A funny language thing happened to me today…

For a summer internship doing Web programming for a local marketing/web design firm, I’m working to develop a Spanish-language version of the client’s existing English site, and it’s been rather interesting. I certainly do not know enough Spanish to translate most things in a way that would probably make much sense to a native (or even fluent) speaker, but I know enough to know when little things are wrong in the translation I was given for the content.

Case in point: The original text used the phrase “is simply too complex”, which was then translated “es simplemente dificil” – “is simply difficult”. For one, it’s very arguable whether or not complexity and difficulty are the same, but let’s assume they are. The English phrase involves an additional relation apparent to the speaker – too complex for something or someone – but the translation does not. And it’s not like Spanish lacks the linguistic resources: the adverb demasiado gets across that relation, and complexity could be represented by the almost-cognate complejo.

I have virtually no experience in translation outside of translating my own thoughts into Spanish for my college language courses (I’ve taken two of the three required semesters for my degree), but I think this sort of thing is common if the translator isn’t careful. A former professor of mine said once in class that she made a similarly straightforward mistake when translating a line of a poem: “Mother this child.” Since she is a native speaker, she translated it by word – “Madre este niño” – even though Spanish does not generally make use of verbification as English very commonly does. She had to reconsider (upon an editor’s advice) that “mothering” in English means something like caring for, which could then be expressed in clearer Spanish.

On a different note, this strange construction made me consider the function of “simply <adjective>”. While in a sense “simply” does mean “in a way that lacks complexity” in some usages, it is also used as an intensifier, similarly to “really” or even the often frowned-upon “literally” (see here on some non-standard intensifiers). It makes sense to consider “simply” here as an intensifier because its stricter usage would entail a strange oxymoron: being complex in a simple manner.

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