Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Chilean government website translation leaves native speakers quizzical, at best.

Shattered meat. That's the topic of today's post. But first, the backstory. There's always a backstory.

Far be it from me to bite the hand of the government that allows me to become as accustomed to living in that lap of luxury as I probably ever will, living freely and working legally in a country that is not my own, living among its people like an equal (some say a better), in a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen the size of a matchbox and all the bread I can possibly purchase from the corner store.

I love Chile. I live here by choice, despite raised-eyebrow looks and pleading pouts from several skilled family members.

Ahem. So this is the good-cop bad-cop routine, and I'm just about to bust out my bad cop. Don't worry, it doesn't look like this:

riot gear

because at least at the moment, I don't believe that this topic is going to get that violent.

So. The Chilean government recently launched a new website, which you can find at Esto es Chile means "this is Chile," and the name has a really sweet ring to it, slightly self-effacing (as if you'd expect anything different!), kind of positive.

So. The website is a collection of the usual suspects, pictures of Rapa Nui, discussions of food, that kind of thing. Same packaging, different day. I was perusing the site, to see if I could get a fix on whether it would be useful to me or any of the various people that ask me for advice about Chile. On this I'll say, sure. It's what the government wants you to know about Chile. No photos of demonstrations or mention of what some call the civil war in the south of Chile between some Mapuche factions and the (mostly European) settlers there. But that's to be expected.

I was also expecting clunky, ugly translations of Spanish into English. So I was pleasantly surprised, toodling along with some quirky, but mostly decent translations. (Click on the English button to see the translations, as the site comes up in Spanish.)

Until I got to this page. This is the page where the description of an empanada, that quintessential any-time Chilean food, which this pigeon is thinking about eating in the following picture, appears.

pigeons will eat what they can find

and which I've (of course) also written about here, in this post about Pomaire and the mythical empanada.

Here's the description of an empanada.

Empanada: It’s one of the most typical Chilean dishes and consists of a stuffed bread that is filled with shattered meat, onion, egg, olives and raisin. It can also be prepared with cheese and shellfish. Though the empanada can be consumed in any date of the year, its stellar moment is during the independence celebration in September.

I've already kind of given it away, but what is the part of this description that most gives my inner prescriptive grammarian (where grammar also refers to word-level grammar, and in this case, collocations) a terrible case of the no-you-didn'ts?

Shattered meat? Shattered? Interesting. Since I stopped eating meat in a long-distant decade, I thought to myself, perhaps I do not know about the properties of meat. Maybe it is not ground, shredded or deboned, pulled apart, pounded, tenderized, pulverized. Maybe it's shattered. It's a funny thing, this shattering, as I'm under the impression that the things that can shatter, like glass, porcelain, your hopes, are things that are resilient to begin with, and react to a strong blow by breaking into tiny, unusable parts.

In order for meat to shatter, I would expect it would have to be frozen solid, and whacked with a mallet, Gallagher style. (Who is Gallagher? Wikipedia will tell you. Considering that my freezer leaves icecream a bit soupy, and can take days to freeze ice, and this is a new refrigerator, I don't think most empanada-makers have access to such technology. Hitting meat with a mallet in that case would lead to a thwonkslurp, not a crackshatter. So I'm going to call a foul on the translation.

Don't believe me? I googled "shattered meat." Got a whopping 272 hits, many of which were for things other than the actual shattering of meat. Then, ever resourceful, I googled "ground meat." And the googlefairies started singing and the planets aligned rightfully and this post was born. 1,380,000 hits, thankyouverymuch.

I know where this problem was born. It was born in the mind of a translator, who, not sure exactly how to render destrozado (in this case, probably shredded or ground) in English, referred to a giant dictionary like the one I have sitting on my couch next to me most of the time (Gran Diccionario Oxford Español-Inglés, Inglés-Español, one day I'll get my Amazon shop up and then you, too can plonk down scads of money on books n things to benefit meeee), looked up destrozar and found the entry about emotional health, where a woman was shattered by some bad news.

I don't even know what the lesson is here. Oh, yes I do. 1. Use a native speaker for the target language 2. Check your work and 3. Send it to me to check it again. Just for kicks. And to save me the energy of writing this long post all about a product I'll never eat, and whose heyday is right around the corner, all national holiday and fondas (Fiestas Patrias, Sept. 18th).

Don't miss it. You'll be shattered.


Emily said...

what about "stellar"?

Eileen said...

teehee, you caught the second word that jumped out at me like a vampire in a zombie movie. Or something.

Yes, this paragraph could have used some native-speaker loving. Perhaps we should rewrite it and send it back?

naaaah, then where would I get all my blog fodder?

Bystander said...

Take it from me, they won't want a correct version. They have probably paid well for that translation and they are sticking to it. Though how someone came up with both shattered meat and stellar moment in the same paragraph is a bit of a mystery.

. said...

Shanghai is cracking down on such translations. I think it's a nice idea to avoid tourist confusion, but I would miss those bad translations dearly.

Sara said...

I agree with Bystander. Sometimes I think they want the crappy translations because it mirrors more what they think it should be like when they pictured it in Spanish in their head. Plus, it gives us gringas something to giggle at. Shattered meat? Stellar moment? Interesting.

Richard said...

It reminds me of a daft story my Portuguese teacher (a refugee from Angola) told me about the refugee camp in South Africa that housed the Angolans coming into the country many years ago.

There was an outbreak of diarrhea in the camp, which in Portuguese, they tried to explain to the medics as "Constipacao" (I have no clue how to produce the 'c' with the comma underneath it - bah). The medics, having a general rule that Portuguese words ending in 'cao' were the same as English words ending in 'ion' (multiplicacao - multiplication, informacao - information and so on) mistranslated and prescribed laxatives to half of the camp, with predictable (if only funny in hindsight) consequences.

Eileen said...

While I can enjoy the occasional ill-translated signage (like the one at a cloth dyeing workshop that said something to the effect of step two: students die), I just think it's a crying shame when it's an official government translation. There is no shortage of native speakers and/or real translators in this country. One of the problems here is also that the whole "check your work" parable falls short sometimes. And if you don't speak much English, how, exactly are you going to check that the translation was done properly?

I speak relatively good Spanish, but I know I'm not a native speaker, and I would never offer myself out to translate anything remotely complex into Spanish. Why would someone not qualified to translate a recipe offer to do so? No conscience about work product, perhaps? Or the almighty call of the peso, more likely.

And sadly, what Sara and Bystander is probably true. Unless that reporter from Las Ultimas Noticias sees this and decides to capitalize on it, we will all laugh and snicker at shattered meat, and hasta allí no mas llega (that's as far as it gets).

Thanks "." for pointing out the Chinglish article. But hey man, say who you are. There are so many "."s in the world.

Richard, I didn't know you'd studied Portuguese, but it makes sense, given your location. Though I support anyone studying any language at any time, as you all may have guessed. Let's just all agree not to translate anything until we're really in a position to do so! (and I know you wouldn't!)

Richard said...

In truth, two years of Portuguese study were dedicated more to someone in Portugal I had fallen head of heels for than for any reasoned appraisal of what languages were spoken in the nearby countries :)

That said, while the head over heels love may not have worked out, the language has come in handy over the years. I guess even when you lose, you sometimes get to take home a consolation prize!

Bystander said...

Another problem might be that they got someone on the Ministry of Education's approved list to do the translation. I once proofread a text book written by three of these people (all with Masters or more) and had to virtually re-write it.
Hey, that website is fun.
"The northern sun’s rays coruscate in the colorful costumes,"

Annje said...

Stellar... who says that? I see bad translations of English into Spanish here in TX all the time and it drives me nuts.

I love the shattered meat... it sounds like someone used a lousy online translator.

Speaking of food that has taken a beating... I saw a student essay in Spanish once that used "crema azotada" for whipped cream-- good stuff!

p.s. it's an honor to be on your blogroll. I'll have to post something soon so I can come back and see it up.

Margaret said...

Pucha qué lata... it really makes me sad that this, our adopted country, falls into this trap time and time again... remember the "All Ways Surprising" campaign? All of the very best intentions and it comes up short--surely for budgetary reasons--on something dumb like shattered meat. How unfortunate it is that all the effort that went into that site (which, dentro de todo, has much to offer) gets remembered for a silly Spanglishismo because someone didn't take that final step of checking it over!

Margaret said...

I loved the crema azotada! or maybe it should be latigada? Do you feel another bad translation fun story coming on?

Margaret said...

BTW Eileen, your comments were taken to heart and all that shattered meat of Esto es Chile empanada fame has been miraculously reconstituted to be divided once again into a more believable form called minced.
And even though minced meat reminds me of that rather "grown-up flavored" pie that my mother used to make for Thanksgiving, at least we know that meat can, in fact, be minced, which would be form that falls somewhere between the more usual ground or chopped beef used in the beloved Chilean empanada.

Bystander said...

Margaret, meat which is called ground meat in the USA is called mince in Britain. They seem to use a combination of US and British terms, although their spell check appears to be set to USA.

edj said...

Ah but things like shattered meat bring us so much joy! I, too, am always mystified as to why not just check these things with a native speaker. Stellar was also amusing.
Also, why show a pigeon eating a thrown-away empanada? Could we discuss that please?

Eileen said...

edj, ooh, good question on why a pigeon eating an empanada. There are a couple of reasons for this. 1. it was a photo of a meat empanada that I had on hand. 2. the whole theme was kind of unappealing, smashing meat with mallets and such, so I thought I'd use an unappealing photo.

Not that empanadas are not delicious (thought I've never eaten a meat one), it just seemed somehow on-point. But then, sometimes I like to post photos just because I like them, as in today's entry on the month of cats. (

And yes, the question is not so much why didn't they use a native translator, as why didn't they double check with one (like me!). Though more often than not, taking a gander at someone else's translation turns into more than a simple dot your is and cross your ts operation.

thanks for commenting!

Katie said...

I'm happy to see that Argentina hasn't cornered the market on craptastic translations on their government websites. It truly is sad to see some of the downright awful translations they come up with around here.

You should have a contest about who can submit the weirdest translation they've come across.

Andrea said...

Unfortunately, Bystander is right.

As a translator myself, I would never even THINK of accepting a Spanish into English assignment, despite my English proficiency being quite good if I say so myself. But I am not a native English speaker. Period. I'm boud to make funny mistakes and come up with unidiomatic sentences that would have you guys giggling for a good couple of minutes.

The problem is, when my dear government tenders these assignments, price is at the forefront of their considerations and the budget is usually, well, crap, for lack of a better word. And they don't give a damn about the whole native vs. non-native speaker consideration; most often than not, they just want the work done cheaply and as fast as possible. Urgh!