15 September 2014

Lost in (Mis)Translation

I don’t like to use this blog to rant, and I believe I have successfully held to that rule (except for anything I write about Driving in Brazil which, believe me, is a subject impossible not to rant about). However, today I must rant. And it’s not a rant about Brazilian bureaucracy, or how the Patriot Act in the U.S. has begun to criminalize innocent Americans living abroad, or anything of the sort. In fact, it’s a rant that could be ranted anywhere in the world. It’s a rant about how a number of people here — Brazilians, Germans, Argentines, doesn’t matter — have over the years asked Mark and me to help them with translations into English (which we have done gladly, and at no cost) and then argued with us — ARGUED WITH US! — about what we, the native speakers of English, have provided.

The first time this happened was over dinner in our house with some guests. One of them, an extremely competent Brazilian speaker of English, asked us some question or other about a grammatical point that had been bothering him. Forgive me, I’ve racked my brain, but I can’t remember the exact question, only that it was about a rather subtle point. What I do remember clearly is that after I answered, and satisfied the guy who had asked the question, there came an arch, Brazilian-accented voice from the other end of the table : "No, you’re wrong." And this woman, the girlfriend of a friend of ours who was being introduced to us for the first time, went on to explain why I was wrong. And, of course, she was wrong. Well, how it all turned out has fallen into the folds of forgotten memory. To this day all that remains in my mind is how taken aback I was at the pig-headed sureness of this non-native speaker and the sharpness of her attack. Oh, and how she’s never been invited back!

The next occasion was over a translation Mark was asked to do for the Búzios tourism office. The text included the Portuguese-language word outrora, for which a dictionary might suggest "formerly, of old, yore, long ago, in former times, before now" as translations. But Mark, who is a writer, and for whom words are important, found a better translation for the gist of the sentence in the word "yesteryear." Remember growing up watching episodes of the Lone Ranger ("Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear")? Remember sitting in high school French class, reading François Villon’s poem Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis with its most famous line, "mais où sont les neiges d’antan," translated so famously as "where are the snows of yesteryear?" Or maybe you saw the second episode of the first season of the animated version of Star Trek, the one called "Yesteryear"? No? None of the above? Well, neither did the person who received this translation, an English-speaking Brazilian who had never seen the word "yesteryear." And since he had never seen it, it was obviously wrong. So he "corrected" the translation. And that ended any further translating Mark or I would ever do for any government office in Búzios.

     It’s a WORD, dammit!

Years went by, requests were refused, until I relented when a friend asked me to provide the English translation for a book she and a friend were doing on Búzios beaches. I told her I wouldn’t do it unless she could guarantee that no one — absolutely no one — would mess with my translation once it was submitted. She swore that nothing would happen, in fact, with everything so computerized nowadays it couldn’t even happen! Well, in this computerized world, here’s what happened, and you don’t even need the original Portuguese: My translation read, ". . . that sits at the foot of the Santa’Anna Church hill," and somehow the text that was published became ". . . that lays over the feet of Santa’Anna Church." Lays over the feet? Is that even English? Where did it come from? Not to nitpick, but there were other words just dropped from the translation, leaving the sentences completely unintelligible. You can imagine how proud I am when I see my name in print as the translator.

And only a month ago a German acquaintance called, a woman who translates both Portuguese and English into German. Lucky for her it was Mark who answered the phone, because he had a wealth of information for her about the expression she was having trouble with, which was "Strait is the Gate." Mark first explained the expression, then he referred her to Matthew 7:14, "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few that be that find it." He also referred her to the 1909 novel by Andre Gide, La Porte Etroite, for which "Strait is the Gate" is the English translation. And just so that she’d have a richer understanding he talked about the English expression, to be in dire straits. Seems, however, that she was working with an incorrect English text that had printed "straight" instead of "strait." Not her fault. Not Mark’s fault. But she argued with him anyway, even though he was right and the English text was wrong.

I never have, and never would, argue a point of grammar or usage with a native speaker of any language not my own. It’s absurd! I mean, I feel I’m a competent speaker of Portuguese, but there’s so much I don’t know, so many cultural references, historical references, so many regionalisms, so many plays on words that I couldn’t possibly know better than a native Portuguese speaker. All I’ve ever asked for is an understanding that it works the other way, too.

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