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English-Spanish translation pitfalls #3

One of the most common pitfalls in English to Spanish translation arises from differences in the use of the passive voice. In English, the passive voice is used very frequently. It is true that many people, including many language professors, discourage its use in English, but the truth is that the passive voice is very well rooted and indeed very useful in the English language. However, this is not the case in Spanish. For more clarity, and instead of giving you an academic definition, I will give three examples of active vs. passive voice:

Active voice: "You need to do this"
Passive voice: "This needs to be done (by you)"

Active voice: "A storm struck our house"
Passive voice: "Our house was stricken by a storm"

Active voice: "You can install this program"
Passive voice: "This program can be installed (by you)"

As mentioned earlier, in Spanish we hardly use the passive voice, and —even though it's grammatically correct— the abuse of the passive voice makes a Spanish text sound rather clumsy and unnatural. A good writing style indeed demands more than just correct grammar.

However, the passive voice may be considered good style in Spanish when the agent of the sentence —the element performing the action— is unknown, as in "I was pushed and felt flat on my face" —pushed by whom? We don't know— or we don't want to specify it, as in "they were fined for speeding" —by the police, but it's too obvious. We could render these sentences into Spanish as "fui empujado y me caí de bruces" and "fueron multados por exceso de velocidad", both using the passive voice, and that would be fine. However, even in these situations, when the agent is omitted because we don't know it or prefer to ignore it, we could do without the passive voice in Spanish. And this is one of the reasons why the passive voice is rare in "original writing" in Spanish, so it should be as rare in texts translated into Spanish. These are some ways to translate those English sentences in the passive voice without using the passive voice in Spanish:

"I was pushed and felt flat on my face" could be translated as:
—"Me empujaron y me caí de bruces"
—"Alguien me empujó y me caí de bruces"
—"Recibí un empujón y me caí de bruces"

"They were fined for speeding" could be translated as:
—"Se los multó por exceso de velocidad" —reflexive passive voice here, this one is indeed more frequently used than regular passive voice in Spanish. Very often it's the best and easiest option to avoid a regular passive voice and sound more natural.
—"Los multaron por exceso de velocidad"
—"Recibieron una multa por exceso de velocidad"

None of these Spanish translation options used the regular passive voice. So even when the agent is unknown/inconvenient to specify and the passive voice would be considered good style, this great variety of translation options highlights the fact that a natural Spanish text would use very few passive voices. It takes some effort and skill to avoid passive voices in Spanish when translating English passive voices, but you get the knack more easily and quickly than you would imagine if you consistently try to ask yourself what I consider the Golden Question for translation: "How would I express this if I was writing in Spanish from scratch rather than translating from English?"



Permalink 11:20:54 pm, Categories: For professional translators, 219 words  

How to Design a Virtual Infant (Computer Language Acquisition)

Here's an interesting development in the field of computer language acquisition. In my opinion, there is still a long way to go in order to teach computers to understand and process language in the way humans do, but it's interesting to see the progress that is being made in this area:

Solving the Riddle of Language Acquisition:

How to Design a Virtual Infant (MLAS)

TETSUO SUGA, Japan Women's University

Note: The paper shown below is an enlarged version of my report at the "JSLS 2001".
A computer program that simulates the infant language faculty is proposed. The program, called Multi-Language Acquisition System (MLAS), may be regarded as capable of attaining the level of acquisition of a 4-5 years old child, whatever the target language is (the performance of MLAS was demonstrated for English and Japanese at the 2001 JSLS meeting). Two novel characteristics distinguish MLAS: (1) it employs multiple "program-generating program" modules; and, (2) it may be able to acquire pragmatic meanings on the basis of story data described by using thematic roles. Following the discussion of these points, several outstanding problems concerning the understanding of human language acquisition are taken up and their tentative solutions within the MLAS framework are discussed.

You will find the rest of the paper at the following URL:

Permalink 02:29:41 pm, Categories: For professional translators, 326 words  

Great news if you're interested in localization...

... And you're based in the European Union. Spread the word!

EU-grant brings down fees to €1,600 for postgraduate global computing and localisation programmes

Limerick, Ireland, 25 May 2007: The University of Limerick has just announced that the Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA) is making significant funding available to its recently launched new postgraduate programmes in Global Computing and Localisation. These grants will benefit students from all EU countries who will realize savings of approximately €3,650 against the standard fees.

The US$9 billion localisation industry has an increased demand for professional localisers with a solid technical and business oriented background. In close cooperation with industrial and academic experts, the University of Limerick who was the first to offer dedicated postgraduate localisation programmes in 1997 is now responding to this demand by offering two new postgraduate programmes in localisation, starting in September 2007.

The Graduate Diploma in Localisation Technology and the Master of Science in Global Computing and Localisation will be offered on a full-time and part-time (one-day-a-week) basis.

Reinhard Schäler, Director of the Localisation Research Centre (LRC) at the University and Course Coordinator for these programmes, said “We are extremely pleased to see that the Irish Higher Education Authority sees localisation as a strategic postgraduate skill and has decided to support it so generously. These grants will make a significant difference to students wishing to pursue our programmes.”

Ireland has been a world centre of localisation since the mid 1980s, with companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, Symantec and Google locating their European Headquarters here. International academic and business leaders have described the University of Limerick as “the Mecca of Localisation”, “teaching the best minds in the internationalisation and localisation business”. UL has been offering postgraduate courses in localisation for the past decade, is the home of the EU-funded Localisation Tools Laboratory and Showcase (LOTS) and is the publisher of the peer-reviewed and indexed Localisation Focus – The International Journal of Localisation. More information on these programmes is available on



Permalink 06:03:29 am, Categories: For professional translators, 36 words  

Interesting presentation for aspiring and new translators

Translation as a vocation is a very nice and useful Flickr presentation about the joys and pains of freelance translating.

Seen at two blogs that I will be following closely: Blogamundo and There's Something About Translation...



Nice discovery

While at Technorati, I discovered the interesting English-language blog "Colloquial Spanish", which offers daily Spanish expressions and their equivalents in English. It is indeed worth a read.

Some examples of expressions mentioned on this blog:

Spanish: “Irse por los cerros de Ubeda” literally means “To go through the Hills of Ubeda”, Ubeda being a town in Spain. The English equivalent is “To go off on a tangent” or “To wander off the subject”

In English we use the phrase “To twiddle one’s thumbs” to signify that we’re lounging about or being in between activities. In Spanish the equivalent phrase would be “Rascarse la barriga” which literally means “To scratch one’s belly”

For the latter one, I left a comment suggesting the alternative and rather funny Spanish expression "Tocarse las narices" (To touch one's noses). So yes, I took the time to leave a few comments during my visit. The author seems to know his Spanish well and his blog is lots of fun. Enjoy!


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