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The Hidden Art of Translation

August 3, 2015

I’Carmen Ferreiro Estebanm pleased to to welcome my friend, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban, to Birth of a Novel. Originally from Spain, Carmen now lives in Bucks County, PA where she works as a writer/translator. She recently published the Spanish translation of her paranormal romance Immortal Love (Crimson Romance, 2012) under the title Bécquer eterno. You can find it at She’s also the author of Two Moon Princess, a YA fantasy, which she hopes to translate into Spanish some day.

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban: Like writers, translators are wordsmiths. They use words to communicate. But, while writers are the creators of their stories/articles, translators are like mirrors; they must render the source document into the target language without distortion, that is, without altering its meaning.two_moonpb_hires

Doing so, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

A text is made of words that convey a certain meaning. But, even in the simplest of texts, a translation of meaning cannot be accomplished by a word-by-word translation of the source text. In most cases, this would originate an awkward and, most probably, inaccurate sentence in the target language.

Among other reasons:

  • Because words have synonyms that are not interchangeable. Babies don’t wear “sombreros”, nor baseball players “berets”. Although both are translations of the word hat.
  • Because the order of the words in a sentence is sometimes inverted. “The white house” translates as “The house white” in French or Spanish.
  • Because even ordinary expressions are different in different languages. In English a person “is x years old” while in Spanish “she has x years.”
  • Because idioms are specific to each language. Do people turn blue when they are sad or green when they are jealous, in China?
  • Because we don’t mean what we say, literary. It never rains cats and dogs and we do not build castles in Spain, nor cry over spilled milk.

Carmen's book Spanish 2All these reasons apply to all kind of texts from the very technical to the highly poetical.

But when we talk about the translation of a lyrical text, a poem or a song, we must consider an extra level of sophistication. For the translator must find, not only words that translate the meaning, but words that translate the sound and length of the original ones; she must translate the music embed in the original.

The words maybe different from the ones the author used, but the feeling the poem/song/story elicits in the reader must be the same.

It’s in this context, that a translator transcends the source and creates his/her own piece and translation must be considered art.

A great example of a perfect translation is, in my opinion, Leonard Cohen’s rendition of the poem “Pequeño Vals Vienés” by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca into the haunting song “Take This Waltz”.


Thanks, Carmen, for sharing your expertise with us. I never realized how complex the process is and I have a feeling I’m not alone in that.

Here’s a link to Carmen’s Amazon Author page:

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2015 10:26 AM

    Thanks so much for posting this. I am seriously considering translating my books into Spanish. My husband speaks fluently (he learned in his late teens) and I am learning now. I am hoping that will be enough to get it right but I appreciate reading about the pitfalls to come. Thanks!

  2. August 4, 2015 10:35 AM

    Really interesting blog post! I’m hitting the share button on this one!

  3. August 4, 2015 1:14 PM

    Your post reminded me of my dad. He was Cajun and when he got with his friends, they would talk and tell their jokes in French. One day when he told a joke and everyone laughed, I asked him to share the joke with me. He thought a minute then told me that it wouldn’t be funny in English. Thanks for the sweet reminded of my dad.

  4. August 5, 2015 2:24 PM

    Thank you so much Sandy for having me on your blog. I am in good company!

  5. mezuniga permalink
    August 5, 2015 7:33 PM

    I love this post, Carmen. Spanish was my first language and I lost much of it when I entered grade school. My dad was bi-lingual and it was always frustrating to try to get the “essence” of a word or meaning he was saying. Certain words or idioms didn’t translate. So I fully understand how translation can be an art, and a sophisticated one at that. Muchisimas gacias for this lovely share, Carmen.

    • August 5, 2015 7:38 PM

      I admit I’m envious of people who are bi-lingual.

    • August 6, 2015 11:23 AM

      Marielena, I am glad you liked my post. I am sure your Spanish is somewhere in your subconscious still. My children, who speak Spanish poorly, do get the gist of what I´m saying.

  6. mezuniga permalink
    August 5, 2015 7:33 PM

    That should have been “muchisimas gracias” … lost in translation!

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