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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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.

Converting into a coffee drinker and loosening Latin tongues

Today I love writing for the coffee industry, and I love coffee, but it’s not always been (bean?) like that. Like a good Catholic, it’s time to confess.

I had my first taste of coffee fourteen years ago. It was two in the morning during finals week, with twenty pages left to write. Like Ramen and Sriracha, coffee was one of those college-kid staples that didn’t click with me. My nebulous memory of that, and a handful of other desperate nights alone with a bulging coffeepot and blank screen, involved twitching fingers over the keyboard, a vow to never do that again, and a wow at the grade I pulled off. I owed it to coffee, but swore off caffeine and procrastination once I tossed my tasseled mortarboard.

Seven years passed calmly, without coffee, until I landed in Colombia, the land of coffee. I imbibed in the free-flowing firewater (aguardiente) that revelers poured into the shot glasses strung around my neck. I gnawed on gelatinous strips of deep-fried pork rind (chicharrón), pretending that the row of teeth looked more like a bear claw danish than an animal spine. I nibbled a razor-sharp Communion wafer (hostia) until I observed the true Catholics letting it dissolve on their tongue. This former teetotaler, vegetarian, and Christian was quickly, albeit temporarily, converting out of cultural respect and curiousity. But the very waft of coffee brought back a wave of nausea, tremors, and profound regret.

No soup for you, but two bowls for you

Colombians have an acutely accurate proverb to describe what was about to become my experience with coffee (ditto for loud partying, greasy meat, and Catholic churches): “Al que no le gusta el caldo, le dan dos tazas.” It’s the polar opposite of Seinfield’s Soup Nazi, where even if you love the soup, “no soup for you”: If you do not want any soup, you’re given two bowlfuls.

It was not a Colombian who introduced me to coffee done right; it was an Italian. I’m enamoured with Italy: the expressive language, the svelte fashion sense, the ten-course meals. The food and the wine, oh yes, but in all I’ve gleaned about Italy I somehow glossed over the essential role of the espresso.

I learned to take espresso because it was given to me by an Italian. Or rather, it was ordered. “Dos tintos,” barked my new boss over the phone to the office runner. I had no choice in the matter. Down in the kitchen the server had already offered me coffee a couple of times that week and I had politely declined, “Oh, I don’t drink coffee, but thank you.”

Now she stood in front of the executive desk with a silver platter and a glimmer in her dark eyes as she asked how many teaspoons of sugar I’d like. I followed the Italian’s lead and accepted it black. It appeared innocent in a dainty white porcelain cup, but I could catch the gleam of the heavy black liquid. The heady aroma reeked of past regrets.

Like dancing a tango, I followed the man’s lead. He sipped, in silence, savoring. Then it was my turn. It was unsavory, but I enjoyed the silence. The first swallow loosened the tongue. As he explained my role as the organization’s in-house translator between Spanish and English, I hoped my tongue would also navigate the explosive Zs and Chs of Italian.

Sipping and conversing, we were two foreigners united by Colombian coffee and a need for common ground: language. We did our best in Spanish, lapsing into mother tongues when necessary. Two cups clinked gently on saucers, two or three times and it was over. The discussion was done, the tinto was gone. I hadn’t even realized that I’d finished the entire espresso; time went by that fast. Entirely unlike the early dawn hours of caffeine-induced insomnia to meet deadlines.

My life lesson from Colombian coffee

Among the many factors that determine a pleasant gastronomic experience are the food or beverage itself–quality, portion, preparation–and the setting in which it’s consumed–company, occassion, ambience. My only experience with coffee had been drinking an entire pot of hastily-made, discount-priced drip grinds, all alone and under stressful circumstances. I had been doing it all wrong, on all counts.

Colombia taught me to enjoy tinteando, the art of solely savoring small portions of black coffee in pleasant company.

A couple of years after I learned to drink espresso, we also acquired a Nespresso Aeroccino and learned the art of making cappuccinos and the science of baking pastries, but that’s a whole nother story that involves a couple of pounds of over-indulged guilt (can you say, biscotti?).

Drinking American coffee after learning to tintear in Colombia

Would you like to supersize that?

Which brings me back to America. Exactly one year ago I returned to the United States, and knowing that we’d moved from abroad with nothing but heavy books and pounds of Colombian coffee, our landlady salvaged some perfectly good things the lazy former tenants had left to be tossed in the trash.

Useful item 1 is this ugly mug. Other than the garish green handle that clashes hideously with the red hide of some trophy hunter, what alarmed me was its size. Here it looms over a Café de Colombia pocillo, just big enough for a tinto.

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When you fill a mug that large with a hot beverage, you have to drink it all in one sitting, otherwise it gets ruined in the reheat cycle. Chugging that much coffee does a number on your system. Drinking the same amount, spread out over a couple of hours at work or socializing, is more tolerable. Apply the same rules of thumb to caffeine as with alcohol–small doses, over a long period, lots of water in between, and never by yourself.

I see café customer behavior as a major difference between the United States and Latin American, and even European culture. In the U.S., customers commonly order coffee to-go and in a disposable cup, then scald themselves trying to swig it while rushing down the sidewalk (and promptly file a lawsuit). No wonder we’re stressed-out: the caffeine is not to blame so much as the hectic (and wasteful) form of consuming it.

Don’t walk with coffee; talk with coffee.

In Latin American cafés (and so I hear, European cafés, and please share if anywhere else), drinking coffe is an idle and enjoyable affair. It’s a time to sit down to consume, to observe, to converse, to socialize. Coffee is sipped, not gulped, amid dialogue. Or it’s a natural break in the work day, but office kitchens are stocked with ceramic mugs and not styrofoam cups. How can anything be slowly savored out of an artificial container designed for speedy disposal?

If you are decidely a tea person, or have bad flashbacks of cramming at term time with coffee, I challenge you to try the attitude behind tinteando. Sip a well-crafted espresso in pleasant company. For you to have a conversion moment like mine, the coffee doesn’t have to be Colombian, and the company doesn’t have to be Italian. Heck, try it with Folgers and your best friend. But you must follow the Colombian pocillo portion and the Italian philosophy behind Slow Food. Ah, la dolce vita.

Building bridges, not walls, over troubled waters through translation

As walls are erected between countries, translation builds bridges between cultures.

As human migrations are stymied, translation lifts linguistic barriers to ease the flow of communication.

As tensions rise with cultural misunderstandings, translation breaks down language boundaries to find common ground.

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Whether you speak with an Andalusian or Argentinian accent, it is all Spanish.

Whether you are Colombian, Mexican, or Canadian, we are all Americans.

Whether you live in the east or west, south or north of the globe, we are all humans.

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Author crossing river in Quindío, Colombia. La autora cruzando un río en Quindío, Colombia.

Mientras que se erigen muros entre los países, la traducción construye puentes entre las culturas.

Mientras que se obstaculizan las migraciones humanas, la traducción levanta las barreras lingüísticas para facilitar el flujo de la comunicación.

Mientras que aumentan las tensiones con malentendidos culturales, la traducción traspasa las fronteras del idioma para encontrar terreno común.

****

Ya sea que usted hable con acento andaluz o argentino, todo es español.

Ya sea que usted sea colombiano, mexicano o canadiense, todos somos americanos.

Ya sea que usted viva en el este u oeste, sur o norte del globo, todos somos seres humanos.

Mermaids and desert drawings as unauthentic coffee symbols 

It’s fun to watch people make a fool of themselves, live on camera. Fails are as popular as Vines on YouTube. I have empathy for the clumsy, and we all need a good belly laugh.

When it’s a business blunder, though, the entire company cringes. After watching “Mad Men”, we no longer have to wonder about what high-paid ad executives did: drinking on the job makes for mad ads. Flash forward to ultra-sensitive, hyper-connected 2016, and the public will easily get mad at a bad ad.

Marketing is all about images, but thank goodness some of us still read. Even in other languages. Too bad Pepsi didn’t take that into account before launching the campaign slogan “Come Alive With Pepsi!” in China, which was mistranslated in Chinese into “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”.

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Next time hire a professional translator.

My beef today is about graphics for another beverage: coffee, of course.

Misleading marketing piece #1

This month the U.S. coffee giant Starbucks opened their first store in Medellín, Colombia, coming full circle to the source of much of their coffee.

Spanish speakers tend to add an E before an English word beginning with a S, and to omit a final consonant in the word, especially a K (e.g. Facebook becomes “face-boo”, which is disconcerting because it sounds as if they think an acquaintance’s countenance is frightening).

Interestingly, then, Starbucks is pronounced “estarbos”, sounding similar to “estorbo”, which means “nuisance” or “hindrance”.

As an English teacher, I encourage students to divide compound words into ones they already know. Starbucks breaks down into “star”= estrella and “bucks”= billetes. Starbucks: donde estrellan (also means “to crash”, like a car accident) tus billetes.

This parody reflects the backlash against the hipster clientele willing to pay their prices.

These are all just unfortunate pronunciations and double-meanings of a name the company can’t change, tied as it is to Melvillean literature. On to the images.

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This lovely mural decorates the new Starbucks in Medellín. The floral flourishes, the verdant foliage, the exotic animals all scream TROPICAL.

Starbucks reported, “the artist Catalina Estrada, known for her bold interpretations of nature and Latin American folklore, created a playful custom mural inspired by Medellin’s nickname.” (emphasis added)

In Colombia, coffee is usually grown at altitude, not like the low-lying fields of Brazil. Certainly not on the seashore, for a coy mermaid to be kissing the coffee cherries wearing a coffee-flower lei (that would be Hawaii). Just a nautical reference to Moby Dick, subtly sneaking in the logo? Or maybe this is part of magical realism?

The muralist gets points for including heliconias, adorning many farms, and a jaguar, still prowling the Antioquia countryside. But the rainforest macaws would better be replaced by a hummingbird, the symbol of Colombia’s magical realism celebrated in last year’s popular nature film “Colombia Magia Salvaje”.

Green rolling mountains, tall fronds of guadua, colorful balconies, and loaded donkeys make up the UNESCO World Heritage coffee cultural landscape that borders the new Starbucks location.

Any of these would have been welcome, realistic symbols to include in an otherwise enticing, albeit a bit too exotic, mural.

Misleading marketing piece #2

If anyone should know about Colombian coffee, it would be the National Federation of Coffee Growers, or FNC. They unwittingly put their stamp of approval on this package without seeing the rest of the decorations.

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100% Colombian coffee is characterized by about 30% Peruvian (llama, Nazca lines) and 30% Central American symbols (chocolate, Mayan pyramid). The rest is generic tropical clip art (toucan, palm tree, lizard).

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Only one is supposedly Colombian, that of the palenqueras, the AfroColombian women bearing tropical fruits on their heads, iconic in Cartagena. Again, coffee doesn’t grow on the beach. Unless they’re trying to represent coffee grown in the nearby mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta? Why not put an indigenous Arhuaco then, with their characteristic woven mochilas?

Marketers and muralists are entitled to their artistic freedom, but let’s not stray too far into the salty oceans and desert plains when it comes to Colombian coffee.

Looking for aesthetic, authentic inspiration? I leave you with this shot of locals drinking coffee in the plaza in our previous home, Jardín, Antioquia, only a few hours from Medellín.

Jardin plaza mesas
Photo courtesy of: http://gomadnomad.com/2015/04/22/five-beautiful-towns-not-to-be-missed-in-colombia/