Found in Spain; lost in translation

On a recent trip to Seville, I was idly leafing through the hotel chain magazine. I suppose the idea of these publications is to draw the reader in with articles of general interest, and to hit them with advertorials promoting new destinations, refurbishments and so on. Aiming to appeal to the international traveller, the articles appear both in the local language and in English. As befits a publication reflecting luxury values, considerable care is taken over the photography, typography and layout, even the quality of paper stock used.

Luz Casal

Why then are the English translations such gibberish?

Here is an example. The article is entitled “Sweet Bastion”. That’s where the puzzle starts. Is it about a patisserie in the city wall? A dessert of such renown that it underpins the reputation of a restaurant? No, it is actually about a Spanish singer who is making a comeback after a lengthy period out of the limelight. She has been recovering from breast cancer. The following passage is typical:

“Luz Casal irradiates decision through her hoarse voice. At her back, a period of innermost knowledge, and the ability of enjoying simple things ahead”.

It reads like English but it isn’t. Your eye passes over a sentence or two. You shrug with incomprehension and continue flipping the pages. Before long you give up and look for something else to read.

It is not a simple error, as in the Lagos restaurant seafood menu offering “Spider Crap”. Nor is it a concatenation of cock-ups, as in the Algarve’s Dining Out Magazine: “Wild & Company Steakhouse Lounge is an ambicious, inovating ‘fashion franchising’ project all done with 1st quality products”.

It is beyond me why restaurateurs and other purveyors of this piffle don’t take the trouble to get a passing tourist to cast an eye over their dubious efforts, but at least the ideas are clear enough. The English version of the Luz Casal article is of a different order. It has lost all sense. To discover what it is about, you would have to go back to the original and re-translate.

I have been favourably impressed by the degree of professionalism in Iberian hotel management, which makes the incompetence of the editors of this expensively produced magazine all the more surprising. Their inept translations have lost them half of their potential readership, and no doubt alienated the unfortunate Luz Casal, who would not be pleased to have her voice described as “hoarse”.

It is not that English language skills are in short supply in Iberia. Many of my Portuguese work colleagues would do a better job of this translation. Would an English or American editor trot out a Spanish translation without having it checked by someone with the appropriate language skills? Is it a mark of the unique richness of the English language that others feel free to mangle it with such abandon? Or is it just hubris?

Perhaps my criticism is misdirected. Budgetary constraints may have forced the poor editors to use translation software. Let us see. Submitting the Spanish to SDL – a free online translator – gives the following:

“Sweet bastion. The country home Light singer radiates perseverance since the hoarse voice that characterizes it. Behind remains a phase of interior knowledge and, in front, the capacity to enjoy the small things”.

Another on-line translator PROMT does a better job. At least it recognises that “Luz Casal” is a proper name:

“Sweet bastion. Singer Luz Casal radiates perseverance from the hoarse voice that characterizes her. Behind there stays a stage of interior and, knowledge ahead, the aptitude to enjoy the small things.”

Google Translate is not much better:

“Dulce bastion. The singer Luz Casal perseverance radiates from the big voice that characterizes it. Back is a stage of insight and, ahead, the ability to enjoy the little things.”

It is interesting that Google has chosen not to translate “Dulce”. It may at least have recognised that the two words “Sweet” and “Bastion” would never be juxtaposed in English. Neither has it made the mistake of translating “ronca voz” as “hoarse voice” but where did it get “big” from?

These automatic efforts are certainly no worse than what actually appeared in print. So, if the editors didn’t use free software, they may as well have done. But they are not much better either.

Here is the original Spanish:

“Dulce bastión. La cantante Luz Casal irradia perseverancia desde la ronca voz que la caracteriza. Atras queda una etapa de conocimiento interior y, por delante, la capacidad de disfrutar de las pequenas cosas.”

“Dulce bastión” refers to Luz Casal, a singer. The English derivative “Dulcet” is surely a more appropriate word than “Sweet”, which is damningly faint praise when applied to a singer.

“Bastión” is presumably intended to convey, if not “national treasure” status, then at least the status of “icon”, “siren” or “diva”, so we might say “Dulcet diva”, “Sonorous siren” or the safer “Beloved icon”.

At a stretch, you might expect a goalkeeper trying to position the wall before a free kick to “irradiate decision through her hoarse voice”, but not the subject of this piece.

So here is my amateur effort: “The singer Luz Casal’s characteristically husky voice speaks of endurance. It reflects her recent journey of inner discovery, and a new-found capacity for the enjoyment of the little things in life.”

Looking at other articles in the magazine, not all of the translation is quite as dire, but a pattern emerges. It seems that the more refined, abstract or poetic the sentiment being expressed, the less survives the translation. My advice then to the editors of such publications is either use a competent translator or avoid articles other than the most prosaic.


Images by Luz Casal Oficial España

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