Saturday, February 17, 2007


René Colato Laínez

Due to high demand for Spanish literature in the United States, many books written originally in English have been translated into Spanish. However, translating a book into another language is not an easy task. Problems with names, idioms, rhyming text, and too literal word for word translation complicate the process. What does a translator need to take into consideration? What are the necessary elements to do a great translation and make everyone happy? Let’s look at the English and the Spanish versions of AMELIA BEDELIA by Peggy Parish.

AMELIA BEDELIA is a classic in children’s literature. Amelia Bedelia is a housekeeper who takes her instructions quite literally. She works with Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. The Rogers make a list of chores and tell Amelia to just do what the list says. She does everything she is told but the wrong way.

This is a difficult book to translate because it uses idioms that are very hard to translate from English into Spanish. The editors picked the well-recognized translator Yanitzia Canetti. Because Yanitzia had to change entire phrases in the Spanish version, the editors also hired a new illustrator, Barbara Siebel Thomas.

Yanitzia begins her changes on the first page. She changes the names of Amelia Bedelia employers. Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are now Señor and Señora López. This make sense, López is a very common last name in Spanish, just like “Smith” in English. Children will relate more to López than Rogers. However, Amelia Bedelia remains the same, because Amelia is a name used in Spanish. Yanitzia keeps Bedelia because it rhymes with Amelia. The combination of both names Amelia Bedelia sounds good in Spanish as well as in English.

The text at the beginning of the story is very similar in both versions. There is only a change in the illustration. In the English version Mr. and Mrs. Rogers get into the car and drive away but they are not alone, they take their dog with them. In the Spanish version the dog is missing. This does not make sense at first. The new illustrator has to eliminate the dog from the car because the dog will appear later in the story.

The text is similar in both versions until Amelia Bedelia reads the first thing on the to-do list. In the English version, Amelia Bedelia reads, “Change the towels in the green bathroom” . Amelia changes the towels by cutting them with scissors. It would be very easy to translate the original text “Change the towels” to “Cambia las toallas,” but in Spanish there is no confusion with this phrase. It only means, “take the towels and put new ones”. Yanitzia changes the text to “Cambia la cama” . This phrase can have two meanings, “Change the blankets” or “Move the bed to another location.” Amelia Bedelia moves the bed next to the door.

The same happens with the second item in the list, “Dust the furniture”. In Spanish it is used to say “desempolva los muebles”. An employer would never say “empolva los muebles,” because it means literally “dust the furniture.” Amelia Bedelia can make the mistake in English of dusting the furniture with dusting powder but in a Spanish it will not work at all. Instead, Yanitzia writes “Busca el periódico”. Amelia looks for the newspaper everywhere in the house and makes a mess. This phrase does not work very well in the Spanish version because it does not have a double meaning, but it works better than “Dust the furniture.”

Yanitzia does a great job with the next item in the list. Perry Parish writes, “Put the lights out when you finish in the living room”. You cannot translate this literally in Spanish. The best you can do is “Apaga las luces cuando termines en la sala”. The confusion in Spanish does not exist. In the Spanish version the dog comes back into the story. Amelia Bedelia reads “Dale una vuelta al perro” . This phrase can mean two things, “Take the dog for a walk” or “Flip the dog around.” Amelia Bedelia gets the dog that is sleeping in a sofa and flips him upside down.

For the last item on the list, the illustrator does not create a new illustration; she just alters the existing illustration. “And please dress the chicken” will have no meaning in Spanish. “Rellena el pollo,” does not have a double meaning. Instead Yanitzia writes, “Y ten listo el pollo para la cena de gala de esta noche”. Amelia Bedelia prepares the chicken by dressing him with an elegant tuxedo, a bow tie, and black shoes.

AMELIA BEDELIA was very hard to translate. Luckily this will not happen with every book. If the book in English is written without wordplay or rhymes, it will not have to go through all this process. The translator only needs to use the right words because a word that is funny in English is not necessarily funny in another language. Sometimes an innocent word in English can be a bad word in another language.

I had the opportunity to translated my picture books from English to Spanish. I started WAITING FOR PAPA with “I wish Papá could be here with me.” I translated it literally to, “Deseo que Papá esté aquí conmigo”. I showed it to the bilingual children’s literature author Alma Flor Ada. She told me that it did not sound so good in Spanish. She suggested changing it to “Como quisiera que Papá estuviera aquí conmigo.” Both sentences in Spanish are very similar. The first one is closer to the English version but the second one has more child’s language. “Deseo” (I wish) is a word for an older child. Instead small children say “como quisiera”. Also, “como quisiera” has a more emotional impact in Spanish and it works better as the first line of the story.

Alma Flor Ada told me, “The best translation is the one not similar to the original text.” I understand this to mean that when you translate something you have to have a clear understanding of both languages. You cannot translate word for word because you change or lose the meaning of the text. There are syntactical rules in languages that have to be followed, and you have to be sure that you are honoring those rules in both languages.

Parish, Peggy. Amelia Bedelia. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1963.
- - -. Amelia Bedelia. Trans. Yanitzia Canetti. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.


msedano said...

outstanding, rené, tan interesante.

Unknown said...

Very interesting indeed. A great article and point of view on translation. In another life, I once had to translate a questionairre for an AIDs clinic and I won't even go into the mess that was with me trying to translate some very difficult questions. In some cases, there just are no words in Spanish for the English equivalent or vice versa. Rhymes and puns are especially hard to translate, they just don't come across well. Both languages are very rich and it takes a true artist to get the full meanings and nuances in a translation.

Anonymous said...

This is a terrific introduction to the art of translation. Thanks!