I am watching my West Wing DVDs again and reliving the wonder of experiencing just how good the show was. Its charm, of course, was its absolute lack of realism. People just don’t talk that way. Nobody can slip a crushing one-liner or witty epigram into every sentence. But it is just pleasant to watch a show that proves even Hollywood never bets absolutely on the lowest common denominator. On the second episode of the first season, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry calls the New York Times to complain that they misspelled the name of former (yes!) Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on that morning's crossword puzzle:
Leo McGarry: [on the phone with the New York Times] 17 across. Yes, 17 across is wrong... You're spelling his name wrong... What's my name? My name doesn't matter. I am just an ordinary citizen who relies on the Times crossword for stimulation. And I'm telling you that I met the man twice. And I recommended a pre-emptive Exocet missile strike against his air force, so I think I know how...
C.J. Cregg: Leo...
Leo McGarry: They hang up on me every time.
Unfortunately, the rude people from the Gray Lady were totally correct to hang up on Leo, because he is being overly anal about an irrelevant detail. There is no settled way to write the name of the Libyan colonel who is now sitting in a bunker somewhere in the Sahara, smoking weed and listening to “Comfortably Numb” over and over. That is because there is no canonical way of transliterating Arab names into the Latin alphabet. The subject’s preference is normally used, but in Gaddafi’s case that is not an option because he never chose just one way to transcribe his name. Characteristically, he used a bouquet of preferences as varied as his colorful wardrobe. And hence the proliferation of options ricocheting around Western media during the Arab Spring. To use another example, even to this day, some intelligence services (mainly British) refer to bin Laden as “UBL” because of the lack of agreement as to how to transcribe the initial vowel in his first name.
The thing is most translators usually assume there is one way of doing it. The correct way, the proper way. Most translators belong to the middle class, which according to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu never inherits real capital, thus forcing its members to accrue “cultural capital.” And the way to signal the possession of that cultural wherewithal is to constantly upbraid others for infringing these sacrosanct rules that, apparently, fell from the sky like that weird stone slab in 2001. And language contains a treasure trove of silly rules to regulate those Platonic entities: proper English and proper Spanish.
What most people don’t realize is how arbitrary a lot of grammatical and orthographical rules are. They don’t even date from that far back. Before the Enlightenment, there was no settled way for writing any of the major European languages. It isn’t that the rules of grammar or spelling were different, as many suppose erroneously when encountering a text from centuries past. It is that there were no rules. During my graduate studies, I traced a series of manuscripts dealing with an infamous case of suspected poisoning in the Tower of London in the early seventeenth century. One of the witnesses in the case appeared as Alvyss, Yelves, Elwes, Elwiss and a dozen other versions. The fascinating thing is that even when one scribe was obviously copying from another manuscript, he or she never copied the spelling in the source that was being used. The next scribe always used his or her own preferred version. People didn’t even have a preferred spelling for their own last name. That controlled anarchy is part of what makes the past a foreign territory, as historians say, but also gives it part of his appeal. Imagine that: no rules and everybody still understood each other.
“Proper” spelling doesn’t improve communication. We don’t decipher writing by reading from one letter to the next but by looking at familiar shapes and identifying them as this or that word. Spelling is a measure of educational level, professionalism, and attention to detail, or cultural capital, as observed above (petit-bourgeois values, in other words). This is particularly so in English, in which spelling conventions are sufficiently distant from the phonetical embodiment of words to generate a lot of confusion even for native speakers. Don’t get me wrong, professionalism and attention to detail are important values. The problem is when it comes to the familiar cries of “what is the world coming to?” or “standards are dropping,” I begin to feel uncomfortable. Because that ignores the artificiality of a lot of the rules we labor under as speakers and writers. They have a history. Grammar and spelling are a lot like religious dogma. The Trinity? Do you actually think a belief as weird as that is in the Bible? It was a bunch of fat bishops and theologians in a third-century synod who came up with that one in order to confuse legions of future Catholics. The ukase on dangling participles? It probably has a history that is equally arbitrary. I used to be subscribed to The Wall Street Journal and they never, ever inserted an adverb between the two members of an infinitive. To the point that even I almost never do it. But when you think about it, it is a seriously stupid rule (that is why Language Log is such a breath of fresh air). And translators are constantly making up their own rules, cowed by their lack of confidence in using their own languages. Every time I get feedback from a proofreader, some of this idiocy crops up. Just from memory, I remember one indicating that the word “consistente” in Spanish was “only applicable to cakes.” We translators are a tribe given to useless prescription.
I am as critical as anyone of the education I received, but I am indebted to my undergraduate course for gaining some familiarity with the history of language. With its relativity and weirdness. To this day, the undergraduate curriculum at my alma mater is a complete anachronism. It was designed by Spanish Jesuits who were considerably influenced by a type of German historicism which had such a heavy influence on thinkers such as Ortega y Gasset but which was outdated even by the time of the Spanish Civil War. This antediluvian curriculum included a heavy dose of the study of the evolution of language that was eclipsed by the subsequent vogue of French Structuralism in linguistics and literary theory (which is ahistorical, or, to use Ferdinand de Saussure's formulation, "synchronic"). And when you see what a strange thing language was in the past, you realize what a transformation the Enlightenment wrought by setting up rules for everything, tidying everything up and transforming that chaotic thing called language into a tool adequate for science and polite letters. No one nowadays is as rationalistic as that, and yet we still have the venerable Real Academia de la Lengua, which late last year pushed through yet another reform of the rules for writing the language, creating yet another idiotic set of rules that I have to look up every time I write.
The idiot-savant who taught Latin at my alma mater subjected her students to years of pointless grammar exercises and never acquainted them with actual Latin texts. Armed with useless grammar applied to myriad sentences not taken from actual ancient authors, the student is inevitably crushed in his subsequent encounter with actual Latin writing. Because the rules have nothing to do with the reality. Years later I took a course in Old English literature and learned enough to sort of get through Beowulf in the original. It was an amazing experience, because I realized that language itself was a completely different thing back then: an amorphous, organic thing. Grammar rules at best are an approximation to a very complex phenomenon. They are in the first instance a description and only secondarily a source for prescription.
So, in conclusion, pretty please, with sugar on top, please keep the prescriptions to a minimum and translate safely. I leave you with a quote from one of the authors of the Language Log, taken from a masterful entry on the split infinitive: The take-home message: there certainly are rules of grammar that you shouldn't break, but it does you no good at all to have false beliefs about what the rules are.
Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, several small-and-medium-sized brokerages, asset management institutions based in Spain, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network or follow him on Twitter.