Monday, September 03, 2012


I've just updated my template. I don't know what effect this will have, or whether everything will work any more, or if it means I've just lost all the comments again. But I suspect the pros outweigh the cons.

The early bird

I'm still in a language place at the moment, although I'll be starting AA100 at Open University shortly, which means general foundation arts. One of the things that interests me is the process of translation - I've really enjoyed Bellos's book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything in this context, and subsequently Guy Deutscher's books "Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages" and "The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention".

In this context, I like playing with is the way in which idiomatic expressions transfer between languages. This morning, I plugged "The early bird catches the worm" into Google Translate, to see what it came up with. The French translation came up as "l'oiseau tôt attrape le ver" - very good, very accurate. I also discovered that Google Translate basically had a "slot" for the translation of "early ... catches the worm", and it is quite happy for you to plug any other noun in that place. If you want to say that an early pig, hope or friendship, they will simply be substituted. I managed to fool it by writing "abs" in place of "bird" - it then offered "au début des années abs attrape le ver" - a word it couldn't translate interrupted the "known pattern" of "early ... catches the worm".

Spanish was different. The translation immediately offered was: "Al que madruga, dios le ayuda." This is a dynamic translation - it's an idiomatic form in Spanish, which is broadly equivalent, the exact meaning of which is something like "The one who rises early, God helps." If you get Google Translate to convert the Spanish phrase into English, it also goes for the colloquialism as the translation, rather than a word for word equivalence.

This is interesting for several reasons. First, it highlights the difference between different forms of translation - what the ancient Greeks might have called metaphrase and paraphrase, or what we might distinguish today as dynamic and formal equivalence. Dynamic equivalence is designed to give the same sense to people speaking a different language - the substitution of a phrase like "The early bird..." with "Al que madruga..." gets across the sense of this being a "well known phrase or saying". The formal equivalent for the Spanish phrase is the one I gave above.

The other interesting reason is the fact that, whilst both the Spanish and English phrases broadly fulfil the same function in the language, they imply subtly different things. The sense of the English phrase is that "you are more likely to succeed if you're early" - self-improver. The sense of the Spanish phrase is "God is more likely to help you if you're early" - moral judgement. Or am I reading too much into it?