Voice of the translator in Spanish translation

When a company decides to localize its products or services, translators have a prominent role to play. However, due to the idiosyncrasies of both localization and translation, the job of the translators and their “voice” is sometimes not sufficiently recognized, especially in the case of good translations. Back in 1969, Eugene Nida described the process of translation as the decoding of a source text, the transfer of this information and its restructuring in a target language.

During this process, the translator needs to take into account a number of influencing factors, starting with the characteristics of both the source and the target texts — function, register, genre, language norms and so on — as well as socio-cultural aspects of the source and target audiences. The translation process also deals with the requirements established by the commissioner of the translation — such as author, readership, intended text function, medium and motive. This information needs to be included in the localization kit, offering the translator sufficient detail regarding what is to be translated: expected target audience, style guides, time and space limitations, among others. A fundamental part of localizing for a Spanish audience is knowing exactly what it is, whether a generic Latin American audience or a specific Hispanic community within the United States, for example. With all this information the translator needs to make a number of choices and develop strategies in order to produce a translation that is fit for its purpose. Hence, the translator becomes the central figure in interlingual communication, in spite of the fact that translation may simply seem to be another step within the localization process. 

On some occasions, the changes that a translator needs to make are determined by the linguistic and cultural differences between the source and target languages over which the translator has no control. In Spanish to English translation, this includes, for example, the use of pronominal forms; a more rigid, fixed position of grammar elements in English; one single form of to be for both verbs ser and estar; or the use of a period to express decimal points. In other occasions, adaptation results from intentional choices made by the translator in order to produce a more adequate translation for the purposes established by the client. For instance, in English to Spanish translation, this might be the preference for a formal style to denote politeness or deference that would not be clear from the text in English or it might involve the preference for longer, subordinated clauses commonly found in Spanish. These choices, whether obligatory or optional, have come to be known as “the voice” of the translator — the underlying presence of the translator in a target text.



A few examples should illustrate some of the choices that translators need to make. In the localization project of a British software licenses reselling company introducing its services in Spain, the translator decided to keep a number of ICT references in English — words having to do with software, hardware and the types of licenses. In translation terms, this would be seen as a “foreignizing” strategy, or the use of source text loan words in the target text. However, the translator was aware of the acceptance of some of this terminology by the Real Academia Española (the authority in Spanish language matters) and the perceived preference in Spain of English terms in dealing with ICT topics. In the translation of the  home page, Are you taking advantage of the current exchange rate? was rendered as Aproveche la actual cotización de la libra esterlina. This is an example of transposition, where the interrogative sentence was changed into an imperative one, reflecting a more direct style preferred by Spanish speakers. In another section, the web page referred to software licensing procurement explaining the process of insolvency of British companies, including terms such as insolvency practitioners and case managers. This required the adaptation not only of the specific terminology, but also of the process of company insolvencies in Spain, in order to successfully communicate the operational issues involved in the procurement of licenses.   

Whether or not the translator choices in these examples are the most appropriate may be open to debate. What is clear is that the strategies employed to produce the target text would not be visible to the target readers unless they had access to the original text and could understand the source language. In the case of multilingual websites this is possible, albeit unlikely. In this situation, the voice of the translator can only be heard through the contrastive analysis of both the source and target texts, including lexical, grammatical and semantic correspondences.

In other situations, the voice of the translator becomes more prominent and readers can clearly see that what they are reading is a translation. Although these are not usually available in the localization process, certain strategies such as the use of translator’s notes give visibility to the translator, as it is evident to the reader that this information did not appear in the original text. As part of the localization project mentioned above, the translator was able to use an introductory note in one of the company’s internal documents briefly explaining the differences between the British and Spanish systems when dealing with insolvencies to aid comprehension of the process in both countries. 

One final situation where a reader is aware of the presence of the translator is in bad translations. On a low-cost European airline’s website, Excess Baggage Fee per Kilo: This can only be purchased at the airport desk/kiosk is rendered as Recargo por exceso de equipaje – Esta tasa sólo puede adquirirse en la oficina de ventas del aeropuerto (this fee can only be obtained at the airport ticket office), making the customer wonder since when fees are obtained instead of being paid. In this example, the lack of knowledge of the target language is obvious, and readers are well aware that they are reading the words of the translator.

Although different translation situations will require specific strategies, the selection and application of translation strategies by the translator has a dual purpose. Firstly, we cannot forget that the process of translation is based on a source text. The translator’s second duty is to transfer the information in a meaningful manner for the target audience. Interestingly, the commonly-accepted concept of localization as the process of adapting a product or a service to a particular language, culture and desired local “look and feel” clearly demands a target audience focus. 

This, however, is not exclusive to localization. The present general trend in translation, and a requirement of localization in particular, assesses translations depending on their fluency. It requires them to read like originals in the target language, producing an interesting paradox: the translator needs to employ strategies and choices to create a text that is a reliable and faithful reproduction of the source text but that, at the same time, does not read like a translation. Moreover, the translator is trusted to analyze and interpret a text in the source language and to transfer and recode it in the target language, but the translator’s presence is not welcome in the final text and needs to remain as hidden as possible. This is what has been called the illusion of transparency — the voice of the translator becomes nearly silent as the readers have the impression they are reading something that was originally written in their language. Of course, it can be argued that the translator’s “silence” is in fact an illusion, even if it is perfectly acceptable and, in fact, desirable for that to be the case in certain instances, especially in localization. 

Many scholars believe that this has its origins in the historically subordinate role of translation, where originals and authors have enjoyed a higher standing and where translation has always had a secondary role. To some, the fact that it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that translation started to be considered an academic discipline in its own merit is further proof of this subordination.

The present search for fluent, transparent translations may perpetuate this role. Localization requires the production of texts that conform to the cultural and linguistic norms of the established locale, and calls for translators to have a thorough linguistic and socio-cultural understanding. This demands qualified, knowledgeable and skillful professionals, but paradoxically, the better the application of their expertise the less visible they become. Translators can take a little consolation from the fact that, however fluent and transparent a target text is and however quiet the presence of the translator may seem to be, their voice can never be absolutely silent. It is the translation itself, with all its lexical choices, grammatical formations and textual structure, which contains the voice of the translator and what makes them essential in the process of localization.