Spanish Translation Errors 2. Literature
Copyright © 1978 Brian Steel
Preliminary Note (2005):
This is an amended and expanded version of an article originally published in Vida Hispánica, [U.K.], Winter 1976, pp. 9-16: 'Errors in the Translation of Spanish Literary Texts'.
Although the translation points illustrated are still valid for study by English-speaking students of Spanish, it should be recognized that in the last 25 years the standard of bilingual English-Spanish, Spanish-English dictionaries as well as the quality of literary translation from Spanish have improved immensely. It is therefore possible to speculate that the translators quoted in this article would not have committed their “errores garrafales” if they had been able to consult the latest edition of the HarperCollins Spanish Dictionary or the equally splendid Oxford Spanish Dictionary, with their cornucopia of wide and accurate guidance for the student of the 21st century.
On reading an interesting collection of errors found in published English translations of Spanish poetry (see D. D. Walsh. 'Poets Betrayed by Poets', Hispania, 57, 1974, pp.140-144), I made a mental note to divulge at some time in the future my own small but growing collection of errors found in a number of translations of Spanish literary works. After reading the subsequent riposte by R. H. Goodyear ('Are Translators Necessarily Betrayers?', Hispania, 57, 1974, 908-909), however, I felt a more compelling need to act, since, in his brief article, Goodyear charged Walsh (and by implication other 'collectors' of errors) with being irresponsible in ignoring contexts and (to paraphrase Goodyear a little) conferred on Walsh the doubtful honour of membership of the academic nit-picking brigade.
While most of Goodyear's brief observations on the principles and special nature of translation - and even on nit-picking - were reasonable enough (1), his accusations had little relevance to Walsh's lists (which Goodyear seems not to have read very carefully), since the bulk of the examples of mistranslation offered by Walsh are quite clearly monumental errors, regardless of context, which must have been precisely what drew Walsh's attention to them and why, presumably, he bothered to offer them to readers of Hispania. In what context, one wonders, would Goodyear expect to find the following to be correct?
crear meaning 'believe';
Y estoy alegre, alegre, de que no sea cierto meaning 'And I am happy, happy, at something that cannot be named',
or Fui solo
The only really valid criticism of Walsh's findings that emerges from Goodyear's article is that he failed to provide references for the errors. This is indeed a pity since more complete information would enable us all to verify the error or to check any criticisms which prima facie look at all doubtful or 'not proven' (e.g. those listed under Walsh's rubric 'Fancying up and Weakening the Translation'). On the other hand, it should be added in Walsh's defence that his presentation of the errors under headings such as 'vocabulary', 'idiomatic phrases' and 'structure' is much more useful from a language teaching or learning point of view than a book by book treatment, such as the one I propose to use later in this article.
In fact, Hispanists and others interested in literature are enormously in debt to those who undertake the heavy task of translating Spanish works into English. My own impression, obtained from observation of a number of translations of Spanish and Latin American fiction, is that we have been well served by the quality of translators and their finished work. However, once due allowances have been made for the need to render a Spanish text adequately into convincing English, it is surely wrong to suggest or imply, as Goodyear seems to, that translators, as opposed to other writers, should not be accountable to readers and reviewers for gross errors.
To be sure, there may be many other bones of contention to pick at (e.g. style, choice of synonyms), but this is not my present concern - nor do I believe that it was Walsh's. One imagines that translators, like the rest of us, should welcome any chance to rid their work of demonstrable mistakes (assuming, that is, that a second edition is forthcoming), or, simply, to increase their knowledge of Spanish. Any suspicion, or even the certain knowledge, that those who point out such errors are incapable of undertaking a full translation is beside the point. In any case, translation errors usually occur in extremely small numbers in a given work and are far outweighed by the general success in rendering the bulk of the text. Thus Walsh's article, if properly documented, would be basically as valid as the work of any reviewer worth his salt who points out, among other things favourable and unfavourable, basic errors detected in the work under review.
This Transatlantic controversy is, perhaps, trivial, but it emphasizes the need for more discussion of translation problems and pitfalls. I therefore offer, as a small contribution to the topic, and as a useful exercise for students of translation from Spanish, a short list of translation errors spotted in literary translations of that period, plus a few more from my files.
The greatest number found in any one translation was in that of Galdos's Fortunata y Jacinta (Fortunata and Jacinta, trans. Lester Clark, Penguin Books, 1973). On the whole, this translation should probably be considered a sound one, in spite of some examples of stilted English and over-literal translation (both debatable, of course), because the length of the text - the translation runs to some 1,069 pages - and the nature and variety of the styles involved make any attempt to translate the novel into English a formidable task and Clark seems to have done a very reasonable job of offering this important nineteenth century Spanish novel to English readers. My immediate reason for examining specific parts of the two texts was to compare the dialogue passages in order to glean material for a Manual of colloquial Spanish on which I was engaged at the time. For this reason almost all of the errors listed below are all of a colloquial nature. My worry, then as now, was that on many advanced and graduate courses of Spanish insufficient attention is given to the continued systematic improvement of comprehension ability (and other language skills). After all, if a translator who is sufficiently 'at home' with Spanish to deal with a text like Fortunata y Jacinta still lacks essential knowledge of some colloquialisms, most of which are still in use in Spain today, or, possibly, if he cannot trace them in his dictionary, how can we expect the advanced or graduate student to understand works like, say, Delibes's Cinco horas con Mario or Vargas Llosa's Conversación en la Catedral and later even more complex novels unless he is given specially structured language courses alongside his literature courses? Although I regard this as a vital issue there is no room for further discussion of it here. (See my Textbook of Colloquial Spanish and Translation from Spanish: An Introductory Course, both published in
Returning to the errors observed in the translation of Galdos's novel (some three dozen in all, a selection of which is given below), we find that, at times, basic ritual clichés and responses are incorrectly rendered. (In the examples which follow, I offer the original version, the error, and finally, in brackets, my suggested corrections, which, although not necessarily the only versions possible, render more closely the Spanish word, idiom, construction, etc. Both the misunderstood section and the erroneous translation have been italicized). (2)
(p.59):(3) -¿Te enfadas? - ¡Qué me voy a enfadar, hombre!
(p.105): 'So perhaps I shall get cross!' ('Of course not!')
(p.555): -¡Si están medio podridas! -¡Qué han de estar!
(p. 785): 'They're half rotten! They'd better be!' ('Rubbish!')
(p.100): -¿Quiere usted dos vigas de hierro . . . ?
-¡Pues no las he de querer! Yo lo tomo todo ...
(p. 162): 'I don't have to want them! I take anything . . .'
('You bet! / Of course I do!')
(p.143): -...y me dijo mesmamente aquel día: "Amigo Platón, vengan esos cinco.
(p. 222): 'Platón, my friend, they can come at us [ = attack] five to one.'
('Platón, my friend, put it there. / let me shake your hand.')
(p. 144): -Dicen que les van a traer a Alifonso. ... Por mí que lo traigan.
(p. 223): '... Damn me if they will! ('Let them! Who cares?')
(p.148): Hombre de Dios ... tú has comido, ¿verdad? ... Buena la hemos hecho.
(p. 229): 'Oh, God in Heaven ... You've eaten, haven't you? Eaten well too
('My poor/dear man! You've already had your supper, haven't you? That's torn it!')
(p. 193): -. . . Y aquí paz y después gloria.
(p. 29l): 'First peace and then glory.' ('And there's an end to it. / And that's that!')
(p. 202): -¡Dichosos los ojos!
(p. 304): 'You're looking very chirpy.' ('It's nice to see you.')
(p. 205): -Y a poco pasa un portero, y me dice con la mayor tranquilidad
(p. 308): . . . 'Really? You're seeing things. There are no more troops than a dead child.' I moved on again.
('What do you mean, troops /soldiers? There aren't any soldiers, man.' I pretended not to know anything about it.)
(p. 362): -
(p. 523): 'As you keep saying ...'
('If you just say that once more ...')
(p.412): -¿A que no? ... Eso nunca. ... ¡Ni que fuéramos bobos en España!
(p. 589): 'That would be the end ... We weren't fools, we Spaniards.'
('We Spaniards aren't stupid!')
Other fairly common colloquial items are also mistranslated:
(p.55): J. se reía ... de ver los pájaros posados en fila en los alambres telegráficos.
-Míralos, míralos allí. ¡Valientes pícaros! Se burlan
(p. 116): '... Brave little rascals!' ('The little devils!')
(p. 60): -Sigue, o te pego otra. -No me de la gana ... Si lo que yo quiero es borrar un pasado que considero infamante ; si no quiero ni memoria de él . . .
(p. 107): 'I don't feel like it now, if what I want is to blot out a past I consider disgraceful; if ...' ('All I want is to blot out ... ; I don't even want to remember it.') (3)
(p. 64): Segunda empezó por presentarse todos los días en la tienda y armar un escándalo a su hermano y a su cuñada. "Que si tú eres esto, si eres lo otro . . ."
(p. 111): 'If you were this, if you were that, you wouldn't ...'
( ... calling her all sorts of names.)
(p. 120): -Y me quedaré tan fresco,
(p. 190): 'And I shall be as cool and calm as if such a thing . . .' ('But it won't worry me in the least. / But I shan't even turn a hair.')
(p. 170): Me ha costado Dios y ayuda hacer entrar en razón al señor Izquierdo.
(p. 259): 'It has cost me God and more help besides ...'
('It was terribly difficult for me to ...')
(p. 199): -Estás
-¿Y qué remedio hay? Porque lo que es al Hospicio no va. Eso que no lo piensen.
(p. 299): 'What else can I do? Because what goes on at the orphanage certainly won't do. They just don't think.' ('He's certainly not going to the orphanage. Oh no, they can drop that idea!')
(p. 367): -Las mías han sido tan tremendas que ... no podía menos que compararme a San Pedro Mártir con el hacha clavada en la cabeza. Pero de algún tiempo a esta parte se me alivian con jamón.
(p. 530): 'But a short while after this I can ease the attacks with ham.'
('But recently, eating ham seems to ease them.')
(p. 408): -¡Ciudado que lo vengo demostrando
(p. 583): 'Beware or I might come along and demonstrate that three and two are five! But nothing happens - they don't want to understand.' ('Haven't I been trying to make it perfectly clear to them? But it's no good, they just won't understand.')
(p. 435):. . . es preciso ir al fondo, hija, al fondo de las cosas. ¿Conque te vas enterando? A lo mejor se lleva uno cada chasco . . .
(p. 621): 'It's the way you learn to bear disappointments better!'
('Perhaps one gets a few disappointments this way, but ...')
(p. 453): -
(p. 643): 'As you haven't thrown me out, you'll have me here again this afternoon.' ('Unless you throw me out, I'll be back again this afternoon.')
(pp. 600-601): - Hijo, ¿pues qué mal puede hacerte? -Mucho, tía, mucho; porque todos los de esa infame secta no me pueden ver ni pintado . . .
(p. 846): 'A great deal, Aunt, a great deal, because not one of his infamous sect can even imagine what I am . . .' (' . . . no one in that dreadful sect can stand the sight of me.')
Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, the translator of Arturo Barea's La forja de un rebelde, is another strong candidate for a translator's wooden spoon, at least where colloquial Spanish is concerned. For him, Pero si ... always means 'But if' and Es que ... means 'It's that ...' (Fortunately there also exists a translation of La forja by Barea's wife, Ilsa - but back to Sir Peter and the subject under discussion.) On p. 14 of his Introduction, Chalmers Mitchell writes the following understatement:
"In this book there were three minor technical difficulties - Spanish exclamations, oaths and coinage. I have tried to give the English words that would be used in similar circumstances." Unfortunately, the following selected evidence reveals quite clearly that the problems were not at all minor.
A. Barea, La forja de un rebelde, 4a. ed.,
A lo mejor, con las ganas de mujer que él tendrá, lo consigue. (p. 226)
He agrees, all the more readily because of his need of a woman. (p. 321)
(Seeing he wants a woman so badly, he may make it.)
(On other pages the translation, a lo mejor is variously - but incorrectly - translated as Anyhow, After all, and The worst.)
-Menos mal que estará conmigo unos días y yo le espabilaré. (p. 37)
'If only I could have him for a few days, I'd trim him up.' (p. 56)
('It's a good job he's staying with me for few days. I'll smarten him up.')
Employer to employee emerging from the lavatory:
-Señor Pla, ... hace doce minutos justos de este reloj que estoy sentado esperándole. Y vaya usted a saber cuánto tiempo hacía que faltaba usted de su puesto. (p. 166)
'Señor Pla ... Just realise how much time you have been absent from your duty.' (p. 237)
('And who knows how much more time you've been absent from your desk.')
-¡Lo que tienen ustedes los señoritingos es hambre! ¡Pues no faltaba más! ¡Hala! ¡A la calle! (p. 142)
'All that you stuck-up pretenders have is hunger. [Already a bit heavy as a translation.] That is all that is wrong with you ... (p. 206)
('The idea!' // The nerve!' // 'Bloody cheek!')
-Pues no faltaba más, mujer. (p. 139) 'And so you'll want for nothing, dear.' (p. 202)
('Of course, dear!' / 'By all means.')
Y la lleva delante de ella a lo largo
And she pushed her along the corridor of the attics, without giving Aunt Basilia the chance of getting in a word. When she tried, señora Pascuala slapped her. (p. 206)
(If she had tried, Aunt P. would have slapped her.)
-¿Me da usted el permiso? -preguntó.
-Yo, no, hijo. ¡Cualquiera se pone frente de Corachán! (p. 205)
Anyone who likes can oppose Corachán. (p.293)
In fact, it is the usual colloquial ironic opposite is what is meant: 'Nobody annoys / contradicts Corachán!'
-¿Qué, ponemos pleito?
-A usted nadie le ha dado vela en este entierro. (p. 177)
... 'You had no place as a mourner at the burial! (p. 252)
('It's NONE of your business!')
And, as a final proof of the gaps in Sir Peter's knowledge of the spoken language, take the next mistranslation, which is based on an elementary mistake of spelling, reading and pronunciation:
Le miraba las caderas y los ricitos de la nuca. (p. 223) [diminutive of los rizos]
He looked at her hips and the riches of her neck. (p. 319) ( ... curls ...)
From other texts come the following:
J. Cortázar, Historias de cronopios y de famas (4a ed.,
(p. 16):En Amalfi, al terminar la zona costanera, hay un malecón que entra en el mar y la noche. Se oye ladrar un perro más allá de la última farola.
(p. 12): Out beyond the last lighthouse, you can hear a dog bark. (Beyond the last lamp post a dog can be heard barking.)
(p, 47): Quien más, quien menos, mis cuatro primos carnales se dedican a la filosofía.
(p. 66):Whether or not anyone cares, my four first cousins are addicted to philosophy.
(My four first cousins are interested, in varying degrees, in philosophy.)
(p. 66):No ocurra que las bicicletas amanezcan un día cubiertas de espinas, que las astas de sus manubrios crezcan y embistan ... y que el día luctuoso se cierre con baja general de acciones ...
(p. 62):Might it not happen one day that the bicycles appear covered with thorns . . . ? And that unhappy day close with a general dip in the stock market.
(Heaven forbid that one fine day we should discover that bicycles have been covered with thorns ... )
(p. 137): Apenas los separó en sus nuevos grupos ...se dio cuenta ...
(p. 140): Hardly had he . . . when he ...
(Here, and in at least three other places, the translator has failed to recognize that this common americanismo simply means 'as soon as').(4)
(p. 152): Menos mal que tengo una espina en la mano izquierda que me fastidia mucho. Sácamela y te perdonaré.
(p. 158): 'Damn the luck, I have in my left paw a thorn that annoys me exceedingly ...' ('Fortunately ...' )
In another translation of a work by Julio Cortázar, Los premios [8a. ed., Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1968; The Winners, trans. Elaine Kerrigan, London, Souvenir Press, 1965], we find a few mistranslations:
- A lo mejor todavía se puede salvar. Habría que llamar al médico.
-A buena hora - murmuró Raúl, mirando la cara vacía de Medrano.
'In good time ...' (p. 336) ('Too late!' The OPPOSITE of the literal translation! From the proverb: A buena(s) hora(s), mangas verdes.)
Medrano se sacó la corbata de un tirón ... Eligió otra. (p. 197)
Medrano tightened his tie with one stroke ... ( M. took off his tie - another basic americanismo.)
Después dijo que le dolía la espalda pero que no era nada.
Then he said his back was hurting,, but not bad. He said we should go on with the party. (p. 26)
(... I reckon he wanted to carry on with the party.)
G. García Márquez, Cien años de soledad (18a. ed., Buenos Aires, Editorial Sudamericana, 1970; One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. G. Rabassa, New York: Harper and Row / London: Jonathan Cape, 1970):
On p. 17 of the translation it is surprising to find 'sandals' given for sándalo (p. 22). On p. 371 of the English version, however, this item is correctly translated as 'sandalwood'.
(p. 52): ...tomó la serena decisión de casarse con ella para liberarla ... y disfrutar todas las noches de la satisfacción que ella le [sic] daba a setenta hombres.
(p. 54): ...in order to enjoy all the nights of satisfaction that she would give the seventy men.
( ... enjoy every night the same satisfaction she gave to seventy men.)
(p. 65): -Voy a hablar con la niña -le dijo-, y vas a ver que te la sirvo en bandeja.
(p. 70): 'I'm going to talk to the girl ... and you'll see what I'll serve her on the tray.'(... and when I'm through she'll be all yours.)
(p. 228): Ese recuerdo,
(p. 272): That recollection ... led him to think about the war without his realizing it.
( . . . strangely enough / for no apparent reason.)
(p. 320): Más tarde, creyendo que Amaranta Ursula continuaba con las reformas por no dar su brazo a torcer, resolvió ...
(p. 385): ...thinking that Amaranta Ursula was continuing with her repairs so that her hands would not be idle . . . ( . . . because she refused to admit defeat ...)
G. García Márquez, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (2a. ed., Buenos Aires, Editorial Sudamericana, 1968 ; No One Writes to the Colonel, trans. J. S. Bernstein, Penguin Books, 1974):
(p. 36): -Desde que estoy con el tema de que cambies de abogado ya hubiéramos tenido tiempo hasta de gastarnos la plata... Nada sacamos con que nos la metan en
(p. 26): '...We're not getting anything out of their putting us on a shelf as they do with the Indians.' ('... It's no good to us if they put it in our coffins as they do with the Indians.')
M. A. Asturias, Viento fuerte (in Obras escogidas,
The first sentence of the novel: Ya no era fuerza que dieran signos violentos de alegría is translated as 'There was no longer violent joy in their strength' instead of 'There was no longer any need for them to give violent demonstrations of their joy.'
Where mistranslations are especially dangerous, however, is in the language notes of literary texts specially edited for students of Spanish as a foreign language and, although I have so far only come across a very small number of these errors, I believe they are well worth divulging. (Bibliographical details are given in the Notes).(5)
C. Gorostiza, El color de nuestra piel:
(p. 3 6): -¿No se quedan a cenar entonces? -Tomaremos cualquier cosa por ahí.
'We'll have something over there.'
('We'll grab a sandwich or something on the way / somewhere.')
J. López Rubio, Una madeja de lana azul celeste:
(p. 108): -¿Por qué razón? -¡Vaya usted a saber!
'Why, you know!' ('Who knows? / How do I know?')
J. López Rubio, Un trono para Cristy:
(p. 89): -Bueno, dense prisa. Ese señor ha de estar al caer. -Sobra tiempo.
'. . . must be ready to drop with impatience.'
(In fact, the señor is expected, therefore the normal meaning applies: 'That man will be here any minute now.')
(p. 76): He conocido, con papeles en la mano, varios emperadores de Constantinopla ... Y reyes de Escocia, ¡no digamos!
' ... of all things!' ( '... not to mention kings of
A. V. Ruiz Iriarte, El carrusell:
(p. 8): -¡Oh! ¡Qué hijos! Y cuidado que yo les predico, y les predico
'Just wait until I give them a lecture...'
('And yet I've told them time and time again! / And yet I tell them...')
A. Buero Vallejo, Aventura en lo gris:
On p. 32 the sentences:
Todos los periódicos publicaron entonces mi fotografía. Por eso conocen mi cara.
precede the following exchange: -El derrotista. -Sí, señor. Así rezaban todos los titulares. El mayor derrotista
Nevertheless, the note offers 'That's what all those with academic titles claimed - instead of 'That's what all the headlines said.'
M.Delibes, El camino:
Por añadidura era una cotilla. Y a las cotillas no les viene mal todo lo que les caiga encima.
To add to everything she was a gossip. Gossips, of course, don't tear everything to hand to pieces. (p. 37) (Gossips deserve all they get!)
M.Gironella, Un millón de muertos:
-¡No me dirás que eres zurdo!
-¡Vaya! No lo puedo ocultar ... (p. 436)
'Don't tell me you're left-handed!' 'Go on! I couldn't hide it ...' (p.361)
('Oh dear!' or 'Jeez!')
One final word of warning to anyone intending to look for inaccuracies in the translation of G. Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres: Don't! In an interview with Rita Guibert (6), Cabrera Infante states that he saw the English translation as 'more of a refurbishing than a removal...' Consequently, he adds, he has actually incorporated into the English version some of the mistranslations made by the novel's first translator (an English poet who knew very little Spanish and no Cuban, according to Cabrera - an interesting description which takes us back to the article by Walsh mentioned at the beginning of this article).Cabrera also admits to having changed parts of Suzanne Jill Levine's more professional rendering of the novel in his desire to embroider on the original. This leaves me with the disturbing thought that, if I hadn't come across the text of this inter view, I might have included some of these 'mistranslations' in this article or elsewhere!
(1) Nevertheless, in view of the hygienically positive role of nit-picking in the animal world, isn't it time some more suitable term was coined to replace the present figurative and derogatory meaning of this word? At the very least, a distinction should be made between constructive and destructive nit-picking. As I see it, the role of those little birds which accompany rhinoceroses and rid them of unwelcome pests is, albeit a humble one, not the same as that of nature's unproductive parasites. As a representative of the constructive group, I feel I must protest on behalf of my colleagues at being semantically lumped together with the others. After all, like the birds mentioned, or most monkeys and chimps, we do have some qualifications and duties and, what is more, we do have our pride.
(2) Page numbers of the Spanish text are from the Espasa-Calpe (Colección Austral) edition of 1952.
(3) In the translation there are inexplicable fluctuations in the rendering of this colloquial emphatic 'si'. On pp. 165, 195, 197, 200, and elsewhere, it is correctly rendered; on pp. 107, 129, 147 and 163, it is not.
(4) A similar error occurs in the translation of C. Fuentes's La muerte de Artemio Cruz (3a. ed.,
J. López Rubio, Una madeja de lana azul celeste, ed. V. Warren and N. A. Cavazos, Englewood Cliffs, N.J, Prentice Hall, 1969 (on p. 120 of this text, the note on Visten mucho fails to point out the meanings on which the pun on this and the following remark (Los de este año visten muy poco) is based: 'They dress well', 'They look good.'( = 'It's very fashionable to have them') ;
J. López Rubio, Un trono para Cristy, ed. G. E. Wade,
V. Ruiz Iriarte, El carrusell, ed. Marion P. Holt,
A. Buero Vallejo, Aventura en lo gris, ed. Isabel
(6) See Rita Guibert, Seven Voices,