lost in translation

I love translation’s mishaps and misnomers. Not only are they funny, but they illuminate things that we take for granted in our own language, demonstrate with clarity the black holes within and between languages that make translation such a tricky task.

A sign in San Juan del Sur tells tourists that a restaurant offers natural juices and beatens. What was to be beaten, the sign ominously left out. Rest assured, the menu arrived offering us beaten bananas, beaten oranges, beaten mangos, and, mother of all beatings, a beaten combination of the three. I had the last (go big or go home) and it was lovely. (Should we have told them that beaten does not mean smoothie after taking the picture and before departing? And deprive others of a mixed fruit beating? Never.)

 “Pizza hot”: two signs in the grande ciudad of Rivas to tell us that their pizza is caliente. Before I arrive at the obvious, why, pray tell, did they need two signs to tell us this? And, more so, two signs so close to each other? The second sign could’ve rounded the corner at least, to cover the other side of their storefront which remains sadly empty. Walking by the latter, an empty window, one could conceivably presume that their pizza was served cold, lukewarm, or even–not at all. In English, we put our adjectives before our nouns; in Spanish, we put them after. Why? I don’t know. I’m curious. Which is better? To let me know first that you have pizza, and then that it’s hot, or to let me know first that you have something hot, and then let me know that the hot thing is pizza? “No class, we don’t say ocean blue. We say blue ocean.” 

The more I teach English, the more I love Spanish. Spanish sounds like it looks. English doesn’t. The difference between chicken and kitchen is lost on my students and quite frankly, on me. And, profe, why does kitchen mean cocina but cook mean cocinero? Those words don’t even sound alike. No, no they don’t. I don’t know why. I’m sorry. Also, please repeat after me: beet. bean. beef. Hear the difference? No? 

On the ferry to Ometepe, we will find a “Highly Gualified Staff.” It takes a pretty refined ear to hear the difference between qu and g, I think, so I fully understand this one. I actually long ago gave up insisting that my students spell words properly. As long as they say girl with a hard g instead of hirl, they can spell it with an x for all I care. Many don’t spell Spanish right. Why would they English, a language with infinitely harder spelling? “Hir” is not how you spell “ir” in Spanish, but that’s how the word sounds. Nor is “ablar” correct (hablar)–or “Gualified”. 

But, I am beginning to wonder, what demands correct spelling? Function doesn’t, but quality does. Meaning doesn’t, if even a non-native speaker could read the jarbled written Spanish I got my from students quite fluently. Perhaps it is the difference between means and end: the means being the case for the correct handling of a language, the ends being the case for getting your point across. Beauty of language versus point of language. This is similar with those learning Spanish. A guest is here who speaks minimal Spanish but gets what she wants anytime she tries. It’s actually quite painful to listen to her string un-conjugated verbs and incorrect nouns together, but Juan zips right off to call the boat captain for her, having understood perfectly what she wants. This is an interesting lesson as an English teacher. I’m teaching correct English; I make sure that students know to add ‘s’ to the end of a verb in third person singular. But, how important is that? So what if my students say “She run” or for that matter, “Where are the beach”? The meaning is understood. I understood that if I ordered a beaten, I would not literally be beaten. But still… it ain’t speaking English good. 

Speaking of bad English…translational mishaps can be dangerous too. Last December, in Ecuador, we went out to dinner in Quito to a colorful, happy restaurant. The menus arrived and I, in my infinite Spanish wisdom, spotted and advised my travel companions of a translational mishap. La ensalada Moby Dick: una ensalada de lechuga, atún, y tomate, read my Spanish menu. Nothing noticeable there, except the oddity of naming a tuna salad after a giant whale. Flip four pages back to the English menu and find “Moby’s Dick salad” for us English patrons to enjoy. They misunderstood the placement of the possessive in English and created a very different meaning indeed. (Actually, Moby Dick’s salad doesn’t sound that great either. Nor, the salad of Moby Dick. On the whole, a poor choice of name.) Obviously, I ordered Moby’s Dick salad, and had a great time of doing so. (In my defense, Moby Dick is one of my favorite books of all time, part of my salad-ordering-decision.) 

And then I got food poisoning from Moby’s Dick. I do not have a photo of said menu, salad, or incident, but several of my dear friends have the sound of me, ahem, vomiting in the bathroom burned into their memories as evidence that this indeed happened. These friends will also testify to the fact that due to my amusement and then great dismay with Moby’s Dick, I was given an M.D. and was christened Dr. Dick for the remainder of the trip. I now confine my amusement with translation to photos and blog-writing. 

Rather than leave that story in your mind, I shall conclude with one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite folks:

“We do not consider English and Spanish as compound sets of easily interchangeable synonyms; they are two quite different ways of looking at the world, each with a nature of its own.” -Jorge Luis Borges

And that’s why I like language.


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