Puns that poorly translate for a bilingual baby announcement

Punnery is a dangerously narrow slice of comedy. It’s a double play on words, but you’re setting yourself up for double trouble. Expected outcomes:

  1. Blank stare: they didn’t get the joke, and now you feel obliged to explain it and even further lose their interest
  2. Groan: they get the joke, but think you’re even less funny now
  3. Wink, smirk, snicker, chortle, slight guffaw: they got the joke and appreciated it, and are already plotting to put your own wit to the test at the next pun they can spin

Note that even in the best outcome it’s not a full-out laugh. This is no knee-slapping, foot-stomping, eye-wiping joke-telling. I like to overcompensate in my mirth to make up for all the lost credit the punster has likely received over the years. Normally I have a reserved personality in public gatherings, but your attempt at wordplay will elicit a wild outburst of laughter out of me…even if I’m the only one in the whole room laughing. The flapping jaw of the turtle will then snap shut and retreat into relative silence until another witticism is dropped. Long live the word nerdery.

Now then, imagine the obstacles at translating a pun. A double entendre with double the language audience has half the chance of being understood, much less appreciated. A play on words often draws upon the literal meaning of a word or phrase that is regularly interpreted in a figurative sense. Literal translation takes a magnifying glass to three words and forgets the rest of the sentence. It is ripe for failure and mistranslation. A rule of thumb in translation is to not literally translate, word-for-word, but to take into account contextual clues and translate based upon the overall sense of the document. Context is king in translation.

Puns, euphemisms, slang, and jokes are some of the hardest things to translate. I groan, but never chuckle, at a mistranslated idiomatic phrase. The joke was lost on the translator, and that translator sure better have lost their job. The key is in finding a culturally-appropriate equivalent. For example, in English when it’s raining heavily we may say “it’s raining cats and dogs”. The literal mistranslation in Spanish would be “está lloviendo gatos y perros“, whereas a common expression in Spanish is “está lloviendo a cántaros“. This could be then backtranslated incorrectly into English as “it’s raining pitchers”, instead of the more familiar “it’s pouring (adding ‘rain’ or ‘buckets’) outside”.

Even knowing all of this beforehand, and even after struggling with the Spanish translation, I could not resist the temptation to use English idiomatic expressions to make our recent pregnancy announcement to our bicultural families.

Since my partner and I both work in the coffee industry, the topic was obvious. To make our announcement, we wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag or let tongues wag: we’d spill the beans. Literally, we opened a bag of coffee and spilled the roasted beans on the tabletop. On the coffee table, to be more precise.

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“We’re spilling the beans” is easy enough to understand in English. But in Spanish, the coffee pun was lost and we had to simplify it to the boring “tenemos algo que contar” (we have something to tell you). The equivalent idiomatic phrase in Colombia of “tenemos una chiva” (we have some news) literally backtranslates horribly into “we have a goat”… instead of a human fetus. Uh-oh.

The second shot in our photo announcement was of a tea kettle on the stove next to a French press. In English we played on the word “brewing” for both preparing coffee and anything that is developing, in the process of being prepared, waiting on the horizon: an idea, a storm, a revolution, a gestation. The parallel between heat and cooking can be found in other pregnancy euphemisms like “a bun in the oven” or just “baking”. To add suspense and connect to the third and final photo, we added “Brewing and ready in…”. In Spanish, “brew” is applied strictly to the beverage, so we’d have had to say “preparando el café y listo en…” and lose the double connotation. We eliminated “el café” and hoped the third visual would clear things up.

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Any Starbucks customer knows that tall, large, and regular are loosely-defined measurements. On average, Americans drink their coffee in extra-big servings. It would take three Colombian pocillos stacked up to reach one American coffee cup. One ceramic Café de Colombia pocillo (Baby!) appeared miniature set in-between two towering coffee thermoses (Mom and Dad! Obvious, right?). The expected due date of April/abril 2018 made it abundantly clear, or so we thought.

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Lesson learned: Just say it straight. (Remember the acronym KISS: Keep It Simple, Smartypants.) Or be prepared to spell it out twenty minutes later to a bewildered elderly mother-in-law. Once she burst into tears of joy, it erased all linguistic wrongdoings.

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Buenos días, un tinto por favor

Muy buenos días a todos. ¡Feliz día nacional del café!

Nunca salen de moda los buenos modales. Les comparto este aviso de un café colombiano que ama a las personas bien educadas más que a la plata.

buenos dias un tinto por favorOjalá que todos los días sigamos este ejemplo lindo de empezar el día con un saludo cordial (a su barista, a su pareja, a su mamá) a cambio de una taza sabrosa de tinto. Y que vaya rodando esta pelota de cortesía y amabilidad por el transcurso del día.

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A very good morning to you all. Happy National Coffee Day!

Good manners never go out of style. I’m sharing this sign from a Colombian cafe that loves polite customers more than money.

It reads:

One cup of coffee $1500

One cup of coffee, please $1000

Good morning, one cup of coffee please $800

Hopefully every day we can follow this charming example of how to start our day, by giving a cordial greeting (to your barista, your partner, your mom) in exchange for a tasty cup of coffee. Let’s then keep this ball of courtesy and kindness rolling for the rest of our day.

A colorful ride on a chiva with each sip of Los Andes coffee

Traveling at top speed on paved roads, windows rolled up, the A/C blasting and music blaring, is to go on a race against the clock–and against nature. Enclosed behind glass, the treetops and grasses outside merge into a fuzzy green wall, any life inside the vegetation hidden and forgotten.

If riding in a car like that is like living in a city apartment, climbing aboard a chiva is like camping under the stars.

The Colombian chiva, also known as a “ladder”, is a truck converted into a bus, adapted to road conditions in the rural mountainous area of the paisa coffee-growing region, and the traditional form of public transportation in the Colombian coffee lands of the central Andes range.

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Waiting along the roadside to be picked up by the chiva.

How to distinguish a chiva from the multitude of other forms of public transport? While many buses and trucks in Colombian cities have a spattering of the patriotic red, yellow, and blue, the chiva is a colorful macaw. Whereas the municipal buses limit their paint to somber lines, the chiva is a frenzy of exotic geometric designs. The artist Carlos Pineda traced its similarities to the mandalas of India and published a coloring book (for children and adults alike) to meditate on the mandalas of the chivas converted into black and white. To watch the process and lose yourself in the dizzying video of the designs, watch until the end of “Mandalas del Camino“.

Another essential design element of the ladder bus is a lack of windows along the passenger seats. This allows drivers and their assistants to step directly onto the wooden frame and use the entire vehicle as a ladder to load onto the roof the farmers’ sacks of goods: from jute bags of green coffee to sell in the village to sacks of rice bought on the return trip. It wouldn’t be unusual to see a pig or chicken heaved onto the roof, but one day I would love to see a chiva (in Spanish it means goat) carrying an actual goat!

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Author with her friends riding the chiva.

A breeze sweeps your skin. The slow-moving vehicle itself doesn’t generate much of a breeze, allowing you time to observe in detail nature passing by within arm’s reach on the roadside. It is an opportunity to be in contact with natural life, and with human life. Instead of individual chairs, passengers sit side by side on a single long bench, like attending one of the Catholic churches whose spires tower above every paisa village.

The other passengers are surely peasants, and in the paisa coffee zone of Antioquia, Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda, they are most likely coffee growers. According to the Tourist Guide of Antioquia, this form of transportation “arrived in Antioquia in 1908”. The Antioquian municipality of Andes, the commercial capital of the southwest and hub of the coffee economy of Antioquia for more than 100 years, declared in 2004 that the chiva was part of their cultural heritage.

Antioquia es un Caramelo chivas Andes
Photography by Daniel Cifuentes

At the Andes transportation terminal, “55 chivas that still provide regular service to the 62 rural villages of the municipality” are stationed. Daniel Augusto Cifuentes Sierra captured this scene in this photograph, published in the 2014 book Vistas de Antioquia by the Viztaz Foundation, dedicated to preserving the area’s cultural memory. According to the paisa photographer who works with coffee growers in the area, “Ladder buses are without a doubt the most colorful jewels of Antioquia and the main means of transport in the rural area.”

The Andean Coffee Growers Cooperative pays homage to the chivas that transport their members with coffee bags to sell, toast, and export to countries like the United States. In a special edition, the packaging of their roasted coffee bags is stamped with colorful chiva designs.

This is the coffee we drink. Coffee enveloped in the peasant tradition. As hot as it gets in the summer in Texas, I try to take a few sips sitting outside, with the breeze playing on my skin, just like when riding a chiva.

Do you dare to roll down the window, stick out your arm, and feel nature? Hop on the chiva to enjoy this coffee produced in the green mountains of the Andes.

Wildflowers beat bouquets; botones de oro me valen oro

Weeds spotted on the roadside,

picked on the return bike ride,

offered wilted in sweaty hand,

beats a bouquet from a foreign land.

Bring me no rose, emerald, or gold;

all I want from Colombia is you to hold.

Well, and our friend’s great coffee beans:

This is what simple joy to me means.

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Tres silvestres botones de oro

me valen más que minado oro,

esmeralda y plata.

Lo que nunca me falta

es la única exporta

de Colombia que me importa:

el café de nuestro amigo

(y tenerte acá conmigo).

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I read women in translation (not just in August)

August is Women in Translation Month.

 

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This year I honor Helena Lozano Miralles, Spanish translator for Umberto Eco. I first checked out her translation of Decir casi lo mismo from Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Eco argues that translating is “saying basically the same thing”, which oversimplifies the talent of his own faithful translator.

Helena Lozano Miralles

At a street booth in Medellí­n, with books jammed in every imaginable direction with Tetra skills, I spotted the upside-down spine of El cementerio de praga. Thankfully it had little to do with horror and mostly made me hungry for Italian and French food. It’s still sitting on my bookshelf here in Texas.

Next up on my reading list? I’ve been saving his most famous work for last: El nombre de la rosa.

What’s on your bookshelf or library list by female literary translators? Who are you reading now?

Thank your translator for selecting amazing books from around the world, peeling off the language barrier word by word, and depositing works of wonder into your two hands.

Grazie Umberto Eco, y gracias Helena Lozano Miralles.