Anatomy of a translation
July 23, 2014

Non-translator muggles often ask how we language wizards modestly go about our day-to-day business. Alright, “often” might be pushing it; “occasionally, at dinner parties, to save a lull in the conversation” might be closer to the truth.

Please do explain how translation works, down to the smallest detail. Please.

Please do explain how translation works, down to the smallest detail. Please.

And so I thought I’d run through how I approach and attack a French-English text, using an actual translation I did last year for Le Soir, the Belgian daily newspaper. They’re a great client – they send me work that’s varied, interesting and culturally enlightening. The only drawback is that the deadlines are tighter than the proverbial duck’s bahookie.

So as to avoid this post growing legs and taking up way too much of my your time, I’ve picked a small excerpt from a football-related article that Private Eye would instantly categorise as a “puff piece”. It’s an interview with Belgium’s moody midfield maestro, Eden Hazard, published in French on 14th August 2013 (and in English – my English [yay, me!] – on 15th August), during which he muses on an upcoming pre-World Cup friendly match with France and comes out with a soundbite or two about Chelsea, his club.

A puff piece, Spanish Cow? Really?

A puff piece, Spanish Cow? Really?

The full French version of the 800-word interview can be found here, but I’m just going to concentrate on the first 140 words or so, including the title, subtitle and three further sub-subtitles in the form of bullet points, a habit peculiar to Le Soir. It’s an interesting wee passage, as it shows that even in the simplest, most trivial text, a translator has many an important decision to make.

And so here’s the original:

« Ni Chelsea ni la Belgique favoris »

ÉQUIPE NATIONALE Eden Hazard rejette la pression sur les adversaires

  • Face à la France, un pays qui l’a accueilli puis formé footballistiquement, Eden Hazard disputera un match particulier.
  • Son apprentissage de la méthode Mourinho à Chelsea se passe bien.
  • Il veut devenir plus efficace. Encore.

 Eden Hazard a encore les traits tirés. Visiblement, le Brainois n’a pas retrouvé une fraîcheur exemplaire après la tournée asiatique (il a été élu meilleur joueur de la saison passée par les supporters thaïlandais) et les nombreux décalages horaires subis avec Chelsea.

 « Je suis un peu fatigué, c’est vrai, mais pour une rencontre comme celle-là, je vais retrouver de l’énergie, s’amuse-t-il. Face à la France, il y a toujours une rivalité compte tenu de la proximité. C’est une sorte de derby. Et le coach nous a dit qu’un derby, cela se gagne. »

"I hold my hand up, I may occasionally utter clichés."

“I hold my hand up, I may occasionally utter clichés.”

If I’m feeling conscientious, the first step I normally take is to read the entire text and then start at the beginning. Both those actions would doubtless seem the most sensible approaches to most people, but if I’ve had a long day or am combating the evils of lethargy, I won’t read it through and will just get started, often just diving right into a paragraph that looks “easy”. Protestant work ethic, why hast thou forsaken me?

If I remember rightly, I did actually read this one and start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. So what have we got? There’s a headline which is drawn from the body of the interview (mental note: ensure wording of both are either the same or fairly similar) and the aforementioned sub-head (Great Mysteries of Life #1874: when did it become acceptable to drop the “ing” in “sub-heading”?). So let’s start there.

« Ni Chelsea ni la Belgique favoris », states EH, which literally translates as “Neither Chelsea nor Belgium are favourites”. With a headline, you normally have a fair bit of leeway, especially as French-language newspapers (in France, Belgium and Switzerland, at least) don’t often go down the same pun-prevalent path as the British press and can therefore come across as a bit dry in English. But here, as it’s a quote, and it doesn’t sound too bad, I embrace my literal side. I add in a wee clarification for non-football fans, drop the “u” from favourite, as this particular client (rather unusually in my experience, I should add) prefers American English, and voilà, we’ve got the first building block of our translation temple: Eden Hazard interview: “Neither Chelsea nor Belgium are favorites”.

French puns have a more accidental air about them.

French puns have a more accidental air about them.

Favo(u)rites for what, you may ask? Well, if this translation had been dumped on my lap because the client was desperate and/or I were struggling to make ends meets on the 30th of the month (and I was therefore more inclined to take on a job in an area with which I was less familiar), I might be forced to delve into the ‘why’ of that, but fortunately sport, and football in particular, is the domain in which I engage in the majority of my translation battles, so I know the answers already. He’s saying that Chelsea aren’t favourites to win the English Premier League, just like Belgium shouldn’t be viewed as favourites in their friendly match with France. And he was right: Chelsea didn’t end up as champions, and the friendly finished in a draw.

A good translator dons a variety of cloaks while earning his corn, including that of researcher, detective, adjudicator, editor, proofreader and temporary know-it all. A solid understanding of the language from which he or she is translating (known as the “source language” in the industry; the tongue into which you translate is referred to as the “target language”) is just the starting point.

Invisibility cloak: only needed if you've missed your deadline.

Invisibility cloak: only needed if you’ve missed your deadline.

What do I mean by temporary know-it-all? Ever been involved in a game of Trivial Pursuit with a translator? We’re in high demand. We’re the kid that gets picked first for the playground game of 5-a-side (ironic, given that in the real playground, we were often at the other end of the shortlist), because we have a rudimentary knowledge and understanding of a shitload of stuff, and that’s generally enough to win the cheeses, wedges or pie pieces (irritatingly, the translator will always be the one who starts up the “what do call this?” discussion). The emphasis should definitely be on ‘rudimentary’, though, hence the ‘temporary’. Like Johnny 5 in Short Circuit or Neo in The Matrix, we often become fleeting experts on subjects we were hitherto not all that familiar with, reading as much as we can in the time available in order to produce a translation that doesn’t read like it was created by a drunken sailor. And then, unlike Johnny and Neo, we forget 85 per cent of what we learned.

Une, hic, bière, garshhoan !

Une, hic, bière, garshhoan !

Back to the piece. For reasons too boring to go into here, this client never requires the sub-heading to appear in the translated articles, so I ignore it. The bullet points are, as French often appears to an English-speaker’s eye, a bit waffly, so I attempt to make them tighter and more Anglophone-y. I go with:

  • On Wednesday, Eden Hazard will lock horns with France, the country in which he rose to football prominence.
  • He has taken well to José Mourinho’s methods at Chelsea.
  • He is keen to improve his effectiveness.

“Lock horns” is a standard sporting cliché, but it’s not completely worn-out, so it’ll do. I add the day for a bit more context, and I extrapolate a bit on the “match particulier”, explaining to non-Belgian readers why it’s “particulier” (peculiar) for Hazard, who came through the ranks in France and is now facing that country’s national side in a friendly.

At this stage I re-read the first paragraph and discover Chelsea have been on an Asian tour – not a big surprise for a club that believes it’s a global brand, but not something I was aware of. And so I spend five minutes reading up – and yawning – about their fascinating adventures.

Watching paint dry and pre-season friendlies: completely unconnected.

Watching paint dry and pre-season friendlies: completely unconnected.

I mentioned earlier that you tend to get leeway with media headlines. With this particular client, there’s considerable leeway across the board. The last thing they’re looking for is a literal translation. What they want is a translation that gets across the gist of the original, of course, but that also reads like an article one might find in the sport section of an English-language newspaper. Edges can be smoothed, idioms can be converted or dropped altogether; readability and flow are encouraged, above all.

Sport-related translation is a pretty niche area; there aren’t that many of us out there with the required knowledge/geekiness and cultural baggage/years of miserably watching your team lose on a rainy Wednesday night in Falkirk. It often wanders into the domain of transcreation (or creative translation), another niche area. We’re dealing with niches within niches, in fact.

With that in mind, here’s my translation of the first two sentences:

Eden Hazard still has visible bags under his eyes. The La Louvière-born midfielder is clearly not at his freshest, following Chelsea’s Asian tour (he was named Player of the Year last season by the club’s Thailand-based supporters) and the jet lag that came with it.

To have “traits tirés” means to have gaunt, haggard or drawn features, usually due to fatigue. That all sounds a bit serious for a footballer suffering from a smidgeon of jet lag, so I start looking for an expression that would better fit the bill. I consider a literal route, i.e. that he’s just “tired” or “worn out” (or, after consulting my most invaluable resource, the trusty thesaurus, “fatigued”, “drained” or “spent”), but it’s only the pre-season, so that all seems a bit over-the-top. I try to envisage what I look like after an endless flight, and finally settle on the idea of bags under the eyes.


I add “visible”, as the opening sentence sounds a bit bare without it. It also works well here, as the source text already has the adverb “Visiblement” at the start of the second sentence (I say that now, but I’ll need to leap that hurdle in a second). French-English translators will sometimes find themselves adding an adjective here and there to enhance the imagery or clarify a detail, whereas in the original language it is often simply implied. What this says about the different cultures involved I will leave to those with more time (and better blogs) than me.

Now to that hurdle I mentioned. I can’t use “visibly”, as I’ve just written “visible” (well, I could, but it would be, to quote the Men in Blazers football podcast, “sub-optimal”), so I opt for “clearly”.

“Player/Footballer of the Year” tends to take capitals in English, even if it is just, in this instance, referring to an award from Chelsea’s Thailand-based supporters (possibly not a trophy Hazard will keep under lock and key in his retirement), and I decide to swap “brainois” – the demonym for people from Braine-le-Comte – for “La Louvière-born”, because he was actually born in the latter, although he played for the youth team in the former while growing up. To be honest, I could have used anything here that would avoid the repetition of ‘Hazard” and the clumsiness of “He”. “The creative midfielder”, “the Belgian dynamo”, “the former Lille playmaker” would all have been fine.

Braine-le-comte: A Walloon toon.

Braine-le-comte: A Walloon toon.

As an aside, Belgian towns always pose a minor translation problem in that it’s worth checking whether the Flemish (Mechelen rather than Malines; Leuven rather than Louvain) or French (Liége rather than Luik; Bruges rather than Brugge) name is used as standard in English. And then there are some cities where the English name is different from either version (Antwerp and Ghent, for example). Fortunately, La Louvière remains the same in French, Flemish and English. Phew. Or ouf, as they say in French. I don’t know how they say “phew” in Flemish, sorry.

Moving on. The end of the paragraph translates literally as “the numerous time differences he has experienced with Chelsea”, but what it’s really referring to is the effect on the players, so I go for “jet lag”. Interestingly (or confusingly), “décalage horaire” can mean either concept, depending on how you use it. Those crazy French speakers.

Looking back, I’m not entirely happy with “that came with it”, which now strikes me as a bit rushed. Given more time (as far as translators are concerned, time is like sex or Irn Bru: you can never have enough of it), I’d probably have swapped it for “that accompanied it” or “that followed”. As a former mentor of mine liked to say, that “sings better”.

As good as a robust bout of hanky-panky.

As good as a robust bout of hanky-panky.

And so onto the quote section. Quotes tend to come as a bit of a relief in these kinds of texts, as they’re generally a bit ‘easier’, although believing this to always be the case can be a dangerous trap to fall into.

Here’s the French again: « Je suis un peu fatigué, c’est vrai, mais pour une rencontre comme celle-là, je vais retrouver de l’énergie, s’amuse-t-il. Face à la France, il y a toujours une rivalité compte tenu de la proximité. C’est une sorte de derby. Et le coach nous a dit qu’un derby, cela se gagne. »

What does he say, in essence? Well, if I was asked by my darling wife, who fell head-over-heels for the charms of Eden Hazard during the World Cup, to summarise this paragraph, I’d come up with something like this: he admits that he feels tired, but he’s still up for it, because it’s a big game. Belgium and France are next-door neighbours (and so they’re also old rivals), and for that reason their coach wants them to make more of an effort.

French speakers use “C’est vrai” all the time, and while “It’s true” is by no means incorrect in English, it sounds a bit, I dunno, false. Out of various options, I select “no doubt”, as in “There’s no doubt that I’m a bit tired, but I’ll be able to muster up the energy needed for a game like this one.” I’m not totally convinced by “muster”, so I substitute it with “summon”. Looking back, even that might be a bit much. Without in any way wanting to sound like a language snob, would an English-speaking footballer typically say “summon up”? Probably not. Ah well, can’t do much about it now, except grumble and mutter darkly in blog form 11 months later.

AKA "Translators, a collective autobiography".

AKA “Translators, a collective biography”.

Next! “S’amuse-t-il” poses an irritating wee problem for translators. Interestingly, for a language that has far fewer words than English, French has lots of descriptive verbs for reported speech, i.e. “ to say”. So do we, I hear you yell proudly: you utter, he states, she remarks, they declare, we explain, I articulate. But the French language does something that English typically cannot manage, namely introducing feelings into these verbs. S’amuser, se revendiquer and assurer are just some examples. And because we can’t say “he amused himself”, we need a work-around. I end up going with “he says with a smile”. It’s not perfect, but it gets across the same vague idea.

The last couple of lines don’t prove to be too testing. “Derby” is often used wrongly as a synonym for “rivalry” in the French sporting press (note to L’Equipe: Marseille vs. PSG is not a derby), but here as we’re dealing with two international teams and Hazard is stating that it’s “like a derby”, it’s fine. The last thing I have to deal with is “cela se gagne”, which is a great example of how beautifully concise the French language can be. In the end, it’s not that tricky to negotiate, and as Francophones wouldn’t ever say, Robert est ton oncle:

“There’s no doubt that I’m a bit tired, but I’ll be able to summon up the energy needed for a game like this one,” he says with a smile. “There’s always a rivalry when we play France, given that we’re neighbors. It’s kind of like a derby. And the coach has made it clear that derbies need to be won.”

This world-renowned sport daily is called "The Team". No, really.

This world-renowned sport daily is called “The Team”. No, really.

Two hours later, having been through the same series of battles, dead ends, discoveries and moments of enlightenment with the rest of the text, I’m finished. I apply American English as the language variant, run a spell-check, change “neighbour” to “neighbor” (mumbling “silly Americans”), run a check for double spaces and then proofread it, once in MS Word and once in the client’s extranet. The final English version can be accessed here.

And then I proceed to forget 85 per cent of what I’ve just written.

Little-known fact: Guy Pierce's character in Memento is a freelance translator.

Little-known fact: Guy Pierce’s character in Memento is a freelance translator.



Broken Qatar string
December 3, 2010

It will not have escaped your notice that the host nations of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were announced yesterday, with Russia and Qatar the respective beneficiaries of the two FIFA voting sessions.

These results have been described all over the media as surprising, but those more in tune with the way the process works are unlikely to have batted that much of an eyelid. Sepp Blatter, doing his best impersonation of Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine, tried hard not to giggle when he opened the offending envelopes, which probably tells you all you need to know. He did, however, mention Scotland in glowing terms in his opening salvo (‘great organiser of the game’ or some such waffle), which softened Spanish Cow’s stance towards the artful administrator. For about 5 seconds.

Anyway, as today’s young guns like Jack Wilshire, Barry Bannan, Coutinho and Juan Agudelo look forward to strutting their stuff as near-veterans in air-conditioned stadiums, one man looking forward to not very much at all in 12 years’ time is Sunil Gulati, President of U.S. Soccer and Chairman of his country’s unsuccessful 2022 bid, who is now highly unlikely to see the biggest sporting event on the planet return to North America during his tenure.

Now, mainly because the United States were the biggest losers in the battle with tiny Qatar, the decision received a lot of airtime on this side of the ocean. ESPN’s afternoon sporting trifecta of ‘Jim Rome is Burning’, ‘Around the Horn’ and ‘PTI’ all covered it extensively. And finally getting to the point, what was surprising to me was the way they all – to a man – pronounced the name of the Middle Eastern nation.

Spanish Cow should point out that at this juncture I watch these three programmes religiously with one sole purpose: to be able to bluff my way through grid iron, basketball and, yawn, baseball discussions with my American brothers-in-law. I don’t expect their presenters to throw up fascinating linguistic idiosyncrasies. When I first heard Jim Rome, a constantly enraged individual renowned for his hatred of all things soccer, spit out something along the lines of ‘Cutter’ or ‘Cuhtr’, I thought he was having a laugh. Then his guest repeated it back, and when the protagonists of the two aforementioned shows that followed – including the slick-as-shit Tony Reali – continued to pronounce it in the same fashion, a new blog post was born.

It’s amazing that you can live somewhere for over a year – especially the States, many of whose vocab and pronunciation differences are already known in the UK via Hollywood, imported TV series and the Internet – and not be aware that many people here rhyme Qatar with ‘mutter’ and ‘nutter’. Of course, with their systematic replacement of ‘t’ by ‘d’, these words become ‘mudder’ and nudder’, but you get the idea.

Up until yesterday, I was aware of two ways of pronouncing the name in the UK: ‘KA-tar’ and ‘KAT-ar’. It would appear that speakers of British English tend to juggle both, as proven by the BBC, which included both Ka-tar and Kat-ar within the same 3-minute report last night. I’ve always opted for the latter, probably because my Dad used to tell a characteristically terrible joke which involved a pun on ‘Qatar’ and ‘catarrh’. However, not for the first time, it seems I may have backed the wrong horse, as the English-language media within the oil-rich state apparently tend to use the former, and this is backed up by the O.E.D.

But what I was most interested in was this ‘cutter’ malarkey. Is this the standard American pronunciation, or simply yet another case of the U.S. broadcast media indulging in linguistic follow-my-leader, as they did with ‘I-rack’? An Arabic professor suggests in that the Arabic pronunciation of Qatar is actually not all that far away from how English speakers might say ‘cutter’, but that doesn’t necessarily get us any further forward – it’s not like we pronounce France ‘Frrrawnse’ or Brazil ‘Braahzeel’ now, do we?

The online version of the Merriam-Webster American English dictionary goes with ‘KA-tar’, while Brian Strauss, an American journalist who spent the day with Qatar-based Al Jazeera as part of the channel’s build-up to the announcement, makes a point of stressing in a recent (very readable) article that ‘Cutter’ is not the correct pronunciation. But the American Heritage Dictionary lists both ‘Ka-tar’ and ‘Kuh-tar’ as acceptable, muddying the waters –or maybe just my brain – even more.

To take a leaf from the Scottish justice system, I think we’ll file this one under ‘not proven’ for now, and hope that the English-speaking world can settle on one of these pesky variants. They have 12 years to get it right, after all.

Before Spanish Cow goes for a lie-down in a darkened pasture, there is another side to the Qatar brouhaha that has been provoking much comment and ire over the past 24 hours on Twitter and Facebook. Or ‘the Facebook’, as George Bush would say. It’s all related to the spelling of the bloody word.

Now, let’s face it, it’s kind of understandable that the misspelled ‘Quater’, with a ‘u’, was one of the most searched-for terms on Google and most tweeted trends on Twitter yesterday. The list of words that begin with ‘Q’ and that don’t include a trusty ‘u’ is not long, after all. But this and other apparently erroneous attempts such as ‘Katar’ and ‘Catar’ had wannabe prooftweeters up in arms and sweating more heavily than WikiLeaks fugitive Julien Assange. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post suggested in an amusing piece that the death of spelling was upon us.

The facile assumption being made here is that everyday Twitter-users don’t take 3 seconds to double-check and do some quickie research before their fingers make contact with the keys on their laptop. And that their knowledge of the English language leaves much to be desired. Of course, this may be true. ‘Quatar’ suggests as much. But ironically, those quick to condemn others for bad spelling are guilty of exactly the same crime of which they are accusing the great unwashed, i.e. a lack of research and basic knowledge of language. Foreign language, that is.

Type ‘Katar’ into Twitter’s search box. Go on, even if you hate the bloody thing. Scroll down through the results. Was ist das? It’s German, folks. And you might see a spot of Polish too. Looking at mine right now, I get a pile of German tweets with a couple of Polish ones floating in between. That’s because –ta-da! – ‘Qatar’ is spelt with a ‘K’ in German. Goodness me, non-English speakers use social media!? How dare they?

It’s also acceptable to spell the word ‘Katar’ in French and in Swedish. ‘Catar’ is used in Portuguese as well as in Scottish Gaelic. Not that Twitter is swamped with Gaelic speakers, but I just thought I’d throw that in there.

So, what have we learned today? Qatar’s pronunciation is perplexing and its profuse spelling permutations perpetuate pointless posts and pernickety posturing from patronising pedants. Try saying that after a few pints. Which may, incidentally, be a tad tricky in 2022, as currently the only way foreign residents can buy alcohol in the Gulf state is via a permit system…

Milking it
October 22, 2010

30th September was International Translation Day, which, like a slap in the face with a dictionary dipped in sour milk, was a sharp reminder of the need to update this blog a wee bit more often. A few days later, former Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez came along with his attempt to introduce an element of lactose-related español to a press conference diatribe. The Iberian Peninsula and dairy products being subjects close to any Spanish Cow’s heart, the opportunity could not be missed.

A bit of background for those that have no interest in football (that’s you, Mum): Rafael Benítez Maudes is a football manager who made his name with Tenerife and Valencia and took the reins at Liverpool in 2004. His time at Anfield was marked by massive highs and disillusioning lows, but will also be remembered for his 2-year spat with American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who took over in 2006. It’s a convoluted tale, but in a nutshell, he didn’t like them, they didn’t like him, and Benítez was shown the door this summer. He promptly became coach of Inter Milan.

Fast-forward to this Tuesday. Rafa, in response to claims by the recently ousted Hicks that the blame for Liverpool’s poor form should be laid squarely at the door of the Reds’ former manager , made it clear to the media that he felt the opposite was true – ‘things were fine until the Yanks came along’ was pretty much his line of argument. To illustrate his point, he used a Spanish expression related to milk bottles.

Who’s right, who’s wrong and all the other tedious tit-for-tat twaddle isn’t really the point here. What’s interesting about this story – from a linguistic point of view – is the way it has been dealt with by the ever-insular English-speaking press. Almost to a man, the Spaniard’s monologue was described as ‘bizarre’ and ‘cryptic’. These words were so widespread that it makes you wonder if modern journalists have ever heard of a thesaurus. A quick glance at a basic online version reveals many useful candidates, such as ‘unorthodox’, ‘eccentric’ or ‘curious’ for the former , and ‘enigmatic’, ‘mystifying’ and ‘perplexing’ for the latter. But that’s by the by.

The point here is that it was neither cryptic nor bizarre. Benítez wasn’t havering or slavering; he was simply falling into the trap that people communicating in a language other than their own have done billions of times since man gained the ability to talk. He made the mistake of using an expression, or idiom, that is commonplace in Spanish, but doesn’t make an awful lot of sense in the language of Shakespeare. Idioms, like Scottish clubs in the Europa League, generally don’t travel well.

So what exactly were Benítez’s words? Attempting to explain that, for him, it was obvious who was to blame for Liverpool’s woes, he said, “We have a saying in Spanish, which is, ‘White liquid in a bottle has to be milk’. At the beginning, they changed the managing director…and they changed everything that we were doing in the past…So, if you want to ask again what was going on, it’s simple: they changed something and, at the end, they changed everything. So, white liquid in a bottle: milk. You will know who is to blame…White liquid in a bottle. If I see John the milkman in the Wirral, where I was living, with this bottle, I’d say, ‘It’s milk, sure’.”

(Amusingly, the Daily Telegraph caught up with the aforementioned John the milkman, who, with a nice line in gentle comedy, demonstrated that he may actually have chosen the wrong career for himself: “Rafa was a very good customer. He just got the three bottles of semi-skimmed. They didn’t have to be placed zonally on his step or anything.”)

The Spanish phrase RB was referring to is ‘Blanco y en botella, leche’. The closest equivalent in English is an expression sometimes heard in the United States, ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck’. In Spanish it is delivered much like ‘Speak of the devil [and he doth appear]’ is in English, in that ‘leche’ is often not actually said or written; it is simply implied (let’s face it, no-one knows about the ‘he doth appear’ part these days, let alone says it). So it looks like milk, tastes like milk, it’s in a bottle: aye, it’s probably milk. In other words, if most people say the Americans businessmen were to blame, if it looks like they messed things up, well, actually, they probably did. In Rafa’s opinion.

In reports, articles and opinion pieces reminiscent of the reaction to Eric Cantona’s 1995 comment about seagulls and trawlers, the ‘bemused press corps’ (© every newspaper in the UK) then proceeded to describe poor old Benítez, who had even gone to the trouble of pointing out to the monolingual idiots present at his media conference that it was a non-English expression, as ‘mad’, ‘in need of a holiday’, ‘stressed out’ and ready for the ‘men in white coats’.

If Ron Atkinson, Bobby Robson, Chris Coleman, Terry Venables or Jock Wallace (British managers who all worked in Spain at one point) had literally translated ‘Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched’ into Spanish at a press conference, you get the feeling that the reporters present wouldn’t have been calling the local asylum. They would more than likely have understood from the context, and sensibly realised that what the speaker was getting at was ‘don’t sell the bear’s skin before hunting it’ (‘no vendas la piel del oso antes de cazarlo’), the Spanish equivalent of counting your poultry. Our lazy old friends ‘bizarre’ and ‘cryptic’ would be nowhere to be seen.

As an aside, another version of the chickens proverb in Spain – ‘no hagas las cuentas de la lechera’ – involves a milkmaid who starts totting up all the cash she can make from all the ‘leche’ she’s extracted from her cow that morning, before spilling it all over road while on the way to the market. Far be it from me to suggest that the Spanish are ever-so-slightly obsessed with milk…

As a second aside, it’s interesting to note equivalents of the tongue-in-cheek expression ‘the son of the milkman’ in countries that don’t have home deliveries of the white stuff. In Spain, the baker is the bloke you have to be wary of, while the postman has been known to do the dirty deed in France. Spanish Cow is yet to discover a country where the candlestick maker is the cuckolding culprit, but we’ll keep looking.

Returning to Rafa’s ‘rant’, Benítez can surely be excused. He’s a bloody football manager, after all. And, as anyone who has ever had to sit through one of his post-match TV interviews will confirm, his English could never be described as fluent or natural. But as for the supposedly ‘educated’ media, erm, isn’t this one of the first things you learn in French/Spanish/German class, i.e. when you’re 10? That things that sound like they might be specific to the English language (or any other language) often can’t be translated literally? And don’t these journos deal in communication every day, for milk’s sake?

To paraphrase Señor Benítez, if representatives of the British media come across as lazy, stupid and ignorant, talk like they’re lazy, stupid and ignorant, and write lazy, stupid and ignorant things, then, well, they’re probably lazy, stupid and ignorant. White liquid in a bottle: milk.

Suivez the leader
October 23, 2009

Tony Blair defined the art of leadership as “[…] saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.” (Good advice; just a pity he didn’t follow it himself). Theodore Roosevelt believed that “The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” (There is many a translation company owner out there who could learn from that wee pearl of wisdom).

Spanish Cow takes a slightly different tack – I’ve always found that the quickest way to find out if someone is a sheep or a shepherd is to listen to him singing The Proclaimers’ modern masterpiece “500 miles (I’m gonna be)”, the ditty that introduced the Scots word “haver” to millions of non-Scottish English-speakers around the world. The key moment comes just after the chorus – if your guinea pig sings along with the first “na-da-da-da”, he’s destined for a life of dribbling in front of the latest reality TV fad and snapping up the newest gadget that Apple or Microsoft decide is essential for the survival of the human race. If, however, he opts to belt out the second aforementioned “na-da-da-da”, then you may well be looking at a future Hannibal. Or Simon Cowell. Or Tony Soprano. And what a dinner party guest list that would be…


Anyhoo, what’s this havering got to do with language? Well, I was left pondering the role of leadership and assertiveness in foreign language communication recently, after a Skype chat with an old translator friend from France that I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time. We both possess roughly the same level of rustiness in each other’s lingo, but what was interesting was that he didn’t try to force ‘his’ English on me, as some fresh-from-graduation linguists have an irritating tendency to do. As I had started in French (but with a complete willingness to switch to English, should he prefer), he twigged that I quite fancied giving the ol’ skills a polish for the duration of our conversation, and duly let me blunder onward. The old rule that many language-lovers apply when choosing which language to converse in – the “we’re chez vous, so we’ll speak chezvous-ish” wasn’t valid here, as we were both shouting from the comfort of our own countries. It is, however, a sensible, logical, nice n’ simple rule to stick to, even if others don’t always reciprocate.

Conversing in a foreign language is an activity that comes complete with a pile of funny, unwritten rules of engagement, etiquette landmines and blooper bombshells, where explosive egos abound, both boisterous and bruised. There exists a certain type of linguist – be he anglophone, hispanophone or francophone – who will, without fail, attempt to take the lead and ‘force’ a language on you (never his own mother tongue, mind), because 1) he’s spent X number of years studying the damn thing, and he’s going to make sure that the evening’s tongue of choice is, well, his choice, no matter what it takes and 2) he is assertive by nature, used to getting his own way – why should the domain of language be any different?

This normally leads to a bout of swift, spoken swordplay, where only the strongest survives. If you consider yourself to possess a level of proficiency in any foreign language, you are sure to recognise this situation. It can last anything from ten seconds to three minutes. Oh, and like most uncomfortable moments, it’s really quite comical if you’re simply there as an observer, NATO-style. Jean-Louis is in Spain to learn French, but this darn Luis character that he’s just met at the gym (and who remembers a smattering of French from school) insists on speaking to him in the language of Baudelaire rather than that of Cervantes, which is frustrating for poor J-L, coz all he wants to do is practise his Spanish verbs and that tricky difference between ‘por’ and ‘para’. Every time he utters something in Spanish, Luis stammers back in bad French, until J-L gives up. On top of that, Luis is looking at him in a funny way, and keeps brushing against him accidentally…no, whoops, sorry, that’s another blog for another day.

There is an extra unfortunate element to all this, if English happens to be your mother tongue. My experience of residing in France and Spain is that, as a native English-speaker, prior expectations of you are so low that people automatically assume that you can’t speak a word and will often drop into English upon discovering from whence you originate, irrespective of their lack of knowledge or fluency. Unless you prove early on in the chat that you can claim some kind of competence, your chance of avoiding a pidgin English discussion is about as likely as Balloon Boy’s parents avoiding a custodial sentence. Or as an eagle hunting a reindeer. Bugger, bad example.

As with many things, however, maturity brings acceptance and a certain level of calm when faced with the different phenomena described above. I’m fortunate to know polyglots who have developed enough self-confidence that they no longer mind nor care what language a conversation is held in. They don’t chomp at the bit any more to show off how good their German is to native German-speakers, or to dazzle the first Tokyo-dweller they’ve met – since they lived in the city twenty years ago – with their grasp of Japanese vowel sounds. They possess an inner sense of satisfaction about the dividends that learning languages have paid them over the years and therefore feel no need to assert their ‘linguistic rights’. And that kind of behaviour, you could argue, is what true leadership is all about.

The Universal Language
September 15, 2009

Spanish Cow was feeling just a wee bit burned out the other night as Scotland’s World Cup flame was extinguished yet again, with passion and misfortune playing their usual roles.

In one of the rare breaks in a quite enthralling match, my mind wandered to language, and its many links with the ‘joga bonito’. In fact, rather than an attempt to shamelessly piggyback on a similar blog entry by the BBC website’s excellent Tim Vickery, what led to this bout of distracted daydreaming was the realisation that during this campaign, Scotland’s home crowd had not once belted out their old favourite Que Sera, Sera, a tweaked version of the linguistically suspect Doris Day signature song that first appeared in Hitchcock’s The Man who Knew Too Much.

Now, realists out there will suggest that this is simply down to the fact that Caledonia never once looked like joining Anglia and Hibernia (potentially) in South Africa next year, but I have another theory. And it’s a simple one – the lack of an obvious rhyme this time around.

The final line (“we’re going to…”) of this Hampden classic has traditionally followed two straightforward rules: 1) the last word must rhyme with “whatever will be, will be” and 2) the aforementioned last word must be a city or stadium within the host country of the World Cup/European Championship, or even the name of the country itself.

So over the years we’ve had “going to Wembul-ee“ (obviously), “going to German-ee” and even “going to gay Par-ee”. As a linguistic aside, it’s interesting that in English the expression “gay Paris”, with “Paris” pronounced à la française, has retained its original, innocent meaning, but when the French capital is given its English pronunciation and the same phrase is aired, people would instantly assume that directions to Parisian bars such as Café Moustache would be required…


I digress. Anyway, take a look at a map of South Africa – you’ll see that there aren’t that many convenient “-ee” endings floating about. “We’re going to Durban” or “we’re going to Pietermaritzburg” just don’t cut it. OK, so there aren’t any games due to be held in Pietermaritzburg, but you know what I mean. As there were no obvious candidates for this important rhyme, this rousing number never got an outing this time around, which clearly contributed to Scotland’s exit. Absolutely nothing to do with losing badly in Macedonia and Norway.

On the subject of the world’s greatest sporting competition (Olympics schmolympics), congratulations to Paraguay, who qualified for their fourth tournament in a row on the same night as thousands of sets of bagpipes were being quietly stowed away under beds across Scotland. In addition to Spanish, most of the Paraguayan team also speak another language, Guarani, which they frequently use on the field in their South American qualifying matches to bamboozle their opponents. Uruguayans and Bolivians used to hearing ‘man on’ or ‘one-two’ in Spanish suddenly have no idea what their opponents are saying. An argument for stepping up the teaching of Gaelic in Scottish schools, perhaps?

To finish off this fiesta of football flightiness, here’s a random smattering of tough-to-translate terms from around Europe:

‘Grand pont’ (French) – the art of knocking the ball around your opponent, leaving him standing there, while you nip round and collect the ball a couple of metres ahead of him, and continue on with your run. Called a ‘big bridge’ in contrast to the ‘petit pont’ (‘small bridge’), which entails putting the ball through your opponent’s legs. As opposed to ‘big bridge’, ‘little bridge’ does have a simple English translation – ‘nutmeg’.

‘Catenaccio’ (Italian) – seen by some as the beautiful game’s evil twin, this Italian invention involves an extremely well-organised defensive system, with strict man-to-man marking. Fortunately, it’s kind of fallen out of fashion…

‘Kicker’ (German) – confusingly for Anglophones, the noun ‘der Kicker’ or ‘die Kickerin’ in German simply refers to a football player. The verb ‘to kick’ can take several forms in German (bolzen, treten, schlagen). The verb ‘kicken’ is usually limited to the sporting domain, however.

‘Morbo’ (Spanish) – there is no true equivalent to this term in the English language. ‘Morbo’ is what gives Spanish football its legendary spice – much more than mere rivalry, it sums up the feeling between football clubs divided by politics, history, and, of course, language. Who said translation was easy, eh?

An Udderly Appropriate Name…
August 25, 2009

Bienvenue, Wilkommen, Bienvenido etc. to Spanish Cow, a brand new blog full of musings and meanderings on language, translation and the universe.

We thought it might make sense to commence this cunningly linguistic web log with a brief explanation of its name. No, it’s not just part of that oh-so-clever modern trend to randomly juxtapose two words with the aim of creating something eye-catching (blue banana, horny giraffe etc.), although, let’s face it, it does sound kinda cool.

spanish cow

In fact, it comes from the French phrase “Parler français comme une vache espagnole”; literally, to speak French like a Spanish Cow. And slightly less literally, to speak French badly (dodgy grammar, painful pronunciation etc.). A bit like the unfortunate lady locked in a French town hall recently. But it can apply to any language, when it comes down to it – these days, you’ll also hear Francophones proudly proclaiming that they’re as adept at murdering “chinois” or “anglais” as Castilian bovines.

So why does the cow from Spain get treated with disdain, in the main?  The origins of this expression – first recorded in 1640 – are as murky as a fresh cowpat, but there are two principal theories.

The first and most well-known tail, ahem, tale, blames it on the pesky Basques. The story goes that “Vache” is simply a mangling of “Basque” (“vasces” or “vasque”  in 17th-century France) – back in the day, someone with poor French was instantly compared to those supposedly illiterate barbarians living across the border…

The second, not dissimilar theory states that the word started out as “basse”, which meant “servant”, and simply became “vache” over time. With many servants having moo-ved (oh God, no) from neighbouring Spain (and presumably struggling with the lingo a little), you can see how this might have come about.

Anyway, whatever the truth may be, that’s what we’re called – we look forward to chewing the cud with you in the forthcoming weeks and months. But we promise not to milk things too much.

And here endeth the cow puns.