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 »  Articles Overview  »  Language Specific  »  Spanish  »   Maddening Amusements; A Richness of Trees

Maddening Amusements; A Richness of Trees

By Eileen Brockbank | Published  06/10/2005 | Spanish | Recommendation:
Eileen Brockbank
Eileen Brockbank is an ATA-certified freelance Spanish-to-English translator. Her educational and professional background includes finance, law, economics, banking, insurance and the arts. She has written articles for the ATA Chronicle, Translation Journal, and Intercambios, and for several years through 2001, she wrote a grammar column for Apuntes.
Maddening Amusements; A Richness of Trees

ne of Marshall Morris's favorite Puerto Rican writers is Eddie López, a newspaperman and humorist who wrote for the San Juan Star from the mid-1960s until his death in 1971. López published a series of letters under the name of "Candid Flowers," the English "translation" of the perfectly plausible Spanish name Candido Flores. The following is an excerpt from one of his letters (my italics):

Of one time to this part people have been syringeing me with the blissful thing of Candid Flowers. They already have me up to the little crown with letters saying they throw out of less the schooner English of my friend Candid, who, said be it of stop, is now runner of goods roots.

Apparently he no longer wants to make himself fork of books, but now it has gone into him between eyebrow and eyebrow the idea of learning to play the four although he doesn't know even potato of music. But each crazy with his theme.

You may be wondering: what in the world was that?

one of the "rules" of the game is, if you have several choices, use the more ridiculous one.
It could be called a round in an ongoing game played by Eddie López, consisting of taking a story written in Spanish with a leaning toward Puerto Rican expressions and idioms and "translating" it literally, word-by-word, into English. Marshall explained that a long-time friend of Eddie's by the name of Máximo Cerame Vivas, a prominent Puerto Rican marine scientist, told him that this was an old game that used to be played by children in school. It was one of those spontaneous word games that simply erupt, just for the fun of it. According to Máximo, who sometimes uses the signature, "Utmost," (one translation of "máximo") one of the "rules" of the game is, if you have several choices, use the more ridiculous one.

In the bilingual spirit of the Maddening Amusements workshop, working with a longer excerpt of the letter above, we attempted back translations into Spanish or revisions into correct English. When we had come up with parts of the Spanish, we were better able to understand how the game worked. In the excerpt above, a nice application of the rule requiring ridiculousness is "syringeing me" from the Spanish "jeringar." This is a verb form of the Spanish word for "syringe" but used more in its metaphoric sense as "to bug, or pester" (also bringing to mind the English "to needle (someone)." Idioms like the Spanish "echar de menos," which means "to miss (someone)," have great potential in this game. In the excerpt above, it is turned into the wonderful, literal "throw out of less." Those of us attempting to repair the English had to do the back translation first; so we didn't get very far. A caveat given along with the examples: this is a dangerous game; only those with the best of skills in the two languages are likely to be recognized for what they are—creators of gobbledygook through literal translation run amok.

Marshall had his own involvement in journalism in the late 1990s at the San Juan Star, starting out as an advisor to Editor Andrew Viglucci and Managing Editor Barbara Leblanc in their quest to create a Translation Unit so they could publish a Spanish version. This was to give their English-language daily broader circulation in Puerto Rico and garner the related positive financial results. Over time, Marshall found himself at the City Desk, "working shoulder-to-shoulder with then City Editor Ivonne García, and later ... ultimately coordinating 'Viewpoint,' the opinion section of the paper."

In linguistic terms, when you think about the encounter of English and Spanish in Puerto Rico, it would be hard to find a more interesting interface than the writing in a daily Spanish and English newspaper. Lucky for the University of Puerto Rico, Marshall's experience at the San Juan Star happened in the midst of his teaching career, and each job enriched the other.

His prior involvement in journalism had been more from the academic point of view. At the University of Puerto Rico, his courses focused on journalism, translation, and professional writing. The research he conducted with his students on Puerto Rican popular and figurative language led to a series of small books, collections in the form of experimental "translators' dictionaries."1 The invitation to consult at the San Juan Star followed upon a study he had done on translation-related mistakes in the print media.

For one month in the fall of 1996, Marshall kept track of local news stories in which translation problems made the reading harder, confusing. or just odd—not so much wrong as awkward, not precisely English. Most of the source materials for the articles, certainly quotations and other written materials would have all been in Spanish. Because it was journalism, everyone was writing under tight deadlines and other journalistic difficulties; somehow, the Spanish-language story, quotations, meanings, all had to end up in proper English. There was no chance for "second thoughts" in this situation; it required a very high level of fluency in every-day English. Why local? Because "local news stories are not canned, and there has not been time to edit them into anything more beautiful than they are."

As he undertook the study, his first reaction was surprise "to find out how 'clean' the English-language reporting was - he borrowed the term from Lance Oliver, who was then a reporter for the San Juan Star." What Oliver meant by "clean" was free from interference at the level of language. Marshall found it ironic how much more clearly the errors stood out against a generally "clean" background. He believes the general "cleanness" of the English used reflected the increasing respect for the "natural borders between the two languages," a growing awareness that there may not be an exact word or phrase in English to reflect the experience of the Spanish speaker. Hence the greater use of markers, whether by italicizing a Spanish word or phrase, inserting a brief explanation into the text, or putting quotes around an admittedly literal translation that isn't quite English. "I think these are encouraging signs," he commented, "not only of intellectual honesty but also of respectful attention to different ways of experiencing the world—desirable qualities in journalism and in translation."

While Marshall doesn't say so himself, it seems to me that he and all the people who have worked in the University of Puerto Rico Translation Program can take some credit for this improvement. (Attending this conference were others as well: Carmen Diaz, Andrew Hurley)

It may actually be possible to see changes in the general level of translation-consciousness of an entire island during your own lifetime. This is very encouraging to all of us who are concerned with educating others about translation. Sometimes the prospects seem overwhelming; even the best educated non-translators seem to have no clue of any of the basic principles of translation. Puerto Rico, where, in Marshall's words "Spanish and English rub up against each other constantly," could well be an unusually fertile field.

Back to the errors, even though they were harder to find than they might have been 20 years earlier, Marshall was able to unearth quite a list. As a participant in the workshop, I found it interesting to go through the mental gymnastics of working through these problems. The exercise given to the workshop participants had two possibilities—you could take the awkward/incorrect English and attempt to back-translate it into Spanish, or you could "fix" it into correct English. In combining the results of both these steps, we could clearly see how the writer had gone astray in rendering the English.

Here is the exercise, taken directly from Marshall's materials:


The Published English Version2

"administration 'not only distorted the privatization concept, they went even further, exacting a terrible blow to the legality and the economic resources of the people.'"

Where and why is this problematic for the English reader? Mark the text or jot down your notes below.

How might the idea have been expressed or thought in the original Spanish? Give a possible back translation.

What would be an appropriate way to express this in English?

Possible responses...

How might the idea have been expressed or thought in the original Spanish? Give a possible back translation.

"administración "no sólo distorcionó el concepto de privatización, es más dieron un golpe terrible a la legalidad y a los recursos económicos del pueblo."

What would be an appropriate way to express this in English?

administration "not only distorted the concept of privatization, but struck a terrible blow against the rule of law and the economic resources of the people."

In closing, I would like to bring up a point that is easily overlooked, because we are all so busy attending to language "problems." In the midst of all these problems, there is a potential for lovely expressions that can spring up where two languages "rub up against each other constantly." In a story covering a dispute in which one party wanted to build a housing development and another a park, the heavily forested property was described as "a richness of trees." Marshall pointed out: "That has such a stimulating oddness, so fresh a beauty to it, that I appreciatively took it for the title of a presentation to the Puerto Rico Chapter of the Association of Hispanic Journalists."

Before I attended this workshop, I was wondering what Marshall might mean by "Maddening Amusements." Once I was there, it was clear that he had sorted his thoughts into two categories: what he found maddening, and what he found amusing. Just for fun, he threw the two words together to make a title; it was actually a joke, playing on the whole subject of the talk.

If you would like to read more about this, the entire talk including appendices is on the Web site of ATA's Spanish Division, under the heading of the April 2004 Spanish Division Conference.

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