Lost In Translation

by SDG

in Languages


Michelle here.

Last week my brother-in-law found some time to install the DVD player he and my sister gave me last Christmas — which goes to show you that I’m no techno-geek, since it had to sit on my couch for nearly a year. Delighted to finally have DVD capability, I went out and bought three seasons worth of I Love Lucy (Seasons One, Four, and Five), my all-time favorite TV show.

When I put in Season One for my own personal I Love Lucy marathon, I was frustrated to find that most of the episodes were subtitled in Spanish. I was even more frustrated that Ricky Ricardo’s famous Spanish rages were not translated into English, but that’s another story. Since I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the subtitles, I assumed that they were standard to the set and decided to tolerate them.

Once I did, I started to notice something interesting.

I am not especially well-versed in Spanish, having only taken three years in high school and nothing since, but I can read a bit of it unassisted and recognize some more if put side-by-side with English. What I found fascinating during my viewing of I Love Lucy was seeing how English was translated into Spanish. Being fluent in English (I hope) and knowing enough Spanish to recognize translations, I found that a lot was lost in translation.

Some examples:

  • English colloquialisms apparently did not have exact translations. When the English-speaker would say "Easy!" while moving something, the translation into Spanish would be "Careful!" or "With caution." The meaning of the colloquialism was captured, but not a translation.
  • A whole range of English versions of "okay" would have one Spanish translation: "Bien."
  • The subtleties of language, which were sometimes used to humorous effect, were lost. Comical alliterations like "tubby trio" and "flabby foursome" could not be recaptured once they were translated.

All of this made up for the annoyance of subtitles that were not needed. Eventually, after fiddling around with the DVD remote, I finally figured out how to turn off the subtitles. But the translational game was so much fun I may turn them on again in the future to see if I can catch more translational glitches.

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Tim J. December 13, 2005 at 6:59 am

I’m no liguist at all, but from what I understand, English just has a lot more words than most languages, having “borrowed” from a number of others.
In addition to the huge vocabulary, English also breaks a lot of its own rules, and the exceptions can take a while for non-native speakers to learn.
So what I have heard from those who have English as a second language is that translating from English usually involves some simplification.
Maybe Jimmy can comment, since he is familiar with more languages than anyone I know.

TNP December 13, 2005 at 7:31 am

!I Love Lucy is my all time favorite show, too! I know the scenes, dialogue, and facial expressions by heart.)
My father was Italian and his English was pretty good, but it was often a literal translation into English and vice versa and made for some very funny moments.

Maureen December 13, 2005 at 9:26 am

Spanish has lots and lots of slang expressions and idioms, especially if you count the different countries’ many different usages. I guarantee that there are a zillion ways to say “Bien”, and also a zillion different ways to translate various English words of assent.
However, a lot depends on the translator, and what he/she wants to do.
The Spanish version is probably going to be sold to folks who speak all sorts of different Spanish, so the translator was probably afraid that wordplay would be a lost effort. But I think this was a bad mistake, as wordplay is one of the great joys of any comedy. (Spanish language ones included.)
OTOH, there is the Lovecraftian horror of German dubbed episodes of the original Star Trek, warning translators everywhere not to try too hard to be funny.
On the gripping hand, however, the person who translated the cartoon show Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century into Spanish was not only up with Sherlockian terminology in the standard translations of the old Holmes stories, but determined to have witty fun of his or her own making when scenes didn’t translate/play well. Since the Spanish voice actors were just as skilled as the original ones, but had their own interpretations of the parts, it was a constant delight to listen to them on the DVD, or when the local station accidentally broadcast the wrong sound channel.
(Not to mention grappling with the social class characterization implications of various kinds of Spanish accents coming into play. I swear, deciding who’s going to have the Puerto Rican accent must be just like deciding which role is going to be the mezzo. It’s amusing, but also disturbing.)
The Stargate Spanish subtitles are pretty nifty for learning military terms en Espanol, IIRC.

Matt Ellsworth December 14, 2005 at 11:08 am

Interesting observations. I’m impressed that you paid attention to the subtitles at all. When you actually know the other language well, the subtitles ruin the show, as you end up reading them critically.
Actually, “cuidado” (careful) is a good translation of “Easy!” in that context. It’s what a Spanish speaker would say to the person moving the furniture. Translating “easy” into its Spanish equivalent (f├ícil) would have been a mistake.
Subtitles are something that I plan to talk about on my blog about the business aspects of translation.

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