Visual Recreation and Terminology in Spanish Literary Translations

Beyond its ability to narrate properly and expound ideas, literature is characterized by its impressive ability to “turn on” our mind through words and project images on it. When we mention certain words, areas of the brain dedicated to what has been mentioned are activated. Let’s say that if we mention the word “leg”, the brain area related to movement is activated, and if we mention the word “yellow”, the area in charge of registering a visual signal is activated. We could therefore say that, in some way, the magic of literature is not magic, it is science!

A good description is not a pile of details. Listing and adding elements, without them being loaded with meaning and significant, can kill the reader’s patience. A good literary text uses words to define these images, in a clear or blurred way, with fine or thick brushstrokes, with strident colors or in muted tones. Like a good painter, the writer (and the translator) can induce in the reader the sensation of witnessing a real scene. The descriptive parts of a literary text, whether they are more or less explicit, therefore have a fundamental role that the translator must take care of with care if, like the author, he wants his reader to “see” what is happening in the narrative.

It can be said that, in other times, descriptions used to be longer and more detailed, as we often see in classical texts, and it is logical that this was the case because it was then more difficult for the reader to imagine places that he had never seen and probably would never be able to see. Some authors therefore think that descriptions are now out of place, since today distant countries are closer, spaces once reserved such as palaces or castles have opened up, and one can tell what any furniture, painting, fabric, instrument, animal, etc. looks like with a single click. However, the truth is that descriptions, whether more realistic or more abstract, are still present in literary texts and feed the reader’s imagination.

Descriptions tend to be very detailed and colorful texts, difficult to translate, and here the main difficulties do not lie so much, as in the previous case, in the syntax, but rather in the careful choice of words. It is often in these paragraphs that we will spend the most time, where research will be most needed, but the reward will also be rewarding: a good description fills our minds with images and allows us as readers to dive into those places where our heroes walk and look at them, moreover, from the point of view of the narrator, looking at what he or she is looking at and seeing things that perhaps we, even if we had been there, would never have seen.

Vocabulary and Terminology

In a description -or in a novel, we could say-, details are essential, but not just any details are valid, but those that are opportune, functional, that is, those that contribute something to the development of the action, to the understanding of the facts, or to the psychological portrait of the characters, for example.

The accuracy of the vocabulary used serves to give greater credibility to a story, to make it credible. If we have a character who is a cabinetmaker, it would not be credible if he only used the saw and hammer. He will have to use chisels, rasps or brushes, he will have to know what a corbel is. But this enhanced vocabulary sometimes slips into the realm of what we call terminology, that is, the study of “terms” or, what is the same, the vocabulary proper to specialty languages. There are many ways to enlarge the dimensions of our world. One of them is to use binoculars or a telescope and explore what is far away, out of sight. Learning other languages is, along with travel, the most common way to expand our borders. But there is another way that we often forget, a more discreet way that demands more recollection and that undoubtedly causes less sensation, and that is to change the telescope for the microscope, the binoculars for the magnifying glass, and to observe the world closely, paying attention to the peculiar rather than to the general.

Although most often we start with a bilingual dictionary that, in case of doubt, will lead us immediately to consult the monolingual dictionaries in both languages, it is possible that these first consultations do not allow us to understand clearly what we are talking about, let alone find the equivalent in Spanish. Therefore, sometimes we will have to resort to specialized glossaries. For example, if the vocabulary refers to cars, we may need to look up automotive glossaries; or if we are talking about flowers, we may be able to find a gardening glossary. Glossaries are lists of terms in a specialty language, often with definitions and, in the case of multilingual glossaries, equivalents in other languages. There are more sophisticated tools that include photographs or semantic relationships and, of course, large terminology databases of all kinds.

Often, even glossaries will not get us out of trouble, which is when we should resort to corpora, to see the words in context, or to the various specialized websites of museums, research centers or associations in the sector, which will almost certainly be able to get us out of trouble and allow us to better understand the text and check whether the term chosen by us for translation is appropriate.

Translating Between Spanish and English

It is clear that our choice of noun will change the mental image that we, as readers, are going to elaborate, but now I would like to focus on the first verb, that enigmatic beat on.

I think I can say that phrasal verbs are the nightmare of students of English, and they are because they multiply the meanings of each verb to infinity. But that unseemly fertility is not the biggest problem for translators, who always have ways of dealing with it. What seems more complex to me for the translator is always succeeding in distinguishing whether it is a true prepositional verb or whether it is an intrusive verb, one that is no more than an ordinary verb, accompanied by a preposition.

As a phrasal verb, beat on corresponds to “to scourge” or “to hit something repeatedly”, but it does not seem easy to resort to that meaning when translating the phrase, since, to give it meaning, we would need a direct complement that is not there. However, beat is also a common verb that can be translated by “to hit”, “to beat”, “to beat” or “to beat” (as well as “to overcome”, in other contexts).

Most translators have chosen, in view of the above, to consider the words separately and to interpret the preposition on in the sense it often acquires in English as a continuation of the action. The result: “we go forward”, “we keep on going forward”, “we keep on hitting each other”, “we keep on going” or simply “we keep on going” (according to translations published by different publishers).

These interpretations fit perfectly into the text, but it is precisely in that fit that the trap lies, since we can easily go along with it. But if we don’t, and we carry out our research further, we may discover that this beat on, as phrasal verb, is a sea term, that is, it belongs to what we call a specialty language, even though these languages are not usually found in the usual dictionaries. It turns out that beat on means exactly “to sail against the wind”.

We will have to recognize that the image acquires an unexpected force when we transform that nondescript “going forward” into a special way of sailing and advancing with the wind against us, because terminology is not only a science at the service of legal, economic or scientific documents, but a powerful tool for any writer, since, although it may seem paradoxical, the more concrete and exact the language, the more universal the meaning will be. We can see how the image unfolds the sails and acquires an epic tone that in the different Spanish translations, after hitting several reefs, had made water.

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