July 16, 2015

In language translation, “verbatim” doesn’t always mean “accurate”

by brenton

As languages mature, they tend to become clothed in idiom, slang and sayings that are either difficult or impossible to translate literally to other languages. Sometimes it is even difficult for native speakers to explain why those quirky linguistic oddities even make literal sense to them.

Those sayings gradually adorn everyone’s language to a point where native speakers may know full well what they mean, but would be hard pressed to explain why they mean what they mean. It’s a combination of hyperbole (“I could have died of embarrassment!”) and cultural allusion (“I couldn’t get to first base with her”).

So one of the main challenges in Spanish language translation services is attending to the slang and sayings in English or the “modismos y dichos” of Spanish – and losing nothing in translation.

Some examples:

If the shoe fits

In English, if someone gets offended by something we say and maybe the person deserves the slight, we say “If the shoe fits, wear it.” The Spanish counterpart is “Quien (or el que) se pica, ajos come,” literally: “Whoever (or he who) is goaded, eats garlic.” The garlic allusion comes from another slang phrase in Spanish, “estar en el ajo,” which means to be mixed up in something.

The shoe is on the other foot

We use this shoe expression as a way of expressing how fate sometimes turns the tables on someone. Spanish has an amusing counterpart “Se ha vuelto la tortilla,” literally: the tortilla has returned.

Put a sock in it!

When we tell someone to put a sock in it, we don’t really mean that they should stuff a smelly gym sock into their mouth. We just want them to stop talking. One Spanish counterpart to that one is “¡Echa el freno!” That would be literally translated, “Hit the brakes!”

Keep your shirt on!

We tell someone to keep their shirt on when we’re trying to slow them down. Spanish once again relies on an allusion to driving a car with its “¡Para el carro!”; literally, stop the car!

Suspenders or braces?

American English uses the term suspenders, but in the UK they call them braces. In Spanish it’s tirantes or tiradores. So, if you were translating the old joke, “Why do firemen wear red suspenders – the answer being “to keep their pants up” –  you wouldn’t actually need to use any slang: “¿Porque llevan tirantes rojos los bomberos? Para colgar los pantalones!”

But you might be surprised that the Spanish word “bombero” sounds more like someone who starts fires rather than putting them out. Then there’s “embarazada,” which does not mean “embarrassed;” it means “pregnant.” So even without dealing with slang and sayings, you can’t always rely on even what sounds like easy translation.

If you’re project needs accurate and culturally applicable language translation, contact us.  Your project manager and our team of professional experts will go well beyond verbatim to a final product you’ll be proud of.

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