mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
Here's a brief article by me about difficulties of translating poetry and ways to deal with them: compensation, paraphrase, adaptation, and word play. I use my own haiku as an example, and as you'll see, even with the finest techniques, the translations don't always work.

-- Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
In English, “individualism” means self-reliance and personal independence. Its connotation can lean toward eccentricity. (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.)

But in Spanish, “individualismo” means acting in voluntary isolation, possibly working for oneself against the good of everyone else. Its connotation can lean toward egotism and selfishness. (Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la Lengua Española.)

Still, the words “individualismo” and “individual” are usually considered equivalent in meaning and translated as if they were identical, even though they’re not. (Oxford Spanish-English/English-Spanish Dictionary.)

This means that when an American talks about “rugged individualism,” what a Spaniard hears is something different. I know this because I’ve spent enough time in both countries to observe the misunderstanding.

Who knows what happens in other languages? With other words? I know that the word “multiculturalism” mean different things, even among English-speaking countries. It can mean everything from a multi-flavored melting pot to voluntary or enforced apartheid.

So be careful with words. False friends are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects of the same language that look or sound similar but differ significantly in meaning. False friends can make real enemies needlessly.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Keep Calm)
Last week, the Futility Closet wrote about an untranslatable poem, a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:




Futility Closet does a good job of explaining what the poem means and why it’s supposedly untranslatable. The explanation isn’t long, and I’d rather send you there than repeat it:

As it says, would be hard in Spanish, which is similar to Portuguese, to create a close, literal translation that preserves the tight rhyming scheme, and impossible in English. But translations don’t have to be close and literal. They can be idiomizing and even free. For a difficult translation, rather than word for word, a good technique can be to aim for equivalence, which means the translation would have the same effect on the reader as the original, although it may vary quite a bit from the original.

For example, fairy stories in Spanish end “y fueron felices y comieron perdices,” which literally means “and they were happy and ate partridges.” The equivalent in English is “and they lived happily every after.” The literal translation makes no sense, and the equivalent translation would be the correct translation.

Here’s my equivalent translation of “Succinct Serenade”:




— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
icon_240_Intralingo (2)

When I say I’m a literary translator, what does that mean? How did I get started? What’s the best and worst part of the work, and what have I done?

For the answer to these and other questions, check out my interview today at Intralingo Spotlight, hosted by Lisa Carter:

— Sue Burke
Apr. 2nd, 2014 11:53 am

When 1 = 2

mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
Last fall, I got on an elevator in Texas with my sister to go up to a clinic for her appointment. The elevator buttons offered a choice of “B 1 2 ” so I asked, “Which one?”

She laughed at me, and after a moment I understood why. I was in Texas, but I live in Spain. In the United States (and most of Canada), B 1 2 means “Basement, 1st Floor (Ground Floor), 2nd Floor.” In Spain (and most of Europe) B 1 2 means “Bajo (Lower or Ground or 0 Floor), 1st Floor, 2nd Floor.”

In other words, what is called the 2nd Floor in the United States is the 1st Floor in Spain. I had only one choice going up, and that was 2, because we were already at 1, the ground floor.

This is a detail to bear in mind when translating. For example, in early February, a huge storm hit Spain’s north Atlantic coast, delivering 7-story-high waves – or at least that’s how they were described in Spain. But if I were going to tell someone in the United States about it, I would have to say they were 8 stories high, especially in Texas where everything is bigger. (You can see spectacular photos here.)

There are other details of language and culture to bear in mind, for example:

Billion means 1,000,000,000 or a thousand million in the United States (and some other countries) and 1,000,000,000,000 or a million million in Spain (and some other countries). This often causes problems.

• Some countries, including Spain, use a comma to indicate decimals, so 1,234 might equal 1.234: a quantity a bit smaller than one and one-quarter. Reciprocally, 1.234 in Spain (and some other countries) equals 1,234, or one thousand two hundred thirty-four. There’s a big difference.

• In Spain, morning is the time period that lasts from getting up until the main meal is eaten at about 2 p.m., so it is still “morning” after noon. Also, television prime time (horario central) in Spain starts at 10 p.m.

• The expression fifteen days in Spanish means two weeks, or “fortnight” if you’re British.

• Payment for work, such as minimum wage, is expressed by a monthly rate in Spain (and some other countries), not hourly.

So if you ever compare a translation to the original and numbers look different, they may still be the same. The translator may have had to do a little math. It’s part of the job.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional writing website,
mount_oregano: Let me see (NightFallsOnEurope)
I saw the movie Gravity in “versión original,” which in Spain means in the original language with Spanish subtitles. One subtitle taught an interesting lesson in translation. When Matt asks Ryan where she lives, “Where do you pitch your tent?” the Spanish subtitle read, “Where do you keep your toothbrush?” It was a good idiomatic translation. In Spanish, the word for tent is also the word for store, a usage dating back to medieval times when shopping was done at weekly or annual fairs where itinerant merchants pitched their tents. If that sentence had been translated literally, Matt would have asked her where her store was. So an alternative had to be found, and this sounded just as jocular in Spanish as in the original English.

Translation isn’t always so easy. Here in Spain, if something is very successful, it “leaves by the big gate.” This is a reference to bullfighting, where a matador who has a very successful fight is carried out of the main gate of the bullring on the shoulders of his crew, surrounded by cheering fans. You could translate it as “hits a home run,” but Spaniards don’t play baseball. You could just say “very successful,” but the verve of the expression gets lost in translation.

Similarly, there’s an expression, “They blamed him for everything. He even killed Manolete.” Again, this is a bullfighting reference. Manolete (1917-1947) is generally considered the greatest bullfighter ever. He was killed in the ring by a bull named Islero. To blame someone for Manolete’s death is a way of saying that the person is the culmination of all evil. I can’t think of any translation that would not be another lesson in loss.

I call my LiveJournal blog “Mount Oregano.” That comes from the Spanish saying, “No todo el monte es orégano.” “The mountain isn’t all oregano.” That means that any path up a mountain – that is, any task you undertake – won’t be completely easy and agreeable or even fragrant. Except that monte doesn’t exclusively mean mount or mountain. It can also mean uncultivated land covered with trees, thickets, or scrub. Or it can mean hills, or even the countryside in general – and in some of these senses, the saying makes more sense. Still, I’m sticking with “Mount” because “Scrubland Oregano” sounds like a weak title for a blog to me. “Oregano Hills” sounds okay but seems too far from the original, which can be a genuine concern in translation. This is a judgement call, however, and your opinion is as valid as mine.

One test for a translation is whether it both means the same as the original and has the same effect on the reader: If it had been expressed originally in the target language, how would it have been said? Sometimes this is a test with many right answers, but none of them are perfect.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website:
mount_oregano: Let me see (Keep Calm)
How good are computer-generated translations? They’re getting better, but I decided to throw something complex at them, a sentence from Lope de Aguirre, El Loco del Amazonas [Lope de Aguirre, Madman of the Amazon] by Manuel Lacarta. The book is a biography of a Spanish conquistador. The machines got the common words well enough, but uncommon words, uncommon uses of words, inverted sentence structure, and metaphors were beyond them.


The original:
“Las guerras daban excusa a los peruleros para medros y rápidas ganancias, aunque, también, para perder la cabeza de sobre los hombros o andarse huido en las selvas entre las alimañas si no se acertaba el ganador en esa suerte de como lotería.”

Babylon (
“Wars gave an excuse for the peruleros for limitless ambition and rapid gains, though, also, to lose the head of on the shoulders or prevaricate fled in the jungles between the vermin was difficult if not the winner in that sort of as lottery.”

Google Translate (
“The war gave the Peruvians excuse for Medros and quick profits, but also to lose his head over the shoulders or beating fled in the forests between the vermin if not the winner was right in that sort of like lottery.”

Instituto Cervantes (
“The wars gave excuse to the peruleros for medros and fast gains, although, also, to lose the head of on the shoulders or walk escaped in the jungles between the alimañas if it did not hit the winner in this luck of as lottery.”

My translation:
“For the conquistadors in Peru, these wars provided a pretext for advancement and quick profit, though they might also result in sudden death or flight, wandering through the jungle amid its predators, for failing to guess the winning side in that lottery of fate.”


This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Machine Translation Without the Translation,” explains how Google Translate works and why it makes mistakes.


If you’re looking for a translator, here’s my LinkedIn profile:
mount_oregano: Let me see (Keep Calm)
Foxes are sly. Hornets are mad. They are in English, at least, but in Spanish, animals can have different characteristics:

besugo: red bream. Also an idiot.

lince: lynx. Also someone especially shrewd or sharp-witted.

zorro: male fox. Also a sly or crafty person.

zorra: female fox. Also a whore.

avispado, avispada: wasp-like. Sharp or bright, as in person who has wised up.

pulpo en un garaje: octopus in a garage. To be lost or disoriented about something.

borrico, borrica: donkey. Also a really stupid person, especially a dumb student.

canguro: kangaroo. Also a babysitter.

— Sue Burke

July 2017

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