Saturday, 17 December 2011

Hilarious Translations Department

This post is a present for those of my Argentinian friends who get wound up by bad English translations of song lyrics.

One of the ways I like to practice a language is to read something too difficult for me. I'm relaxed about not understanding two-thirds of it, I learn lots of new words, and I get a sense of achievement from just making sense of the structure of a sentence.

In pursuit of that, I have been dipping into a book borrowed from my Dad - a translation into Spanish of a not-particularly-good English detective story. It hasn't been a good choice, except for one line.

Early in the tale, the writer quotes the well-known couplet attributed to John Ball, preacher of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England:

"When Adam delved and Eve span,
who was then the gentleman?"

Don't say "Adam". (Ball's point, for my non-native-speaker readers, was that no-one is a "gentleman" by birth: if all humans were descended from the same parents, the feudal hierarchy of nobles and peasants could not be based on the law of God).

It looks pretty straightforward, to me. But what they've put is this:
Cuando Adán sondeó y Eva se revolvió,
¿quién fue entonces el caballero?

And I said to myself: that can't possibly be right, can it? "Span" is the past of "to spin" - and yes, that can mean to revolve quickly on one's axis, but here it doesn't mean that at all. It means to make thread by twisting together fibres, such as wool or flax. Which, of course, is what Eve was doing while Adam was delving (that is, digging) the earth, to grow food. 'Se revolver' can't possibly mean that - why would it be reflexive? She wasn't standing there and turning around, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night. She was spinning fibre.

I was a bit doubtful about 'sondear'. I wondered if the translator was seeing both "delve" and "spin" as metaphors for some kind of deep thought. They're not - they mean using a spade and a spindle, respectively, to grow food and make textiles. In this English sentence, neither of them can possibly be taken in any other sense.

My dictionary being inconclusive, I checked with a Spanish native speaker. Not only is the 'spinning' wrong, but it seems 'sondear' is catastrophically wrong too. It actually means 'to sound' or to 'take soundings' - in the maritime sense of to measure the depth of the sea using a long rope with a weight at the end. Nothing to do with spades at all.

So what they've written is:

When Adam took soundings and Eve revolved, who was then the gentleman?

Which sounds like some sort of Dada-ist poetry; it is bizarre, dreamlike gibberish. And there's a place for bizarre, dreamlike gibberish; but not as a translation of this direct, forceful utterance, persuading the workers to throw off their chains.

Disastrous. My informant pointed out that the choice of a perfect tense rather than an imperfect is also questionable. It should probably be 'araba' and 'hilaba,' because the digging and spinning are usual actions rather than a single event; but I think that's minor. Maybe they wanted to make it rhyme.

Anyway. While thinking about this, I wondered, did Eve really spin? How far back in the history of humanity, as opposed to religious stories, does spinning really go? I remembered reading about this research, which uses the genetics of human body lice and head lice to infer that the practice of wearing clothes goes back at least 83,000 years and perhaps 170,000. If these clothes were made of skins, spinning was not necessary; but if they were made of cloth, the thread must, I suppose, have been spun.

As for evidence of spinning itself, it seems to go back a very long time before recorded history, but nobody really has any idea how old it is, as far as I can tell. Ancient pots are embellished with patterns created by pressing a cord into the wet clay. The Greeks of Homer said that spinning was taught to humans by Athene, who turned Arachne into a spider for getting too good at it. The Navajo say they learned it from Spider-Woman.

From what I can find, it seems to be old; at least in the tens of thousands of years. I don't know if there are humans anywhere that don't traditionally spin, but there are climates where clothes are a useless burden, and where local plants and animals do not provide any suitable fibres. So even if there are, they might have forgotten how, rather than never learned. There's no obvious upper limit on how old it might be.

Here is someone spinning, in the Himalayas.

And here is a Navajo elder doing the same thing with a longer, but otherwise similar, spindle, while explaining the technique. There are many different techniques, and many forms of spindle, but the essence of the process is much the same.



Tangocommuter said...

I wonder if this could be reverse-engineered into Spanish?

'In the early nineties in the tango in Buenos Aires were few, we walked all in a milonga. And to be a professional dancer, had to call you, you summoned. Now some get "a kiosquito", are mounted more or less and go outside to throw the fishing pole.'

From La Porteña Tango, a monthly online tango magazine, much easier to read in Spanish than in the (computer translated?) English.

Anonymous said...

Did you say you had a day job? ;-)

msHedgehog said...

@Tangocommuter - interesting how the meaning survives the process and is crystal clear.

@Anon - Yes?