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05/31/07

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?"

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