Author Topic: Lost in Translation - 1 and 2  (Read 15657 times)

Joe Carillo

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Lost in Translation - 1 and 2
« on: December 30, 2016, 05:28:52 PM »
Lost in Translation - 1
By Jose A. Carillo

One of the pleasures of reading a Reuters or Bloomberg financial wire story, or perhaps a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, or Herman Melville, is that you know that the English came straight from the mind of the writer himself. The feeling is not quite the same when you read a financial report knowing that it has been translated from a foreign language, say from French, Japanese, Korean, or Urdu. Even with what are evidently wonderful English translations, such as that of novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez from the original Spanish and that of Giuseppe di Lampedusa from the original Italian, you cannot help but get the feeling that perhaps the translator might have missed something or somehow bungled an idiom or two, or that he might have shortchanged you by just winging it with a foreign passage that he did not understand himself.

I think you can appreciate the situation better if you have tried to translate into Japanese or Tagalog a quotation like this taken from a financial wire story: “That’s right. We project EBITDA to drop over 10% in 2001 on a decline in Gulf of Mexico jackup rates to near cash costs during the first half of the year, but we expect EBITDA will climb over 30% in 2002 as steady international results are joined by a rebounding Gulf of Mexico market.” As it turns out, the strange-sounding acronym EBITDA is the easiest to figure out; just check a management jargon dictionary on the Net and you will easily find that it stands for “Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization.” It is supposed to measure a company’s profitability without taking into account those items that might be seen as being beyond management’s direct control, such as taxes and interest.

Well and good. But what about “a decline in Gulf of Mexico jackup rates to near cash costs,” “steady international results,” and “a rebounding Gulf of Mexico market”? Exactly what do they mean and why did the writer make it so hard for both layman and translator to understand, much more to translate? In the original English, somehow you could make at least a hazy sense of the meaning by inference, but when translating English idioms like this, I can tell you that it can at times become positively maddening. I once advised a foreign translator that “Gulf of Mexico jackup rates” might mean the cost of extracting crude petroleum from the depths of the sea off the coast of New Orleans. I thought I was so sure of it, but on second thoughts I told him I wasn’t too sure so he had better check it up with the writer himself. Such are the perils and tribulations of translating from one language to another and then to the next.

The problem becomes even more acute when you have to translate poetry or verse. Take the case of our very own Philippine national anthem. You will probably remember from grade school that Julián Felipe composed its music in 1898 with the Spanish title La Marcha Nacional Filipina, and that a year later José Palma wrote the poem Filipinas in Spanish as the lyrics for the anthem. To get a feel of its flavor, let’s take a look at just the first eight lines of the poem:

Tierra adorada,
Hija del Sol de Oriente,
Su fuego ardiente
En ti latiendo está.
Tierra de Amores,
Del heroísmo cuna,
Los invasores
No te holláran jamás.

That’s actually a rousing harangue in the Hispanic tongue, and I now faithfully translate it into English as follows:

Land that I adore,
Daughter of the Orient Sun,
You give ardent fire
To my heart that throbs for you.
Oh Land of Love,
Cradle of heroism,
Never will I let invaders
Ever trample on you.

Of course, I am using what is called free-verse translation, without a finicky regard for the meter that is absolutely needed to match the lyrics with the music, but you have my word that I am as true and faithful to Palma as I could be. I probably can do a translation that perfectly matches the meter and cadence of Felipe’s march, but I have no time for that now so it probably will have to wait for a more propitious day.

Now take a look at how, in the interest of meter, the translators Camilo Osias and M. A. Lane departed so much from the spirit of the original Spanish in their 1920 English translation:

Land of the morning
Child of the sun returning
With fervour burning
Thee do our souls adore.
Land dear and holy
Cradle of noble heroes
Ne’er shall invaders
Trample thy sacred shore.

This is the anthem that I had sung with such fervor every schoolday for many years in all kinds of weather, until they replaced it with the Tagalog version in 1956, but it is only now that I can see with shocking clarity the severe and, I think, undue liberties taken by the two translators with the Palma original.

For one, the very first phrase they used, “Land of the morning,” has absolutely no bearing on “Tierra adorada” or the “Land that I adore.” Osias and Lane had actually trivialized the fervor of the first line by rendering it as simply a meteorological condition that any country, or any piece of acreage on earth for that matter, experiences every day. The second phrase is even worse: “Child of the sun returning” is a pure metaphorical invention of theirs; if they were not respectable people, one would have thought that they may have been drunk or joking when they did this linguistic travesty to “Hija del Sol de Oriente” or “Daughter of the Orient Sun.” In their translation, Osias and Lane had obliterated gender, age, and geography in Palma’s original metaphor and replaced it with preposterous doggerel: did the returning sun sire the child, or was the sun’s prodigal child returning? In place of a beautiful and spontaneous outburst of piety, they had chosen to immortalize a vexing riddle. Moreover, when they used archaic English in “Thee do our souls adore” and “Ne’er shall invaders /Trample thy sacred shore,” they obviously did not anticipate that by imposing such seemingly bizarre grammar, they will be tongue-twisting and perplexing generations of Filipinos every time they sang their own national anthem with feeling.

Lost in Translation - 2

Did the Surian ng Wikang Pambansa under Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay fare any better when they translated Filipinas, the Spanish lyrics of our national anthem, into Tagalog in 1956? Let’s take a look at their lyrics that we are still singing today:

Bayang magiliw  
Perlas ng Silanganan,
Alab ng puso
Sa dibdib mo’y buhay.
Lupang hinirang
Duyan ka ng magiting
Sa manlulupig
Di ka pasisiil.

Offhand I would say that these eight lines render more faithfully Palma’s Spanish original than Osias and Lane with their English. We can easily crosscheck this by faithfully translating them into English:  

Oh charming land/
Pearl of the Orient,
The fire in your heart
Is alive in my breast.
Oh chosen land,
Hammock of the brave,
Never will I allow conquerors
Ever to vanquish you.

Both the Tagalog and the crosscheck version above are, I think, beautiful in themselves and fit to be sung in perpetuity.

Now, at this point, I do not wish to be construed as being irreverent, particularly because Bayang Magiliw has already been engraved in the mind and heart of every Filipino schoolchild and adult through years of repeated singing. But I just would like to observe that like Osias and Lane, the Surian made a careless trampoline jump in imagery, sense, and intent from the Palma original in the first two lines alone (I will forever withhold comment on the translation of the remaining 18). “Bayang magiliw,” which focuses on the charm of the land, is nowhere near in image and meaning to “Tierra adorada,” which expresses the citizen’s fealty to his native land. “Perlas ng silanganan,” too, is low-level imagery that is not even a pale shadow of “Hija del sol de Oriente,” which expresses a deep maternal intimacy between citizen and land in their unique place under the sun. What, indeed, is so special about a common Eastern pearl, or of one at any point of the compass for that matter? This Tagalog rendering is a debased metaphor—almost a cliché —that further suffers from the unnatural verbal extension and contortion that “silangan” must do to make lyric fit with melody. And to think that we have now enshrined it as supposedly a lovely icon for all that’s good and beautiful about our country! I would have expected the lyricists to at least consider the limits of sensibility and the average vocal chord before taking this verbal and not so poetic liberty.

And while talking about anthems I have another thought that has bothered me for a long time. What could be a more blatant mark of the Filipinos’ fierce tribalism and divisiveness than the proliferation of vernacular translations of the Philippine national anthem? I have seen at least seven other complete translations of the Spanish original—in Cebuano, Ilocano, Haligaynon, Bicolano, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, and Tausug—and from the looks of it, most of these tribes have likewise taken extreme liberties with the intent and meaning of the original Spanish. Some have even tried to outdo one another in the waywardness of their translations. The Tausug version, for one, had not been able to resist using the word “Filipinas” itself in the lyric—which is almost an oxymoron, since nowhere in the Spanish lyrics was the country’s name mentioned. Such was the tribal desire to match meter with melody rather than be faithful to the substance of the song.

The Americans, after uniting behind Francis Scott Key’s new lyrics for the well-known drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven, when they won tentative victory over the British in 1814, never did anything as bizarre as this. And once the U.S. Congress passed a law proclaiming The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem in 1931, they have been playing and singing exactly the same tune and lyrics ever since. Unlike ours, here was a country of 3.5 million square miles (more than 30 times bigger than ours), with more migrants and ethnic races than we have, and yet with absolutely no compulsion to translate their national anthem to some petty dialect, or to depart even a bit from the unabashed verve and vision of its early patriots. The same is the case of the French with their national anthem, La Marseilles. Composed by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle one night during the French Revolution in 1792, and twice banned by two intervening regimes, it has stood the test of time in the hearts and minds of the French more than two centuries hence.

Long ago, during my salad days, I took a fancy at the Spanish poem Romance Sonambulo (Somnambulistic Ballad) by Federico Garcia Lorca and cross-translated it to Tagalog with an English translation as a guide. I thought I did a rather good job at it, particularly the way the Spanish “Mil panderos de cristal, /herían la madrugada,” hewing close to “A thousand tambourines /Wounded the dawning of the day” in the English, evolved to “Sanlibong tamburina /Ang sumusugat sa dapit-umaga” in Tagalog. The translation came out in the college paper and, although I got nothing in payment, it gave me a chance to bask under Andy Warhol’s fifteen seconds of evanescent fame. This emboldened me to become more ambitious: I attempted to render in Tagalog the English version of La grasse matinée by the French poet Jacques Prévert.

Since the poem was in free verse, translating most of it was actually a piece of cake. But upon reaching the portion with the phrase “Ces pâtés ces bouteilles ces conserves,” which the English translator had rendered as “Bottles of pâte foie de gras,” I was stumped. It was way past midnight in the late ’60s and my cheap French-English dictionary was clueless about it. There was not a soul to consult, much less a French one, so I tentatively rendered the phrase to “Alak na pâte foie de gras,” [“Wine made of pâte foie de gras”] and then completely forgot about it. The rest of the translation was otherwise flawless, and it actually impressed the editor of the college paper so much that he promptly published it verbatim.

Many years later, much older and a little wiser, I was to discover that pâte in French meant “paste,” foie was “goose,” and gras was “fat,” as in Mardi gras, which means “Fat Tuesday.” In my haste and in my sloth, I wrongly made wine of what was actually the exquisite oily concoction of fatty goose paste so well-loved by the French! (circa 2002)

This two-part essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in 2002 and subsequently appeared in Jose Carillo’s book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language. Copyright © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. Copyright © 2008 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: March 02, 2017, 10:25:05 AM by Joe Carillo »