Funny Google Translate from the Simpsons

I spent the better part of today translating a short story. I’m not a translator. I barely have enough credit to write in my own language, but I insist on writing in English. That gave me the silly idea that if I can write passably in Portuguese and a little less so in English, I could easily translate from one language to the other and vice-versa, and vice-versa, and vice-versa.

It turned out I can. I’m that kind of a genius. The problem is, and there’s always a problem, centered on a little detail: the translation looks, feels, and means nothing like the original looks or feels, and the meaning is almost completely lost. The plot is there: A man eats a tomato. The tomato was good. The end. It’s all there, but the words are all wrong. I can see that, but I have neither the skill or the patience to improve it.

I got the idea to start translating because it seemed like a simple enough way to make money online. My first attempts weren’t working out as I had thought: my naked selfies aren’t selling as I would hope and it appears the used underwear market is shamefully tilted towards women – discrimination, I tell you! I also started selling a podcast called Silent Rant, but 60 minutes of static noise only got me irate complaints and demands for their money back. I was running out of ideas when I had a brilliant one: attempt to get a job that I’m not qualified for, which, on top of that, pays poorly.

On most of the websites I looked, they demanded previous experience, which led me to translate this short story. Here’s the very short first chapter. The original’s quality is far superior:


I look to my side and watch the time. Five minutes to go. Her time hasn’t come; my time. It’s in these moments that we get to know who we are. Someone knocks: once, twice, three times. It’s her, the closest thing to a friend I had in the past months. Everything ended the day I killed someone. The door knocks continue. Now just one. I give the order to come in. She has always been polite, although sometimes misunderstood. She comes suddenly, but never without warning, brief as it may be.

“I thought you’d never come,” I told her, facing her with a touch of resignation mirrored in my face.

“Everything has its time,” she answered “I come exactly at the right time. Now we have to go or we’ll be late.”

Late for what, I thought – she’s never late for anything. Many wish she did, to some she arrives too early, to others too late. Once I asked why that was so. The answer was vague and unsatisfactory:

“All of us, in one way or another, work towards the same end. I, for example, would say that without me all life would be impossible. I, who am the opposite of life, contribute to make yours as well lived as possible.”

This was one of the many conversations I had with death.

If you understand Portuguese you can get the original here:

A morte está ao meu lado - Death Lives Next Door

From the text you can probably see a few mistakes: some grammar, some punctuation, some typos; the usual. Only having both texts side by side you can see the poor translator I am. These are some of the things I should have taken into account (and didn’t):

  • Literal translation;
  • Semantic translation (equivalence);
  • Formal translation;
  • Amplification (explanatory translation);
  • Original parentheses / brackets
  • Reduction / elimination
  • Translation by approximation
  • Generalization x particularization
  • Tracing
  • Loan
  • Nominalization of verbs / adjectives
  • Verbalization / adjectives from nouns
  • Transposition of adverbs
  • modulation
  • Cognates, false cognates, false friends
  • Adaptation punctuation
  • Reorganization syntactic
  • Translator’s Note
  • Language support

These were given to me by a Portuguese translator, in Portuguese. I started translating them, but then resorted to Google translate. The results were exactly the same, which dampened further any aspirations I might still have had when I started writing this, while my respect for translators sky-rocketed.

It’s not that I didn’t respect them already. The good ones I certainly did. But I came across so many bad translations, I eventually stopped reading them. I’ve been reading almost exclusively in the work’s original language ever since I saw Oliver Twist being mauled by a poor wordsmith. No amount of pleading and asking would get me more from that translation. I only got it from Dickens original words and just recently began losing that prejudice, due to my poor Russian and my rediscovered love for Dostoevsky.

I’ll try to keep in mind this failed attempt, but try to make the best out of it. I’ll add “Translator for an afternoon” to my CV.

Back to the original plan. I’ll stand for 60 minutes taking selfies and recording the newest edition of my podcast. Hopefully things will pick up.

see also:

JK Rowling on Writing

Bukowski on Writing

Isaac Asimov on Writing

I’m not the messiah, but you can follow me:

twitter-icon  Pinterest alt  facebook


6 thoughts on “Don’t Quit Your Day Job To Translate

  1. I’m so impressed that you want to do both, and you do do both, that I could care less how or what translates it. I’m going to pick up German within the next year or two when I move there, and I can do passable French for beginners from high school, but other than that the only language I am fluent in is Sarcasm.

  2. translating literature is the most difficult thing in the world, because there are more than words to translate. a lot more. there are those feelings you’ve mentioned.
    here’s some piece of advice: try to translate from english to portuguese. you know your language, you know how it sounds, how it feels. i believe it’s the best way to start.

    and i don’t know why people don’t like your silent rant: (white noise)
    it sure helps people to sleep!

    1. But it wasn’t supposed to make people sleepy :/ People should laugh the whole 60 minutes and re-watch it time and again.
      And naaa. One and done, I think 🙂 I’m too literal. Tradição não é a minha chávena de chá.

  3. And if you think that’s bad, try interpreting! I once attended a catholic funeral service in Dutch, which my English husband asked me to interpret for him as it happened. Mentally exhausting.
    I suppose it proves that all the training isn’t for nothing. 😉

      1. It was only because it was a full-blown catholic mass. I didn’t really remember enough of my two years of Latin to deal with those bits…


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s