Spanish Translation  //  Traductor inglÚs-espa˝ol  //  Traduction franšais-espagnol

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Funny Spanish phrases

Just an example to see why word-for-word translation is not possible, and automatic translation is miles away from generating genuine human language:

"I have a friend that lives in the fifth pine, so we had remained in seeing us yesterday in a park, but I remained with two inches of noses because did not appear. This morning in class I asked him what had passed. Told me that had remained fried and that when awoke already was too late..."

This is of course an automatic translation of a few Spanish phrases carrying funny idioms: "Tengo un amigo que vive en el quinto pino, así que habíamos quedado en vernos ayer en un parque, pero me quedé con dos palmos de narices porque no apareció. Esta mañana en clase le pregunté qué había pasado. Me dijo que se había quedado frito y que cuando se despertó ya era demasiado tarde..."

The idioms explained:
- "Se había quedado frito" literally means "he had remained fried", but the actual meaning is just "he had fallen asleep."
- "Vive en el quinto pino" literally means "he lives in the fifth pine tree." The idiomatic meaning would be "he lives way far away."
- "Me quedé con dos palmos de narices" literally means "I remained with two inches of noses." Difficult to translate into an expression, but it generally means that someone was expecting something and almost taking it for granted, and then was very disappointed and surprised it didn't happen. Therefore, he obviously remained with two inches of noses. ;)



Accurate translations?

When it comes to translation, the term that most people use for defining a good one is "accurate." In most people's minds, an accurate translation is a quality translation.

But is it really?
That's the question, and it inevitably leads us to the next one:

What is an accurate translation anyway?

An accurate translation is one that faithfully conveys the meaning of the original text. A potato is a potato and a tomato is a tomato.

So that's it, that's what I call a quality translation

You can call that a quality translation. You can indeed set the standard there and leave it at that. In fact, in my experience, this is where most translation agencies and translators set their quality standard.

But that is not what I call a quality translation

In fact, I wouldn't even call that a translation at all. In my mind, a translation must absolutely speak to the reader in his or her own language, instead of merely using words existing in his or her own language. And a translation can be accurate and completely bypass this requirement. Think of a company slogan translated from a foreign language along these lines: "We are the experts of computers of the world." It is accurate, it uses legitimate English words, it carries no misspellings and it conveys the message perfectly. But sadly, it also conveys the following unexpected message: "We are an amateur company and we do not care enough for our prospective customers to take the pains of choosing a quality translation provider who will talk to them in their language rather than perfectly defensible, faithful, correctly spelled and accurate gibberish."

I recently read a professional translator's remarks acknowledging that oftentimes he could see that a sentence he had just translated sounded unnatural and clumsy in his native language, but since it did the trick and conveyed the meaning he would just move on to the next sentence. Thinking of a better, more suitable and natural alternative would have taken him a lot of time. This is understandable given the time-sensitive nature of many a translation project, but let us see if there is more to it than meets the eye.

A quality translation is an idiomatic translation

An idiomatic translation is one that is not only accurate, but sounds like an original, as if it was not translated but originally created in the reader's language. This is real translation, translation as it was always meant to be, translation of ideas and intentions, not just words, into correct, natural and polished language.

I do confess that I can spend up to five or ten minutes with a single sentence, trying to find a more natural sounding alternative to translate it into Spanish. But I can also say that this happens to me less and less often. See, I have been systematically striving to find the most suitable Spanish renderings since I first started professionally translating, to the outcome that now my brain is trained to do this and it does it more and more naturally, quickly and effectively.

Now I don't intend to position myself as a perfect translator and do not consider myself as necessarily more talented than others. It is a question of talent, but it is also and mainly a question of dedication. I've decided not to allow any awkward translations in my work, whatever it takes. And as I said, it doesn't demand so much effort from me anymore, since I would say that consistent practice has pushed my brain's performance and speed in this regard. Sometimes I can produce up to 5,000 words of what I consider as idiomatic, ready to publish translated material in a single day. Admittedly, this is the case for subjects that I truly master and demand little to no terminological research from me. But just to prove the point that idiomatic translation, when approached in a stubborn, tenacious and consistent way will not slow you down, but actually quicken and polish your capabilities and increase your productivity in the short to medium term. Hey, I've only been translating full-time since 2003, so I am not really at the end of my translation career.

Tips for an idiomatic Spanish translation

1. Consistently read with a critical eye lots of different materials in Spanish, such as newspapers, technical, business and advertising materials. Literature from the best Spanish language authors doesn't hurt either, let alone specific works on writing style and correctness (do Grijelmo, Lázaro Carreter, Martínez de Sousa or Seco ring a bell?) And no, translation studies and translation experience are not enough if you don't delve deep into what these experts have to say, on your own initiative and motivation.

2. Never give up on a wishy-washy translated sentence. Keep thinking until you find that one expression that you would have used if you were the original writer, not the translator, of that particular sentence. Take pride in what you do. Can a stupid sentence really defeat you as a translator? If you can't absolutely think of anything right now, mark the spot with asterisks or something else, proceed to the next sentence and come back to the trouble spot later. Eventually the happy idea will come, and you will be so glad that you didn't miss the opportunity of stretching your skill as a translator.

3. Once you finish translating, take as long a break as you can (you can do other things in the meantime) and come back to thoroughly review your translation later. Look out for any remaining weak spots and eliminate them. If you need to change the order of a sentence so it sounds natural, by all means do it. Do whatever it takes to guarantee an idiomatic translation. Once the review stage is over, do perform a spell check. No matter how conscientiously you reviewed your work, chances are you overlooked a couple of typos. Don't let any remain in such a polished copy. However, take this with a grain of salt. Remember that you are the language expert, and that Microsoft Word certainly isn't. If you are in doubt, research the issue a little bit (the experts at #1...)

4. That's it! You can now deliver your translation in all peace of mind, and you will be better equipped to face the next one.



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?"



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!



Permalink 09:03:04 am, Categories: For translation buyers, For professional translators, 421 words  

Translation is a disaster looking for a place to happen!

Is it? It can indeed be, when you don't take appropriate measures to assure a professional and high-quality translation. Can't you believe it? Take a look at this piece of news from

Doris Moore was shocked when her new couch was delivered to her Toronto home with a label that used a racial slur to describe the dark brown shade of the upholstery.

The situation was even more alarming for Moore because it was her 7-year-old daughter who pointed out "nigger brown" on the tag.

"My daughter saw the label and she knew the color brown, but didn't know what the other word meant. She asked, 'Mommy, what color is that?' I was stunned. I didn't know what to say. I never thought that's how she'd learn of that word," Moore said.

The mother complained to the furniture store, which blamed the supplier, who pointed to a computer problem as the source of the derogatory label

Kingsoft Corp., a Chinese software company, acknowledged its translation program was at fault and said it was a regrettable error.

"I know this is a very bad word," Huang Luoyi, a product manager for the Beijing-based company's translation software, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

He explained that when the Chinese characters for "dark brown" are typed into an older version of its Chinese-English translation software, the offensive description comes up.

"We got the definition from a Chinese-English dictionary. We've been using the dictionary for 10 years. Maybe the dictionary was updated, but we probably didn't follow suit," he said.

Moore, who is black, said Kingsoft's acknowledgment of a mistake does not make her feel better.

"They should know what they are typing, even if it is a software error," she said. "In order for something to come into the country, don't they read it first? Doesn't the manufacturer? The supplier?"


Moore is consulting with a lawyer and wants compensation. Last week, she filed a report with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Commission spokeswoman Afroze Edwards said the case is in the initial stages and could take six months to two years to resolve.

Moore, 30, has three young children, and said the issue has taken a toll on her family.

"Something more has to be done. We don't just need a personal apology, but someone needs to own up to where these labels were made, and someone needs to apologize to all people of color," Moore said. "I had friends over from St. Lucia yesterday and they wouldn't sit on the couch."


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