Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Translating from Spanish to Castellano, or Bridging the Gap between a Localization PM and a Horse’s Ass

Danny: No, venti is twenty. Large is large. In fact, tall is large and grande is Spanish for large. Venti is the only one that doesn't mean large. It's also the only one that's Italian. Congratulations, you're stupid in three languages.
Barista: A venti is a large coffee.
Danny: Really? Says who? Fellini? Do you accept lira or is it all euros now?
—Role Model (2010)

The State of McLocalization 2012. Exhibit A: I see an Internet job ad entitled: "Spanish translators with Catalan and Castellano dialects are needed ASAP." An ad calling for a Spanish translator who speaks Castellano of course piques my curiosity. Greater delights awaited me. I kid you not, this is what the ad said: "We have text in English and Spanish that should be translated into Catalan and Castellano." Spanish to Castellano. The wonders of the Web 2.0. The person who posted the ad helpfully adds a couple of linguistic notes taken from the Monty Python Book of Flying Dialectology: "Castellano is a kind of Spanish which includes dialects at the central and north part of Spain (the area from Cantabria to Cuenca)." I omit the notes on Catalan because it describes the language as a “dialect” and I don't want the comments setion inundated with people making threatening comments.

Let me start to unpack this monstrosity by beginning with the familiar term of “Castilian Spanish.” Most people who use “Castilian Spanish” probably think it sounds a little more fancy or scientific than “European Spanish” or “Iberian Spanish” or the clunky “Spanish from Spain.” But steer clear from the jackass who uses this phrase, gentle reader, because an agency that uses it to recruit translators may also have trouble figuring out the complexities of international wire transfers, whether willfully or not. That person/agency/spambot is affecting an erudition that he/she/it does not really possess.

But, wait, “Castilian Spanish” is endorsed by a source as eminent as Wikipedia. Read this page:
Castilian Spanish is a term related to the Spanish language, but its exact meaning can vary even in that language. In English Castilian Spanish usually refers to the variety of European Spanish spoken in north and central Spain or as the language standard for radio and TV speakers.[1][2][3][4] The region where this variety of Spanish is spoken corresponds more or less to the Castilian historical region.
No, no, no, no. Bad Wikipedia! Bad Wikipedia! Naughty, naughty Wikipedia! You went and urinated on the living room rug of knowledge again! The exact meaning of “Castilian Spanish” does NOT “vary even in that language.” No one uses the term “español castellano.” Why? Because he would be branded a jackass.  Okay, I’m only going to say this once. Saying “Castilian Spanish” is just an economic way of proclaiming that a grandfather or great-grandfather deflowered a cousin somewhere in the adjacent branches of your family tree. It is the same as using the term “Tuscan Italian” or “Anglican English” or “Gallic French” or “Sino-Chinese” or “Nippon Japanese” or “Teutonic German.” It is a nonsense term used by Scientologists, Pataphysicists, conspiracy theorists, and sundry varieties of idiot who believe in the Singularity. Think of the funny made-up Roman names used in the Life of Brian, such as “Maximus Minimus”.

Castilian is the language spoken in the north-central region of Spain that spread via the Reconquista and the political ascendancy of Castile to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, thus becoming the primary language of literature and government in what would eventually become Spain (sometimes in an uneasy and fraught cohabitation with other languages [careful: not dialects] such as Basque and Catalan). Later on, it also spread to the Americas and even the Philippines through the, er, free Spanish courses taught by those stabby, trigger-happy language tutors known as conquistadores. Castilian is just an old name for standard Spanish, whether spoken in Buenos Aires or Mexico City or Barcelona (or even Copenhagen, for that matter). The Castilian dialect, on the other hand, refers to the peculiarities of the Spanish spoken in rural areas of Castile, where this entire story started.

Visit these (correct) definitions to get a sense of what I’m talking about:
Definition of CASTILIAN 
1: a native or inhabitant of Castile; broadly : Spaniard 
2 a : the dialect of Castileb : the official and literary language of Spain based on this dialect
Or this one:
Cas·til·ian   [ka-stil-yuhn]  noun 1. the dialect of Spanish spoken in Castile. 2. the official standard form of the Spanish language as spoken in Spain, based on this dialect. 3. a native or inhabitant of Castile.
Or this one:
1 a native of Castile. 2 the dialect of Spanish spoken in Castile, which is standard Spanish.adjectiveof or relating to Castile, Castilians, or the Castilian form of Spanish.
Therefore, if you insist on using the term “Castilian Spanish”, it can only refer to the Spanish spoken in the Castile region, which by the same token will exclude the Spanish spoken in other regions of Spain, which doesn’t make any sense when you are recruiting translators (who localizes only for Castile?). To sum it up, if you stress the “Castilian” in “Castilian Spanish”, you exclude the rest of Spain. And if you stress the “Spanish” in “Castilian Spanish” (to distinguish it from Latin American Spanish), you get to the insane situation whereby Latin Americans speak Castilian and Spanish, but not Castilian Spanish. In any case, the conceptual difficulties you can get into by simply raising the term “Castilian” are thorny. Better to simply avoid using it and stick to safer terms such as “Iberian Spanish” or “European Spanish,” neither of which requires a doctorate in comparative philology. Yeah, I know “Castilian” sounds fancy, but everybody hurts sometime.

Now, the job ad quoted at the beginning takes the “Castilian/Spanish/Castilian Spanish” idiocy one step further and totally dissociates español from castellano and asks for a translator to work a text from one to the other. That is the equivalent of asking someone to translate from Quebecois to Canadian French or from English into “American.” This marks a step further in the divorce between Spanish and Castilian, similar to a fight between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or between Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Which is an extreme, relatively unstudied phase of multiple personality disorder.

The agency posting this is Ukrainian (the ad, sadly, was erased before I managed to save it). An autopsy of the way in which a project from English to Spanish came to be handled by an agency in that region of the world would perhaps provide an interesting radiography of why there are so many poor translations out there.

Rant over. (Whew, it felt good to get that off my chest.)

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, and H.B.O. International, as well as several small brokerages and asset management companies. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network by visiting the profile or follow him on Twitter.


Curri said...


Even though I speak both Catalan and Spanish/Castillian/Iberian Spanish/European Spanish, if I see something like that, I wouldn't dare to even send my CV over. They might actually send me a text in Sankrit and ask me to deliver the translation within one hour.

Great post, as usual, and great irony.

Daniel Greene said...

This ties in very well with what I shared on Google+ yesterday from a Catalan friend in Barcelona. I notice you write, "Castilian is just an old name for standard Spanish, whether spoken in Buenos Aires or Mexico City or Barcelona (or even Copenhagen, for that matter)." What my Catalan friend took exception to was the use of the word "Spanish" at all to refer to Castilian, because as far as my friend is concerned, Catalan is just as Spanish as Castilian. It would be like if we called American English "American" and then told Native Americans / American Indians / First Nations people they did not speak "American."

I appreciate your wit and humor, and I agree that it is important to read critically and write intelligently. I just think that even in your unpacking of the language in the advertising, you may have missed a crucial point: that Castilian is not Spanish anymore than English is American. Even if you say "Iberian Spanish" or "European Spanish" you are still saying Spanish. I know my Catalan friend does not think the whole "Spanish-speaking" world should stop calling their language Spanish; he only wishes people would stop calling Castilian--in the context of Spain--Spanish.

Miguel Llorens M. said...

Trust me. As the grandson of left-wing Catalan nationalists, I am sensitive to your friend’s wish that we would just drop the term Spanish and just go with Castilian, which is a more accurate name for the regional dialect that spread far and wide thanks to the Castilian hegemony. The problem is that the horse has been out of the barn for a long time on that one. The troublesome “Castilian Spanish,” on the contrary, is not that entrenched, so resisting it will probably be more useful. In any case, it would be interesting to know when Castilian came to be known as Spanish and whether the more encompassing term was adopted for political reasons.

Daniel Greene said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response, Miguel!

Curri said...

Look, another one of those!

I wonder if there is an influenza of stupidity going around...

Miguel Llorens M. said...

This is beautiful. Before it gets deleted, I am going to copy/paste this:

In-house, Full-time Translator - Spanish mother-tongue /Paris, France
Our client is looking for an in-house Translator - Spanish mother-tongue – (ideally Spanish CATALAN) based in Paris, France.

As part of a global team of translators, this position will be utilising the latest industry standard translation tools and technology to help maintain consistency from English to Spanish (Catalan).

You need to meet the following requirements:

•University degree or equivalent.
•3-5 years experience in translation from English to Spanish (CATALAN), in-house working experience is essential.
•Native fluency in Spanish (CATALAN) and an excellent command of English