To Translate Is To Lie, So Weave A Good Yarn

I’m not a professional translator, but I know what I like in fiction.

When I was a Mexican kid in the 1980s we used to get old re-runs of the Flintstones in Spanish. Of course, my English wasn’t very good when I was very young, and I didn’t know them as “the Flintstones at all.” They were “Los Picapiedra” (something like “The Pickstones”), and not only that, but I had no idea who Fred or Barney were. Instead, I knew Pedro Picapiedra and Pablo Mármol (something like “Peter Pickstone” and “Paul Marble”). I liked them, and they felt familiar and comfortable. They spoke with a Spanish accent very close to mine and they used expressions that were similar to how my parents spoke.

It wasn’t until I got older and got more experienced that I realised I had been lied to, like many other lies we tell children. Pedro and Pablo weren’t a caricature of my Mexican lifestyle at all, but of a different, 1950s lifestyle from another country up north. I didn’t exactly feel cheated or lied to, but it was another cool new thing to learn about the world. I still felt much endeared to the original names and to this day, if I have to watch the Flintstones, I’d much rather view them as Los Picapiedra instead.

Other Lies I Grew Up With

This wasn’t the only time this happened. Calvin & Hobbes fooled me too. This time their names didn’t change, but their language did. Calvin spoke to me from the comic book pages with a hip, cool Mexico City slang like other kids my age would use to elevate themselves in the eyes of other kids. Calvin talked about the prices of candy and magazines in pesos, with peso amounts appropriate for the time of publication, and used phrases like “hecho la mocha” (something like “made a blur”) when he said he was gonna do something very quickly. His mother sounded like my mother. This time the deception was even better, and for the longest time I honestly thought Calvin was a Mexican kid like me.

And there were others. The Thundercats were Los Felinos Cósmicos (something like “Cosmic Felines”), the Carebears were Los Ositos Cariñositos (something like “The Little Loving Bears”), and The Little Mermaid was La Sirenita (interesting how mythological sirens and mermaids are different in English but not in Spanish).

Again, as I grew up, so did my languages, and I was able to experience the other side of the localisation. It was always a small revelation to realise that the names I had known were an alteration, that the translators had taken liberties, that the stories had been subtly tampered with. In some cases, like with Calvin, I was thoroughly fooled.

The Translator’s Task

I’m of the opinion that the translators and localisers of my youth performed their task admirably. A good translator should be a good illusionist. Making me believe that Calvin was Mexican or that the Flintstones could have been my neighbours is what a good translator should do. Translation is always far more than language, because languages are more than words. A language always comes with a culture, a people, habits and customs. You cannot just translate words alone; you have to translate everything else.

Only bad translators believe in the untranslateable. Despite differences in language, culture, and habits, a translator must seek out the closest points of contact across the divide and build bridges on those points. When no point of contact exists, a translator must build it. A new pun may be needed. The cultural references might need to be altered. If nothing else can be done and if there is time and space for it, a footnote can be the last resort, when a translator admits defeat and explains the terms of their surrender. Nothing went according to keikaku.

The world has changed a lot since I was a child. It has gotten a lot bigger. We have more ways to talk to each other. As a result, it’s getting harder for translators to perform their illusions.

Modern Difficulties of Translation

With the internet and other methods of communication, a more unified global presence has become more important. Translations now have to be more alike to the source material. Big alterations to characters’ names or, worse, to the title of the work, are now out of the question.

Thus we get The Ice Queen becoming Frozen, because it’s good marketing (things didn’t go so well last time we made a title about a princess or a queen), and Frozen she shall be in Spanish as well, leaving Spanish speakers to pronounce it as best they can. As a small concession, we will allow the forgettable and bilingually redundant subtitle “Una Aventura Congelada” (something like “A Frozen Adventure”), but overall, the trademark must be preserved. There’s now far too much communication between Spanish and English speakers to allow the possibility of losing brand recognition.

Something similar and strange happened with the localisation of Japanese pop culture. We went from Japanimation to anime, from comics to manga. The fans will no longer let a good lie in their stories, and while we will grandfather in Megaman instead of Rockman or Astroboy instead of Mighty Atom, from now on new material must retain as foreign of a feeling as possible, because we now crave the foreign. It doesn’t matter if we really can understand it as closely as the Japanese do, because we crave the experience of the foreign.

The reverse also happens and the Japanese try their best to assimilate the complicated consonants of English into their language, but they have had more practice with this assimilation. Their faux pas have been documented on the web for the amusment of English speakers.

When Lies Won’t do

I should be more fair to translators. Sometimes, a torrent of footnotes is all that will work. Of course, this should be reserved for the written word. Such is the case of the English translation of Master and Margarita. The endless stream of jokes making fun of Soviet propaganda and Soviet life are too much of a you-had-to-be-there. Explaining the jokes sadly makes them no longer funny, but there’s no other recourse except writing a completely different book, far removed from the experience of a modern Russian reading a Soviet satire.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Japanese translations of Don Quixote works without burdening the readers with the minutiae of life from a time long, long ago, in a country far, far away. Don Quixote’s exaggerated chivalric speech is rendered in Japanese translations as samurai speech. Tatamis suddenly appear in a place of La Mancha that I don’t care to call to mind.

And that’s the best kind of translation. The one that works and makes the fans love it, that makes them feel like they belong in this translated world.

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