Translating Adjectives between Spanish and English

Adjectives are also part of the vocabulary, but their use in literature can sometimes be peculiar. Specifically, there are two types of issues related to adjectives that we should pay special attention to when translating from English to Spanish.

Displaced adjectives or hypalage

According to the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, hypalage is that rhetorical figure consisting of referring to a complement to a word other than the one to which it should logically refer.

Specifically, we call displaced adjectives those adjectives that, although having qualities that apply to certain nouns, are used in a literary text in relation to other nouns with which they do not, at first sight, have a relationship. If an author, for example, speaks of “a rainy face,” he is applying characteristics of meteorology to a face, or if he speaks of an “old storm,” on the contrary, he is applying characteristics of a woman to a meteorological phenomenon. The problem is that, sometimes, the translator can read this oddity as a mistake and try to correct it by applying the adjective he thinks is rightfully his (“a tearful face” or “furrowed with tears” or “an old storm” or “endless”, for example). In doing so, the translator may believe that he is writing the text better, and this may be true in some cases, but in others he may simply be destroying a literary effect and causing the noun to lose a whole load of connotations that derive precisely from the displacement of that adjective with all its peculiar charge. At a lexical-semantic level, hypalation alters the usual meaning of the noun. Above all, it breaks the connections that our brain has established since childhood, provoking in the reader the sensation of being in front of something new and more intense than usual.

Compound adjectives

A peculiarity of English, which differentiates it from Spanish, is its flexibility to create adjectives by juxtaposing words linked with hyphens.

This flexibility has created words that are considered as such and have their own entry in the dictionary (for example: mouth-watering, sun-dried), but the mechanism is open to all possibilities. Any combination is possible, adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs can be joined, giving rise to locutions with an adjective function. These phrases have two special qualities:

On the one hand, they allow for infinite nuance. On the other hand, they allow to synthesize in a very short space descriptions that in Spanish may require several lines. Bearing in mind that in literature both precision and conciseness are always powerful tools, we can see there an almost insurmountable obstacle, which will force us to resort to ingenuity to achieve similar effects.

As we can see, translators have solved the translation of these compound adjectives in different ways: either by transforming them into a single adjective (home), or by transforming them into a prepositional syntagm (purple-lipped, soft-spoken, experienced, dark bearded). Regardless of how successful the translations are, these are the usual resources we can resort to.

In general, these are the procedures used because that is the custom of our language. It could be observed, however, that some authors resort to compound adjectives much more frequently. Of the stories translated in the workshop and used as examples, D. H. Lawrence’s is far superior to all the others in its use. We could deduce that Lawrence takes special advantage of this resource to create adjectives that are both plain and understandable to any reader (they are in no way cultists), but which transform language in their own way and generate new concepts. We could say that this is a stylistic trait of Lawrence that would be hopelessly lost in translation. To think of the creation of neologisms through lexical composition would excessively elevate the “literariness” of a text that Lawrence expressly wanted to be plain. Perhaps the only thing we could think of is to avoid at least the use of a particularly fancy vocabulary, and limit ourselves, as the translators did, to looking for translations that are as simple as possible.

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