Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lost in Translation

Why Translation Matters is a new book by Edith Grossman, a noted translator of Spanish literature, most famous for Cervantes’ Don Quixote in 2003.  One of her theses is that fidelity to the original work demands that the translator avoid word-for-word literal translation and, in effect, create an entirely new piece of literature.

The pitfalls of literal translation can be easily seen by anyone who relies upon on-line translation services.  As an experiment filled with merriment, I used three different on-line services to translate a passage from English to Spanish; then using the word-for-word Spanish translation I asked the same service to translate it back to English.  The results differ markedly.

The original is an excerpt from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies: 

To be, or not to be, that is the question.  Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. 
Alta Vista’s Babelfish, finishing in a distant third place, renders it thus:  

To be or not to be, that one is the question.  If he is noble in the mind to undergo the slings and you shoot with an arrow of the indignant fortune or to take the arms against a sea from hardships and being been against, terminate them.

ImTranslator gives us:  

To be or not to be, it is the question. If 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and the arrows of the scandalous fortune, or to take weapon against a sea of problems, and contravening, finish them.
Only Google came up with an English-Spanish-English version that was pretty close to the original:  

To be or not be, that is the question.  If nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.
I take the experiment further in my book Words Gone Wild, which, Deo favente, will soon be an intruder in the dust of every bookshelf in America.  “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” as you will learn if you read the book, comes through the permutations of several languages as: 

          Mary had the small lamb, 
          Its quilts was beautiful like snow, 
          And this Mary went, 
         The ewe-lamb everywhere was exactly suits him.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who regards the crass promotion represented by the previous paragraph as unspeakable gaucherie, prefers this version of “Mary”:

            Mary had a little lamb,
            Potatoes, and mint jelly,
            Pickles, slaw, and deviled ham
            She brought home from the deli.
            A tummy-ache made Mary weep.
            She cried, “How sick I am!”
            Then, like Bo-Peep, who lost her sheep,
            Mary lost her lamb.


  1. I love your little lamb poem. It is even better that Albert the Alligator's "Deck the halls with Boston Charlie."

  2. Walla walla wash, and Kallamazoo!! Hark -- a kindred spirit! (I didn't know another "Pogo" reader existed in this world ...)

    ... but I was also going to point out the website "Engrish Funny," which doesn't so much translate English itself as it makes fun of those who do. Some of the renditions are hysterical.