The Case of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. The Translator’s Challenge.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug”

- Mark Twain (1835–1910)

In my last article I told the story of how I got my first major translation assignment. But what I did not know that the mere fact that you know two languages reasonably well does not make you a translator. Then again one will never fathom the full implications of a translation until you complete the job.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is an 1865 short story by Mark Twain. It was his first great success as a writer and brought him national and international attention. Shortly after its publication the story was translated into French. Twain was dismayed by the French translation. The humor was lost. The satirical nuances were gone. So much so that he decided to back-translate it. A “back-translation” is a translation of a translated text back into the language of the original text, made without reference to the original text. Twain published this new work with a new a title “The Jumping Frog: In English, Then in French, and Then Clawed Back Into A Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil”. This work not only illustrates his wit but also elucidate the mayor problems involved in a translation.

I opened my email and there it was the manuscript of the SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness. I had have read the book before. I began reading it again only this time something strange was happening the words, the phrases, the meaning were different. As I was reading in English my brain was changing the words and phrases into Spanish. But what about the meaning? The “meaning” is one of the first problems you encounter. You might have a well-constructed phrase but does it carry the intended message? The translator is like an invisible cognitive filter. Information flows from the author then is filter cognitively by the translator subsequently is written and after that it’s adsorbed by the reader. You see the translator is in the middle of the reader and the author. In my case three authors.

The next problem is that the Spanish language is spoken by more than five hundred million people in more than twenty countries. In the USA we have about 45 million Spanish speaking people. It is not a homogeneous Spanish. Certain words and expressions have different meaning for each one of these groups. You have to account for that in order to avoid embarrassing or confusing interpretations. Or for example the use of “tu” (informal) and “usted” (formal). In modern English we only used you. And how about the technical words. Some of these terms are untranslatable. Sometimes you feel overwhelmed by the task.

Fortunately a good translation is a team effort. I counted with the full cooperation of one of the authors, Alvaro Fernandez and the marvelous proofreading and editing of Dr. Cristina Gomez. To do anything in life that is worthwhile you need determination, persistence and a good team to work with. For almost a year we worked together as a unit toward a common goal. Our objective was the translation of a unique book about neuroscience applications. That is how the book “Como invertir en su cerebro” was born.