Sep 302013
St Jerome

St Jerome

International Translation Day is celebrated every year on 30 September on the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator who is considered the patron saint of translators. The celebrations have been promoted by FIT (the International Federation of Translators) ever since it was set up in 1953. In 1991 FIT launched the idea of an officially recognized International Translation Day to show solidarity of the worldwide translation community in an effort to promote the translation profession in different countries. So let’s have a little fun with the art of translating.

FIT chose this date because it is the feast of St Jerome who, although he wrote extensively, is most widely remembered for his Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which was the standard Latin Bible used by the Catholic church for centuries. Pope Damasus I commissioned the translation in 382 to replace older, less reliable, translations.

It is probably true that the Bible is the most translated book of all time. Currently it is available in about 518 languages as a whole work, but there are parts of it in as many as 2798 languages. Obviously these numbers are constantly changing.  Translating the Bible highlights some of the basic problems of translation in general.  How, for example, do you go about translating Isaiah 1:18, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” into a language that has only two color terms, or for an equatorial people who have no idea what snow is, let alone have a word for it? There’s also the daunting question of what the original Hebrew and Greek texts actually meant. When Paul refers to pneuma or psyche both of which can be translated as “breath” or “life” (and get translated variously as “soul” or “spirit”) what was his understanding of these concepts? And, in a related vein, which English translation of the Bible is the most accurate, or most effectively renders the original ideas? There is precious little agreement among scholars.  Failures of translation can lead to considerable misunderstanding.  Jerome himself made many mistakes.

Jerome learnt Hebrew so that he could translate the Hebrew scriptures directly from Hebrew manuscripts rather than relying on the Septuagint which was a Greek translation that Jews in the Diaspora, who could not read Hebrew, had used for centuries. His idea was to avoid compounding errors that would inevitably arise from translating from a Greek version that was already on an approximation of the original Hebrew. Best practice, then as now, is to go to the source. The problem is that Jerome was not a great Hebrew scholar and so made a number of errors.  The classic is his description of Moses descending from Mt Sinai after receiving the Law from God.  In Hebrew he is described as Q-R-N. The original text has upper case consonants and no vowels. The reader fills in the vowels.  Usually there is no ambiguity, but in this case there could be.  The word that was meant was “qaran” (radiant), but Jerome read it as “qeren” (horned), thus spawning centuries of art showing Moses with horns, and engendering the belief among non-Jews that Jewish babies were born with horns.


Mistranslation can be a very serious problem. In 1980, 18 year old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but they only spoke Spanish. Translation was provided by a poorly bilingual staff member.  The family said that Willie was “intoxicado” which has several meanings, but in general means “poisoned” and typically refers to food poisoning – which is what the family thought was wrong.  The translator, however, told the doctors that Willie was “intoxicated.” He was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he were suffering from an intentional drug overdose, which can lead to some of the symptoms he displayed. Because of the delay in treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic. He received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.

Spanish and English share a large number of cognates – words that sound similar and mean roughly the same thing.  But there are also false cognates – words that sound similar but have distinct meanings (even though there is usually some root connexion). These are sometimes called “false friends.”  Obvious ones are “actual” (current),” embarazada” (pregnant), and “decepción” (disappointment). But the one that might cause you most problems is to go to the doctor and say you are “constipado.” Literally it means “stuffed up” but in the nose, not the other end. “Estoy constipado” means “I have a cold.”

Spanish has the additional problem that there are so many dialects worldwide due to 16th colonization followed by isolation.  New populations cut off from Spain drifted off linguistically from the mother tongue, sometimes by incorporating words from local native languages, and sometimes because they retained old ways of speaking that died out in Spain. For example, in Argentina and many other regions of Latin America the informal second person pronoun is “vos” (not “”). This was common in 16th century Spain but has long since died out there.  Here’s a humorous song about Spanish dialects.  It’s in Spanish but there are English subtitles if you need them.

Qué difícil es hablar el español

In the 1950’s in Japan chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Apparently one company, because of a mistranslation gave people the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on the holiday. And that’s what they do to this day.  Men get to reciprocate on March 14.


Back translation is also an interesting phenomenon. This involves taking a translation and translating it back into the original work without seeing the original.  Mark Twain discovered a French version of his short story “The Frog Jumping of the County of Calaveras” which he then proceeded to translate literally word for word back into English retaining the French word order.  He then published all three together to much laughter.  You can do something similar with the app you will find if you click here.

It’s called Bad Translator. You enter an English phrase which it then translates into another language randomly, then back into English. It then picks another language at random and repeats the process.  You can instruct it to repeat up to 35 times.  Given my Biblical theme I entered Psalm 23:1 with the result:

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
…35 translations later, Bing gives us:
“The Lord is my shepherd, and will not work.”

Have fun with it.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “El original no es fiel a la traducción” which is quite reasonably translated as, “The original is not faithful to the translation.” Typical Borges.  He is well known for his translations and for his playfulness with the art. At nine he translated Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” into Spanish. It was published in a local journal, but his friends thought the real author was his father. Later he translated works of literature from English, French, German, Old English, and Old Norse into Spanish. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of a part of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. He also translated (while simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, André Gide, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf. Borges wrote and lectured extensively on the art of translation, holding that a translation may improve upon the original, may even be unfaithful to it, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally legitimate. Along with publishing genuine translations, he also published original works, for example, in the style of Emanuel Swedenborg or One Thousand and One Nights, claiming them to be translations of works he had chanced upon (but which did not exist).


I have often had the need to translate recipes. Translating a modern recipe in a modern European language is usually fairly straightforward.  But recipes from cultures that are vastly different from Europe, or come from centuries-old cultures, present deeper problems.  Besides basic concerns about translating the text, there are issues such as knowing what the ingredients actually are and if you can substitute (i.e. translate) them for ones you have to hand without doing too much violence to the original. There’s also the question of replicating cooking methods. Take, for example, this 14th century English recipe for roast swan.

11. For to dihyte a swan. Tak & vndo hym & wasch hym, & do on a spite & enarme hym fayre & roste hym wel; & dysmembre hym on þe beste manere & mak a fayre chyne, & þe sauce þerto schal be mad in þis manere, & it is clept:

12. Chaudon. Tak þe issu of þe swan & wasch it wel, & scoure þe guttes wel with salt, & seth þe issu al togedere til it be ynow, & þan tak it vp and wasch it wel & hew it smal, & tak bred & poudere of gyngere & of galyngale & grynde togedere & tempere it with þe broth, & coloure it with þe blood. And when it is ysothe & ygrounde & streyned, salte it, & boyle it wel togydere in a postnet & sesen it with a litel vynegre.

The language itself is reasonably easy to understand.  You just have to look up a few words such as “dihyte” (prepare), “enarme” (lard), and so forth (as well as understand that the letter “þ” (thorn) stands for “th”).  Otherwise the roasting part is simple, even a bit longer than it need be. I mean, what’s to know? Gut the bird, lard it, put it on a spit, roast it, then carve it.  There is, of course, the minor question of where to get a swan to roast in the first place. In a sense this is the “untranslatable” part of the recipe.  Any bird you choose, such as a goose, will not be right. The larding is also not fully clear.  Swan would be dry and tough, and therefore would need some additional fat injected into the meat. Nowadays you would thread bacon strips with a larding needle. You could also make deep slits and push in fat pork. The instructions here are not clear.

The sauce represents a different sort of challenge.  You can replicate the ingredients well enough but can you make it anything like the original (assuming that the innards of a duck or goose have a similar taste to a swan’s)? The basic ingredients are giblets, salt, broth, bread, ginger, galingale, blood, and vinegar. Galingale (or galangal) is related to ginger and is used commonly in SE Asian cooking. It’s not hard to find.  Blood is a bit harder to come by.  Here in Argentina I can buy undressed fowl, so there is usually enough. I don’t think it is so important anyway; it seems to be mainly for color. However, without knowing the ratios of the main ingredients it is impossible to know whether this should be a thick sauce, like bread sauce, or thinner like a gravy, or somewhere in between.  Here’s a stab at it:



1 set of giblets plus whatever blood there is
2 pints chicken stock
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp galangal
1 cup white breadcrumbs
2 tbsps vinegar


Simmer the giblets (and blood) in the stock until tender (1 hour or more).

Remove the giblets and chop them very fine. Return them to the stock with the breadcrumbs and spices. Simmer gently again for at least an hour, until the bread and stock are fully incorporated and smooth. Add salt if necessary.

Add the vinegar just before serving.