Talking Translation #3 – Religion (But really Adéquation)

Because I quite clearly do not like myself enough, I decided to approach a topic that is sure not to be controversial: religion! Whether someone has one, and chooses to try and spread it, whether someone is in doubt, or they do not believe organized religion religion itself remains a thorny topic that will very likely get me in trouble should I say the wrong thing. The truth however is that translation and religion have always been intertwined at least in the West, so much so that the Bible, treated not as the written word of God but rather a series of texts is used as the go to example one turns to learn Translation History, so it was a topic that was bound to come up. 

It’s also, however a topic that is so multifaceted that I could make a whole series of post just about translation and how it’s impacted by God, a lack of one, or gods. I could get really political and talk about the impact of translation on colonization via missionaries, which would lead us into a rabbit hole about whether translation is ethical, moral, or even a net positive but I’d rather focus on one very, itsy-bitsy aspect of it. To do so is a necessity for me. I am, after all, not a noted author on the topic and so do not have the credentials to talk about it without writing the equivalent of a Masters’ thesis on it and to do so it will allow us to better explore the issue. Small bites, digging into details and enjoying the sumptuous flavor rather than slurping it all if you’ll forgive the food analogy that no doubt comes from writing this at dawn while hungry…

There is an old saying which basically translates (ha!) into good life advice. It states that there are three things friends should not discuss should they wish to remain in that state: religion, politics and (at least in the Portuguese version of it) sports. It’s savvy advice, as those three topics have the potential to doom a relationship or at least make conversations at the dinner table awkward. Faith can be a pretty personal thing and it can help define identities and shape lives and topics with such importance should be treated with the utmost care and attention so as to properly respect their stature.

There is an argument to be made that religion has been the single most impacting force to shape humanity throughout its history. For better or for worse, it has influenced us to such an extent that, even if you don’t think about it, it has ingrained itself in our languages. Really that should not be surprising. When the American dollar has “In God we Trust” and when the number of believers in Catholicism totals in the hundreds of millions it should have been pretty obvious. It already influenced art, architecture, commerce and written works. That it would go so far as to affect the way we speak and communicate should have been a given. 


And I come from a country where, like with fairy tales, there’s temples and chapels hidden away in caves. I know about devotion

As an aside, let’s talk about Latin for one small moment, because that is the most striking example in my Westernized, Catholic descending mind of a religion helping preserve a language.

Clerical Latin is pronounced (we think) slightly different and has some slight modifications the way the Church held power through Latin and its increasing rarity, treating those who spoke it as members of an elite membership and keeping the common folk from understanding it. So the Bible (which was before Martin Luther exclusively written in it) has helped preserve Latin and its structure and grammar. There are similar stories with Hebrew and Arabian but I do not feel qualified to discuss them.

That it does affect language does impact all manner of things though, and this isn’t about representations of holy figures, appropriation of someone’s culture or making a mockery of someone else’s belief; I am already dealing with religion as a controversial topic, I somehow don’t think I could handle discussing politics as well.

When religion takes over your Interjections

Of course when the Catholic church has a history with your country that’s a millennia old and the level of devotion of some can rival that of an Irish nun some things will seep through. Some, naturally enter the common lexicon because of actions of the church, or are derived from it; others are held and internalized. Have you ever wondered why “Damn” is a curse one even if a mild one? The concept of damnation, eternal one at that is just so vile a concept that it has become a swear, as has “hell”. We barely think about it but plenty of words and concepts we have a strong aversion and revulsion to, or many of our exclamations derive from religion.

Sticking with English for a bit, let’s analyze what someone might say if they’re scared. Any one of us can make a list of things if we woke up to a fright. Did you think of “Jesus!”, or perhaps “Holy shit!”? Even if you’re not a Christian, and there’s every chance that you are not if English is your native language, I’m quite certain they might have crossed your mind.

Not everyone will emote as little as Nuno Melo (if you’ll allow the in joke, check resources below!)

Interjections themselves are a fun if bothersome thing to translate because they really give you a chance to take from life and your interactions with it, it reminds me of the thing that is told to writers all the time, write what you know and it makes it apparent that a translator has to be a good writer too. What do I mean by that? Depending on the situation, depending on who you’re hanging with or how you were raised you will have plenty of ways to show surprise, terror, annoyance. Let’s be honest, you really aren’t a likely to let out a “Mother-fu…” in the presence of your mother as you are amidst friends. And that presents opportunities.

It’s easy enough to see how the two things relate, but just to catch anyone who is not up to speed, if religion shapes language, including exclamations, and exclamations can be personalized this presents a problem because a large number of popular Portuguese exclamations are based on religious (mostly catholic) figures and iconography. Allow me to present a real translation I am working at the moment, one that has provided its fair share of challenges and which might have triggered plenty of ideas for this post:

In this (partial) image of my workspace you can see that I’m directly translating the original, inside the code, and its segments, That’s usually not how things are done – usually there is an excel sheet with the original on the left and you put the translation to the right so there’s a direct row and column for every segment, or “string”. Although it is quite interesting however it is not my workspace I want you to focus most of your attention on, however, but rather the second set of strings.

The problematic word here is “goodness”, there are some further challenges in other segments but as an exclamation “goodness” presents a problem, Translation must look at the context and at te whole sentence, however to get a better idea on how to translate so let’s see what “role” “Goodness” is doing here.

This is one of those basic mistakes that first year translation students do, and I mean no shade because I was once a first year translation student, and I know very well that I too did the mistake myself. It should be pretty obvious a rule, “read the whole thing before starting to translate” but it’s harder to maintain than it first appears, Translators have this common problem, I don’t know if it applies to all but it’s an issue which is common to all fellow translators I’ve talked to: We cannot start reading a text, in any language we speak, without starting to think of what we’d do and how we’d translate it. So as we walk through my thought process let’s avoid the error and read the whole thng, lest we need to redo it.

What role does it play? It’s something that a translator must always look at. not just what the word means but what it is doing in a text, this applies to more than words too, mind you, it applies to images or any accompanying media, but let’s keep it simple.

Is it an exclamation of surprise? Could be, it could be that the character wasn’t expecting it to be that hard. But then look at the “today” that implies it’s not the first or second time he goes to class. Could it be annoyance? It’s very possible, he does seem like he resents the fact he had to work so hard, but what kind of annoyance is it? Is it one directed at someone or something that might result in agression? Is it one tinted by relief because it’s over?

One of the things my University Campus has that always relaxes students is its own population of wild ducks…that and PLENTY of Coffee

As a translator every time we read an interaction or something of the sort a vast numbers of calculations make their way through our mind as we consider this and more. One thing about me that I don’t often mention, but that my friends agree makes sense is that I’m within the ASD Spectrum (and given ASD means autism spectrum disorder that’s a redundant statement), I’m not good at day to day interactions, at figuring out meanings at and what people want or do not want. I do not get tone. Being a translator however has given me a better understanding of what other people go through, what comes easily to them. I mask, I mask and pretend to be neurotypical than I really am but it’s translation that makes me go through the process.

Sometimes even with ducks, a break is needed. This is a photo of where I go to relax – a little quiet cafe with a wonderful view….

So what is it? Me I think it’s the kind of annoyance you display with exhaustion, with a sigh, with words that come out tired, as if you just want someone to listen to you. Given he is talking to another character, that seems to me to be the most likely. Now let’s look at the word again “goodness”

And while I took you through the mind of a translator for this one small decision, now is where we return to the topic at hand. Translators have a certain sub-set of language that they will come back to more and more often, one that comes more easily to them, an idiolect. It’s one of the reasons why the same 100 word text will be translated 100 different ways by 100 translators, everyone has a different understanding and grasp at the language they use. It doesn’t mean one choice is less valid than others – as long as it fits the same role but it does mean something, it means that in a country as heavily bound and influenced by Catholicism to many, words which carry a religious connotation will be a natural fit.

Adequating text, or just don’t shove religion where it isn’t called for

Have you ever heard the joke about the Flintstones? The one that goes “hardy har, why do they celebrate Christmas if Jesus wasn’t born yet?” This is kind of the same thing.

I will not entirely spoil Buddinpals, a game which I have come to love while translating it and talking to their amazing dev which full disclosure means a lot to me, but what I will say is that a mention of God, Jesus, religion or what have you might not be the most appropriate.

It’s a time honored translation tradition to put God – or Western, Abrahamic notions of God into texts that have nothing to do with our notion of Him. It’s something we’ve done with Japanese texts, it’s something we famously did with Ancient Greek texts (Hades and the notion of Hell come to mind) but it’s something most Translation Theories nowadays defend should not be done without reason.

We can talk adaptation, and that’s a discussion I plan to have some other time, but just as you would not insert an Egyptian Pharaoh calling out to Jesus’ name (for a variety of reasons) or alien character not native to Earth would not know who George Washington was prior to contact to Earth there are plenty of reasons not to use language that carries with it religious connotations in something like Buddinpals.

Many of them won’t become apparent unless you play the game (or indeed spend months with it translating it), but it ties plenty to the kind of word and characters that inhabit it. Because I do not want to have this post be read as an advertisement I’ll give you an example. Should Sonic the Hedgehog, or Spongebob talk about God and religion? Does that fit their world? Ignore for a second the large christian following Sonic has, which is not relevant, but would it not read as weird? Off putting even?

I am not one to judge of course, but this google search is a trip and a half (but really what sonic the hedgehog related one isn’t?)

I have a confession to make, though this post might be titled “Religion” or some variation of that, the real theme of the post is adequating the text. Sure, when I read “goodness” in that tone (conveyed so much better through text to me) I might arrive at a word with religious connotations, but that’s just one step out of many. It’s not the end journey.

You saw the steps I used to determine the mood, you saw how much every decision is weighted. That cannot start or end with just one part of it. Words have power, or at least they held far more meaning than it seems at first glance. I come from an era where texts are read and reread a dozen times for meaning, where J.K Rowling had to apologize for giving the same last name to a minor character mentioned once she did to a major character, incidentally the least important thing she has to apologize for now.

It’s a matter of appropriation, and it’s a matter of adequation, such concepts might seem not to matter, but it’s a matter of avoiding anachronisms and breaks of logic. I might have said last time that “Translation is by itself an act of interpretation” but there is no need to add fuel to the fire.

Have another photo of our university ducks. QUACK!

Further Introductory Resources: (Treat it as a list, not a resource – beware the Brazilian Variant of Portuguese is used as default)

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