Español en Miami

The Spanish Language Division of the ATA and Florida’s local translator and interpreter group, ATIF, did a tremendous job organizing the recent Spring into Action conference in Miami. It offered me multiple learning experiences and one major revelation, as well as a great opportunity to chat in Spanish and meet people from all corners of the Spanish-speaking world.

One of the first talks I attended was about Spanish and “English” quotation marks, by Jorge de Buen Unna of the Universidad Anáhuac in Mexico. He caught my attention when he mentioned he had given this talk before and subsequently received written comments from a participant who was dismayed at how critical Mr. de Buen had been of English-language quote marks. The speaker went on to explain in Spanish that he did not mean to be critical, and stated in English that there should be “no offense taken.” In fact, he did say that he finds English quotes (“ ”) ugly, and that real Spanish uses guillemets (« »), but what truly sparked my interest was the fact that I was planning to say something very similar in the talk I would be giving at this conference in two days. I would be discussing the influence of Spanish as a source language on English target-language translation. Because I had also given a similar talk last year, I had a similar experience of an audience member telling me that I clearly didn’t like Spanish very much. So this time, I came prepared to explain that in fact, I love the Spanish language. Same coin, two sides.

The next day, I attended a talk by María Barros, a senior adviser and terminologist at the UN. Her topic was anglicisms in Spanish translation. One of her opening questions had no immediate answer:  Is there an equivalent term for Spanish words that crowd into the English language? I thought of Hispanicisms, but the fact that we had trouble coming up with a term speaks volumes about the current influence of English in the world. To my initial dismay, Ms. Barros was covering much of the ground that I would be discussing at my own talk, albeit in the direction English-to-Spanish rather than Spanish-to-English. She cautioned against using English-sounding words when Spanish had more suitable, Spanish-sounding words. She pointed out that Spanish translators forget to use the word “aquello,” limiting themselves to “esto” and “eso” because English has only “this” and “that.” She then advised against using the passive voice, claiming its use was frequent in English, and explained the concept of transposition—all points I was planning to make as well. I was digesting this trove of information from Ms. Barros as I walked out of the conference room when it dawned on me: The problem standing in the way of excellent translation that we were all addressing is not any perceived weakness or flawed style inherent in the source language, it’s the poor writing skills of those who produce the documents we are hired to translate.


The talk I attended on the last day of the conference, on seeking excellence when translating into Spanish, confirmed this revelation for me. The speaker was Alberto Gómez Font, he of the Fundación del Español Urgente, editor and professor at the news agency EFE, and member of the fun-loving Spanish-language collective Palabras Mayores. He urged Spanish translators to avoid long, cumbersome sentences and wordy phrases in favor of clear and direct writing. He counseled translators to avoid verbs like “hacer” and “tomar” when Spanish has much nicer and more descriptive verbs. Wait a minute, I thought, that’s the typical Spanish style, that’s what I’m going to tell my audience to avoid, too. But no, it turns out that excellent Spanish consists of clarity and conciseness just as much as English does. It’s our job as translators—of any language—to cut through the weak style of the original and produce well-written documents in our target language.

So I was grateful to Ms. Barros and Mr. Gómez for their contributions, both to my understanding of Spanish and to my presentation, and for their willingness to share their vast knowledge and experience. I appreciated all of the speakers I heard at the conference. They were intelligent, knowledgeable, and well prepared. They gave me insights into my own work from their opposite perspective of English into Spanish.

The attendees at my talk also taught me things. The native Spanish speakers said their English teachers had told them never to use phrasal verbs, because they are too informal.  And of course, they were taught the old mistaken chestnut—a preposition is something you shouldn’t end a sentence with. The group was appreciative and supportive. Overall, the Miami conference was an experience I won’t soon forget.


That’s Lady Mondegreen to You

One of the many fun components of language is the ways we can mishear or misuse it. This concept is known, appropriately, by many names: mondegreens, malapropisms, Bunkerisms, and more, depending on slight distinctions in meaning. “Mondegreen,” for example, is often applied to the mishearing of song lyrics. The story goes that American author Sylvia Wright coined the term in an essay she wrote in 1954 involving the lyrics to the Scottish ballad, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray”:

Ye highlands and ye lowlands
Oh where hae ye been?
Ye hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green.

What Ms. Wright heard as a child listening to the song was this: “Ye hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” So the lady died, and a new term was born. In more recent times, I’ve gotten a chuckle from my son’s mishearing of the Nirvana song “All Apologies.” When the ever-articulate Kurt Cobain sings the line, “All in all is all we are,” my son sings, “All alone in Narnia.” The funniest lyrical mondegreens ever have to be from the YouTube video of Joe Cocker singing “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

In spoken language, we have malaproprisms, or the ludicrous misuse of words. Archie Bunker on the ’70s sitcom All in the Family was well known for zingers such as, “I ain’t got no respect for no religion where the head guy claims he can’t make no mistakes. Like he’s, waddya call, inflammable,” or
“Some Catlick priest sprinkling incest over everyone.” I didn’t know it came in powdered form.
Eggcorns are a related phenomenon, but the new term coined may make a twisted sort of sense (“egg corn” as a substitute for “acorn”).

Spoonerisms are also a misuse of words, but unlike malapropisms, these transpose letters in words, as in, “one swell foop.” This term got its name from 19th-century British university dean William Archibald Spooner, who was unfortunately famous for slips of the tongue such as “our queer old dean” instead of “our dear old queen.” One of my favorite spoonerisms is the clever line of unknown origin, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

In the case of mondegreens, we’re just trying to make sense of foreign concepts and relate them to something familiar. How many of you pledged allegiance to the republic for witches’ stands in elementary school? Many did. Malapropisms often involve linguistic ignorance or pretentious attempts at sounding intelligent. Spoonerisms, however, can be intentional to produce comic effect. Ultimately, any variation from the usual, accepted use of language is often funny and always interesting.