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Words do not have neat one-to-one mappings between languages. You do not need to be a very advanced language learner to be aware of that phenomenon, so it’s surprising how often this seems to trip up the unwitting translator. Read More
A trip abroad offers ripe pickings for the travelling translator. On our recent trip to Spain my kids developed a real knack for tracking down comedy English text, usually in the form of a dodgy translation from the original Spanish. Amateur translations in hotel rooms are always worth a chuckle: “Don’t let the balcony open. We are not responsibles if there is anything missing”. And the sign on a train indicating the area for “voluminous luggage” (“equipaje voluminoso”) caused peals of laughter. Guaranteed entertainment could be found by using the automatic Google website translation offered by the eldest offspring’s new smartphone, as in the prosaic description of the donut depicted above (confession: we fobbed the kids off with a visit to the yellow arches while we dined out at a fancy fish restaurant round the corner.)
Less forgivable are the prestigious museums and galleries who seem to have paid for translations that were either written by a non-native speaker or at least not proofread in any way. I won’t name and shame the institution, but the very first sign I came across in a major science museum had the classic plural matching fail: “Ants are distinguished by its size”. Nearby, another sign described the larynx as having “vibratory items” and then “vocal chords” (rather than “cords”). There were the usual array of overly literal renditions, such as “The Rosetta spacecraft from the ESA” rather than “ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft” and a description of language acquisition as “The challenge of the newborns” rather than “The challenge for newborns”. The task of tackling the climate emergency was described in Spanish “está en nuestra mano”, with the English “it is in our hand” rather than the plural “hands” or perhaps even better “it is up to us”. Similarly, “pone sobre la mesa una gran responsibilidad” was simply translated as “places a great responsibility on the table”. The meaning is clear, but does anyone in English ever put responsibility on the table?
The trouble with dodgy translation is that it makes you start questioning everything. So the potentially acceptable formation “Mars’ moon”, had me constantly wondering whether “Mars’s” might not have been better. Strictly speaking, either are fine, but the ugliness of forming the possessive using apostrophe and s when the noun itself ends in an “s” means this is an example where rephrasing as “the moons of Mars” may have been a more elegant solution. Indeed, while we are on the subject, why was the reference to just a single moon when Mars has two? Poor translations put your brain on high alert, so the description of a vehicle “setting foot on a planet” had me pondering whether inanimate objects could be said to “set foot” on something at all. Neil Armstrong clearly set foot on the moon, but I don’t think the Apollo spacecraft can be said to have done the same.
The overall winner for this year’s translation blunder award must go to a sporting institution, where the translator had decided to take Spanish “mito” and simply use the English equivalent “myth” rather than the similar, but subtly different “legend”. This wasn’t done just once, but in several passages of text with the pièce de résistance being a passage describing Tiger Woods as the great “myth of golf”.
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