'll leave you with this, proclaimed by a newspaper in Chennai, India:  "Our editors are colleged and write like the Kipling and the Dickens." 



1 comment:

  1. Stick with your own verbiage because it may come back in vogue?