Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"We hold these truths to be self-evident..."

I went out to find different Spanish translations of Barack Obama's Second Inaugural Address. At this early stage, the day after, there are not a lot of them out there, but I did find these:

Obama's thesis: "All men are created equal."

Equality does not mean we are all the same. Each and every one of us can be unique, special in our own way, completely different from anyone else, and still be considered equal under the law and (equally) deserving of equal rights. None of this equality means that we are equal in our talents and abilities, or that it would be correct, politically or otherwise, to pretend that we are.

Similar arguments can be made about translations, and translators. Each is unique. Some are in certain ways demonstrably better, some worse. Any attempt to judge them, however, ultimately may come down to questions of personal preference and taste:

Sobre los gustos no hay nada escrito. There is no accounting for taste.

Before getting very far into these translations, I was struck by their different handling of these famous words from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Here are the translations (quoted here, and already thoroughly compared for you below):

Official White House translation: "Sostenemos que estas verdades son evidentes por sí mismas; que todos los hombres son creados iguales; que son dotados por su Creador de ciertos derechos inalienables, que entre ellos están la vida, la libertad, y la búsqueda de la felicidad".

Voice of America translation: "Sostenemos estas verdades para que sean evidentes por sí solas, que todos los hombres son creados iguales, que son bendecidos por el Creador con ciertos derechos inalienables, que entre esos están la Vida, la Libertad y la búsqueda de la Felicidad".

El Periódico translation: "Sostenemos que estas verdades son auto-evidentes, que todos los hombres son creados igualmente y son dotados por su creador con ciertos derechos inalienables, como lo son la vida, la libertad y la búsqueda de la felicidad".

They all begin with "Sostenemos," and then they begin to diverge.

They agree on "estas verdades" and "evidentes." Also on "que todos los hombres son creados," "por," "Creador/creador," and "ciertos derechos inalienables." Finally, they agree on "la vida, la libertad y la búsqueda de la felicidad."

"We hold...these truths...evident....that all men are certain unalienable, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." (Disagreement, then, on "to be self-...equal, that they are endowed...their...that among these are...".)

The White House translation reads as follows: "We hold that these truths are evident by themselves; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

VOA: "We hold these truths so that they will be evident on their own, that all men are created equal, that they are blessed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness".

El Periódico: "We hold that these truths are self-evident *, that all men are created equally and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, such as are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

* "Auto-evidente" is not Spanish you would find anywhere else other than in a translation of the English "self-evident." In short, it is not Spanish, so it really should not be used in a translation into Spanish.

"Sostener" (support or defend a proposition) is where I begin to part company. Yes, word one. To my ears all three translations try too hard to follow the syntax of the original English. The problem with that is that the resulting translation does not sound natural in Spanish. And the problem with that is that the Spanish-speaking reader (or listener) can't help but to focus on the awkward construction of the sentence. That, too, is a problem, because when the focus is on the awkwardness, the focus is off of that most important aspect of the translation: the MEANING!

As tempting as it is, our goal in translating this should not be to convey fully into Spanish all the awkwardness modern American readers feel when reading this late 18th century English. (There may be times when that should be the goal of a translation, but here the goal is for the Spanish-speaking public around the world to fully understand what Barack Obama is saying—not to give them a lesson on the variations in American English syntax through the ages.)

"We hold these truths to be self-evident." Without denying the poetry, and historical interest, of the phrasing, ask yourself, what does this mean?

Really, before continuing, think of another way to express this exact meaning in a way that sounds more natural to you...

The meaning I get is that we are of the belief that these things are true, so true as to be obvious to everyone.

"Consideramos evidentes las siguientes verdades:" (We believe the following truths to be obvious:)

"Evidente," in Spanish, is officially defined as "Cierto, claro, patente y sin la menor duda," i.e., "True, clear, patently obvious, and without the slightest doubt." In other words, not just true, but so obviously true to anyone that there can be no doubt. Self-evident.

Because "evidente" already means "self-evident," there is no reason to add words in the Spanish translation to translate the "self-" part. That meaning is already there! No need to say "self-evident by themselves," "self-evident on their own," or "self-self-evident." "Evidente" is enough.

"...todas las personas son creadas iguales..." (...all people are created equal...)

Just as the other translations adhere unnecessarily tightly to the construction of the original sentence, they also stick unnecessarily close to the original vocabulary. True, Jefferson said "all men," but in an age where when you said "men" you meant everyone. Well, everyone who was allowed to participate in politics, or business, or to be counted in history, anyway.

Nowadays, although we can still understand "man" and "mankind" to mean everyone, regardless of gender, we find it clearer, less confusing, and more in keeping with our times, to speak of people, humans, or humankind. Similar considerations apply in Spanish, too, so it makes more sense, for a clear communication of Obama's understanding of its meaning, and of his intended meaning in quoting it, to be modern about it, and say "all people" where Jefferson had felt just as inclusive saying "all men."

" Creador las dota de ciertos derechos que nadie les puede quitar..." ("...their Creator endows them with certain rights that no one can take from them...")

The passive voice with agent ("The ball was caught by the dog.") is not very common in Spanish. If the agent (doer of the action) is mentioned, the active voice is much more common ("The dog caught the ball."). For a more natural sounding translation, it is better to use the active voice here, if our purpose is to make the meaning as clear as possible.

"Inalienables" does exist in Spanish, and means "unalienable" (or "inalienable": see the Wiktionary page for "inalienable" for an interesting discussion of its history and usage). It is not a term I have ever run across in Spanish, that I can remember, and most instances of its use are alongside other equally "legalese"-sounding Spanish terms. This strongly suggests that most Spanish speakers will not find its meaning immediately clear, so for the sake of clarity I have again translated the meaning and not the word.

"...entre estos se encuentran el derecho a la vida, el derecho a la libertad y el derecho a buscar la felicidad." (...included among these are the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue happiness.)

I could have left this as "[certain unalienable rights; that] among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Maybe I should have. This is more a case of personal preference than anything, and my preference is for readers to not lose track of the fact that we are not talking here about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in and of themselves, but of everyone's rights to each of these things.

Having made the decision to repeat "the right to" each time, it seems overly clunky to say "the right to the pursuit of happiness" instead of "the right to pursue happiness."

My version: "Consideramos evidentes las siguientes verdades: todas las personas son creadas iguales; su Creador las dota de ciertos derechos que nadie les puede quitar; entre estos se encuentran el derecho a la vida, el derecho a la libertad y el derecho a buscar la felicidad."

On page 35 of "Historia contemporánea de América" (A Contemporary History of the Americas), by Joan del Alcàzar, Antoni Marimon, Josep Miquel Santacreu Soler, and Nuria Tabanera García, they quote a translation, by "Nevins et al., 1994" that reads as follows:

Consideramos evidentes las siguientes verdades: que todos los hombres fueron creados iguales; que su Creador los ha dotado de ciertos derechos inalienables; que entre éstos están los de la vida, la libertad y la búsqueda de la felicidad.

Without going into more detailed analysis, I'll just leave you with an English rendering of this one: "We believe the following truths to be obvious: that all men were created equal; that their Creator has endowed them with certain unalienable rights; that among these are those of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Predictably, I like this translation better than the first three. I differ with it in its use of "all men" for "all people," but do find it reassuring on those points where it confirms some of my other choices.

Which translation you prefer, though, well, that's really down to your tastes, and up to you.

(And if you are reading this closely enough to notice that I didn't put an accent on "estos" while the last translation wrote it as "éstos," just know that the rules for Spanish spelling were different in 1994 than they are now, post-2010.)

Friday, January 18, 2013

"You know, all those dictionaries aren't going to do you any good."

The translator was entering the university classroom, not to take a class, but to take a grueling, three-hour, pencil-and-paper translation exam. She was wheeling in some of her dictionaries behind her. Her husband (or very dedicated boyfriend) was carrying the rest, a box of dictionaries which, I would have reason to know later, must have weighed in at 50 or 60 pounds.

As she was heading to the back of the classroom to take her seat and settle in, the exam proctor felt compelled to say, "You know, all those dictionaries aren't going to do you any good." (It's a hazard of the profession that I can't be sure anymore that those were his exact words, but that I am certain that that was his meaning!) I thought it was a cruel thing to say, especially to someone about to take an exam. He might as well have said, "You know you're probably going to fail, right?" That comment, too, would just as easily have passed the "Is it true?" test, and still scored similarly poorly on the question of "Is it kind?"

It is even more common to see other candidates sitting with perhaps two thin dictionaries that, together, are not even close to being complete; the kind of dictionaries that, for every word, will translate two or three of its meanings for you, but not all twelve—or fifteen, or twenty. These are the kind of dictionaries that are far more likely to get you into a jam than to get you out of one. You wonder, "Are these people fools?", "Are they not translators?" (not meaning at all to imply here that being a fool and being a translator are, in any way, mutually exclusive), "What are they planning to do on the business/legal or medical/technical section?!"

Dictionaries are useful, and helpful, and the best ones truly will get you out of jam after jam. When it comes to translation tests, and translation in general, the proctor was right, they aren't going to do you any good. More accurately, they aren't going to magically enable you to translate if you haven't learned how already.

In the popular imagination, by which I mean in the imagination of people who speak only one language fluently, the difference between languages comes down to a difference in words. That is, if there is a word for something in your own language, there must be an equivalent word for it in every other language. When those bricks came tumbling down on the Tower of Babel, and none of the workers could understand each other any more, it was because God filled each of their heads with different words for the same things. Instead of one word for "dog," now there are thousands. And if you want to say "dog" in a different language, you just need to find a bilingual dictionary, look up "dog" and say whatever you see written next to it.

Up to that point, often enough, that is true, except when it isn't. The real error, though, is the belief that you can do the same thing with phrases or entire sentences. Take the simple case of "My name is _____." As you might recall from your high school Spanish class, the Spanish sentence is "Me llamo _____." I can't tell you the number of times that I have heard people say, and proudly too, "Mi llamo es _____." Inwardly I shudder, outwardly I smile. They are trying. They are saying "My I call it is ____." It sounds wonderful in Spanish. Really. In Spanish, "me" doesn't mean "my," and "llamo" doesn't mean "name." "Me llamo" means "I call myself" or "I am called."

The truth is, and I hinted at this earlier, translation has almost nothing to do with words, anyway. It has everything to do with meaning.

A translator, a capable one, does not look at the words of a sentence and set out to find meanings for each of them. He looks at the sentence, thinks about what it means, thinks about the effect it produces on the reader, about the intention of the author, the purpose the translation is trying to accomplish, then ignores the words, ignores the sentence structure, mentally explodes that sentence to smithereens, forgetting about it. Then he takes everything he just thought about and creates a brand new sentence that, for a native speaker of that language, will convey the same meaning and achieve the same purposes as the original sentence.

There will be plenty of opportunities to explore that idea later. For now, just know that all those dictionaries aren't going to do you any good.