The Art of Translation


Words, words, words. We use them to communicate, to share, to sell, to injure, to fight, to learn, to love. So much is done with words! But not all of us share the same pool of words to communicate. Since the days of the Tower of Babel, we’ve had to deal with a diversity of languages and, therefore, the need of translation. God is into translation. Not only did he divide human beings by the means of creating different languages, but many centuries later He then sought to unite us through the Word.

As never before, this century has required translation. We have a global economy and a global cybernetic network that has eliminated the countries’ boundaries, and enabled people to share information and goods. What has not been solved yet is the language barrier. Google is trying very hard, but often (always?) misses the nuanced cultural intent.

Recently, I was translating an upcoming Christmas piece. As part of the text, the author quoted several romantic Christmas carols about snow, fireplaces, lights, sleighs, and every other yuletide sentimentality. Here is one example:

“When we finally kiss goodnight, how I’ll hate going out in the storm. But if you really hold me tight, all the way home I’ll be warm.” (From “Let It Snow”)

If you relied on Google to translate that sentence into Spanish, you would get this:

“Cuando finalmente beso de buenas noches, como me odiaré a salir en la tormenta. Pero si realmente me abrazas fuerte, todo el camino a casa voy a estar caliente.” (Deja que nieve)

A native Spanish speaker would get a good laugh after reading this! While Google has done a good job in preserving the literal meaning, it is failing to capture the cultural meaning. For example, because Christmas is a summer-time holiday in the southern hemisphere, it evokes completely different imagery and feelings than it does in the Northern Hemisphere. A better practice, in this case, would be to capture the intent of the author, more than his plain words. So I found well-known Spanish “villancicos” [carols] that, though not talking about romance, did convey the overall theme of the piece. Here is the one I chose for the carol above.

“Si me ven, si me ven, voy camino de Belén.” (El burrito sabanero)

So, what are the ingredients for good localization?

  • Write for a global audience. If possible, it starts with teaching the authors of the original text to think globally. A “kick in the pants” is understood in one country, maybe two. But other countries—even English-speaking ones, may miss the true, intended meaning. If you have any intention of reaching beyond your borders, write for a global audience.
  • Accept localized versions. If the material is already written, translators need the freedom to adapt. Consult with them, so that the end product is what you want to communicate.
  • Hire the right translators. Bilingual people are a dime a dozen. Seek professional translators who are experts in the subject matter. Volunteerism is wonderful, but remember: You get what you pay for. When it comes to communicating your message, you need the best.

Yes, translation is an art, and it is not for everybody! The translator must be able to interpret beyond mere words and compose the message in a way that can be fully understood in the target language, without losing the original intent. Such skill requires intimate immersion into both cultures.

Thankfully, God has gifted individuals with this capacity so we can relive the miracle of Acts chapter 2, when the disciples were given the ability to speak in other languages. The audience of that day was touched because they were able to hear about the mighty works of God in their own tongues. We are here to be your Spanish voice and recreate similar transforming experiences!

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