Monday, February 29, 2016

Why Amateurs Should Not Translate

In my study of Spanish colonial St. Augustine from 1784 to1821, and in the creation of my book Non-Federal Censuses of Florida 1784-1945: A Guide to Sources, I have encountered a number of amateur translations.  Some of them have made me shake my head.  Some of them have made me laugh.

A few examples:

In a run of documents called the East Florida Papers, the originals of which are held at the Library of Congress, there is a letter which was written sometime in the 1920s or 1930s about a certain segment of these papers.  One document mentioned is headed, in Spanish, informacion naturalization* which the translator rendered as "Information Naturalization (?)."  At least the writer of the letter had the good sense to put the question mark in parentheses after their translation of the phrase.  Or, I should say, their mistranslation.  In Spanish, the word informacion does indeed mean "information."  But someone more familiar with the language also knows that the word has the additional meaning of "report."  And in this case, that's the word that should be used.  The translation should be "naturalization report."

In another document the amateur translator was not a paleographer, a person trained to read old handwriting.  I am a paleographer.  We can make mistakes, too, when a handwriting is really difficult to read, but one mistake this translator made is a doozy, and shows his or her unfamiliarity with paleography and with the Spanish language.  The document is a list of names that appeared in a census.  Some of the names are followed by the improbable words "el hifs," "el hiso," or "el biss."  A paleographer would recognize the error -- this is obviously a misreading of the Spanish el hijo, which means "the son."  At least el hijo makes more sense in the context than the made-up words that translator came up with.

In a collection of extracts of the marriage records I'm dealing with currently, there is an instance where the individual making the extracts was not familiar with ecclesiastical Latin, in which the marriage records were kept until 1788, when Bishop Cirilo de Barcelona, the auxiliary bishop of Cuba, made a visitation and informed the priests at the church in St. Augustine that from thenceforward, the church records were to be kept in Spanish, not in Latin.  Not that I'm all that fluent in ecclesiastical Latin myself, but I've been able to figure out enough to comfortably translate or at least read these church records.  The translator misread the document and placed the time of the marriage in question as 21 December 1786.  The Latin in the document reads "Anno Domini 1786 Die 21 Mensis Februarii . . ."  What that says is:  The Year of Our Lord 1786, day 21 month February . . ."  So the correct date of the wedding is February 21, not December.  The translator may have thought "Die" looked like "Dic," which he thought was an abbreviation for diciembre, the Spanish for December.

It's lovely that people get interested in a historical subject enough to want to do such work, usually on a volunteer basis.  However, translation is not easy.  Language is tricky.  Handwriting can be tricky, too.  I am trained in Spanish and in paleography, and I still at times feel that I am floundering.  Two lessons here are:

1.  Be careful with translated works, especially those done on a volunteer basis by amateurs.  (Be aware, however, that there are some retired professionals doing translations, too.  It's best, when retired, to have some activities, and when the retired pros do the job, it benefits everyone.)

2.  Some things are best left to the pros.

*I have to apologize that my computer does not do high-end ASCII, and I don't know any other way to make the diacritical markings used in Spanish.  If anyone has any help on that, I'd be happy to have it.

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