Monday, March 13, 2006


Literal translation and the Special One

Media reports (noted at Transblawg and elsewhere) of Chelsea manager José Mourinho being derided by Barcelona fans as a 'translator' (i.e. interpreter) put the taunts down to his having been Bobby Robson's 'assistant at press conferences' when they were both employed at Barcelona. This hardly does justice to the Special One's career in translation/interpretation. At Sporting Lisbon and then at Porto, before they both moved on to Barça, Mourinho's full-time job was that of Robson's interpreter, his main function being to relay the instructions of the monolingual Bobby to his unanglophone squad.

The taunts are of course misplaced. Mourinho is clearly both less and more than an interpreter: less because his English is hardly up to the required professional standard, more because the role he carved out for himself was far more influential than that of a mere go-between (did I say 'mere go-between'?) Here is a comment by an ex-player and client of Intepreter Mourinho (from an article in El Periodico de Catalunya):
"Yo, que tengo algunos conocimientos de inglés", ha explicado el exazulgrana Òscar García, "detecté enseguida que las traducciones de Mourinho no eran literales. Eran las instrucciones de Robson más las observaciones del propio José. Y, la verdad, aquello tenía mucho sentido"
(Roughly: I know some English and could see straight away that Mourinho wasn't translating literally. It was Robson's instructions plus José's own thoughts)

In this sense of the expression, to translate 'literally' means that nothing is added or taken away i.e. there is no spurious input on the part of the interpreter. In normal circumstances, therefore, it is a good thing. This is the sense in which the phrase tends to be used by non-specialists like Mr García.

But there is another sense, the one perhaps more familiar to language professionals, which is that of a mere calque, a word-for-word translation unlikely to convey the intended meaning. In this sense, it is a bad thing.

Hence perhaps the difficulty that often arises where laypersons, especially in the context of courts etc., insist on a literal translation, and the translator/interpreter baulks at the idea of doing an unprofessional job.

Previous post on literal translation here.

Go here to download a clip of Mario Rosenstock's José and his Amazing Technicolor Overcoat with footie footage courtesy of SkySports.

I believe you should put the full insult: traductor de mierda, that is a "shit translator". I'm not going to quote the other insult that had to do with him being Portuguese. That is still to be managed by Benfica when they meet Barcelona.
The press reports seem to have censored the 'de mierda' bit. Luis Aragonés should have been so lucky with his comments about Thierry Henry.
I believe the "de mierda" bit referred to José's personality taken as a (w)hole rather than to his linguistic abilities in particular.

What, oh what, would be the state of Barça now had it not been for the Graeco-Arabic translation movement? Answers on a stone slab.
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