Monday, February 26, 2007

The Humor (and Poetics!) of Mistranslations

While reading Walter Nash’s The Language of Humour: Style and Technique in Comic Discourse, I noticed a short passage on mistranslations. Mr. Nash refers to the humor that can come from the “excessively literally or misguidedly ambitious” translation. Surely we’ve all sniggered at poor translations in users’ manuals for items manufactured in other countries or while on vacation, whether in hotel rooms or on menus. Maybe some of us have even attempted to politely inform the managers of the restaurants or hotels that the translation was not correct. What’s interesting is that these mistranslations can inspire artists, as in the poem by Robert Graves referred to by Mr. Nash.

Apparently Mr. Graves noticed a badly translated tourist guide and let himself be inspired by it:

«¡Wellcome, to the Caves of Arta!» by Robert Graves

‘They are hollowed out in the see-coast at the muncipal terminal of Capdepera at nine kilometer from the town of Arta in the Island of Mallorca, with a stuporizing infinity of graceful colums of 21 meter and by downward, which prives the spectator of all animacion and plunges in dumbness. The way going is very picturesque, serpentine between style mountains, til the arrival at the esplanade of the vallee called «The Spiders». There are good enlacements of the railroad with autobuses of excursion, many days of the week, today actually Wednesday and Satturday. Since many centuries renown foreing visitors have explored them and wrote their elegy about, included Nort-American geoglogues.’ [From a tourist guide]

Such subtile filigranity and nobless of construccion
Here fraternise in harmony, that respiracion stops.
While all admit thier impotence (though autors most formidable)
To sing in words the excellence of Nature's underprops,
Yet stalactite and stalagmite together with dumb language
Make hymnes to God wich celebrate the stregnth of water drops.

¿You, also, are you capable to make precise in idiom
Consideracions magic of ilusions very wide?
Already in the Vestibule of these Grand Caves of Arta
The spirit of the human verb is darked and stupefied;
So humildy you trespass trough the forest of the colums
And listen to the grandess explicated by the guide.

From darkness into darkness, but at measure, now descending
You remark with what esxactitude he designates each bent;
«The Saloon of Thousand Banners», or «The Tumba of Napoleon»,
«The Grotto of the Rosary», «The Club», «The Camping Tent»,
And at «Cavern of the Organs» there are knocking strange formacions
Wich give a nois particular pervoking wonderment.

Too far do not adventure, sir! For, further as you wander,
The every of the stalactites will make you stop and stay.
Grand peril amenaces now, your nostrills aprehending
An odour least delicious of lamentable decay.
It is poor touristers, in the depth of obscure cristal,
Wich deceased of thier emocion on a past excursion day.

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