Thursday, June 7, 2012

Translator Complains about other Translators

I have a little list, with the excuse that it's useful in teaching and translation, of words and phrases that are often poorly translated in US or UK films shown on Spanish television.
It is common to be shaken out of the little world that the action has created for you by an expression that is quite obviously not the one the character would have used at that moment. As a native English speaker I find it fairly easy to work out what the original line was and what the character should have said, but by then any narrative magic has gone.
This is especially striking because there are many good voice actors in Spain (often much better than the faces) and the distributors take pride in recording the dubbed soundtracks very well. Forget any experience you might have seen with dubbed films in English, as it is rarely done and usually very poor. In Spain the Spanish version is often better than the original, especially if the original was from the US. (The inability of American actors to speak properly will doubtless be the subject of another rant at some point.)
But the budget for translation must be tiny, and the work is rushed through; easy, standardized solutions are used, rather than trying to be creative and seek something smooth and natural. The result is that bad lines are put in the mouths of good actors, which is artistically strange, and if artistic considerations are not particularly relevant here, commercial considerations certainly are, and don’t appear to be well served.
On the other hand, these expressions become so common in the experience of people who watch a lot of American TV series, that some of them have become normal in the Spanish language, and are close to becoming standard. Life imitating art, bad art in this case.
So here is a list of the commonest problems, which won’t be of any interest to most people, but it will serve as a reference for me, at least:

‘Oh, yes’- is usually translated as ‘Ohh, sí’, which may seem obvious, but when it is used to confirm something the other speaker has expressed doubt or surprise about, what people actually say is ‘sií, si’, which has completely different phonology and euphony.

‘Ignore’- the verb ‘ignorar’ in Spanish means ‘to not know, to be ignorant of sth’. But the English meaning has become standard as well, despite the protests of many (I don’t like it much, either). And this particular Anglicism can be traced to the television.

‘You’d better (do sth)’- this is a common, natural and unobtrusive way of giving advice, or sometimes stern orders, in English. When translated as ‘será mejor que hagas…’ it is neither natural nor unobtrusive, as it virtually parks a large lorry across the entire dialogue. Exactly how you would translate it depends on the context, but a direct imperative could work, or ‘por qué no..’, or ‘deberías…’. ‘Ser(i)á mejor que hagas…’ would only work as a translation of ‘you’d be better off doing…it’d be better if you did…’

‘Drawing room’- this is a strange one, because you would have thought someone would have noticed that nobody ever draws in the drawing room, but I have often heard it translated as ‘sala de dibujo’, which is literally a room for drawing in. Very lazy.

‘We’ll/let’s meet/meet (me) in your office at 6’- Again this natural and unobtrusive expression is often rendered by the clanking, unnatural phrase ‘nos reuniremos/reúnete conmigo en tu despacho a las 6’. Why? I scream at the screen. Why? Do these translators ever listen to the way real people speak? Do the actors themselves not complain that their jaws rebel against the attempt to articulate this nonsense? Does anybody care? Normal people say ‘nos vemos en tu despacho a las seis/pásate/acércate al despacho…’ and so on. It really isn’t hard.

‘How annoyed were you when the police car ran over your cat?’- Spanish has no structure equivalent to this (extremely annoying) journalistic formulation, for which we should be grateful. The great minds taxed with rendering it into Spanish are, it appears, unequal to the job of cutting out a word or two and treating it as ‘were you annoyed…’ which usually works fine. ‘Hasta qué punto se sentía molesto…?’ can work once, possibly, but only once. ‘Cuán molesto estabas…’ didn’t even work in Mexico in 1960. No real person has ever uttered that line.

Arrest’- the word for what the police do to suspects is ‘detener.’ ‘Arrestar’ has no legal meaning and is not normally used in Spanish, but when it is it just means ‘to stop’. See ‘ignore’.

Report’- the verbs meaning ‘to present information in a formal way to an interested party’ or ‘to tell the authorities about some naughtiness’ are ‘informar’ and ‘denunciar’ respectively. The nouns are ‘informe’ and ‘denuncia’. ‘Reportar’ is more or less a neologism in these senses, but is now entering normal use, because of the television. See ‘ignore’.

Pity she won’t live, but who does?’- elliptical verb clauses of this kind are a serious problem because they don’t exist in Spanish. Basically the auxiliary verb cannot have an emphatic function. There is no general solution to this problem, and no easy one even in specific sentences. To get the right balance of meaning, emphasis and rhythm requires careful thought and often a complete recasting of the sentence. The example sentence (a lifetime subscription to this blog to the first reader who knows where it comes from) was translated, ‘Una pena que no vivirá ¿pero quién vive?’ I think this was probably the right choice here. Other solutions involve the use of particles or changing the order of the statements, or simply stopping after a sí or no, if there is one, and if the sense allows it. It takes work to get this right.

do what’s right’- in Hollywood characters always seem to have the luxury of knowing what is right, and constantly exhort other characters to do it. ‘Ya godda do what’s right, ya know,’ ‘Yeah, I only want to do what’s right,’ with tortured brow muscles indicative of great sincerity. This will inevitably be translated as ‘Sólo quiero hacer lo correcto.’ ‘Hacer lo correcto’ has both a neuter pronoun and a trilled liquid, both of which reek of insinsecrity (look, they just do, OK), and more importantly, that is not what real Spanish speakers, the ones who’ve been doing it all their lives, say in that situation. You may be noticing a theme here. Your ears are regularly assaulted by the sound of people saying things which human beings do not in fact say.

We finish with some paternal advice to fresh-faced translators eager to do justice to their script: if the likely reaction of the character the line is addressed to is, ‘eh, why’d he say that?’, rather than what the director intended, then you need to try again.
And some advice to commissioning editors: sack that fresh-faced crew and hire someone who knows what they’re doing (I’m in the phonebook).

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