• Carolyn

Quirky Spanish translations

Updated: Feb 23

For my next book, I'm researching Patagonia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. To do this I've been reading a number of books written during that time.


Luckily, the copyright on the books has lapsed, and often the full text is available on the Internet. This is wonderful because the books are so rare, and without the Internet, they would only be found in the basements of national libraries in Santiago or Buenos Aires, or in university libraries in Rio Gallegos or Punta Arenas, or in obscure bookshops in South America or in Spain. And I wouldn't even know that they existed. For example, how would I know that a book exists called Censo jeneral [sic] del territorio de Magallanes - Tomo II or 'General Census of the Province of Magallanes - Volume II' (from the early 1900s). A fun read! (Spanish speakers will wonder at the spelling of 'jeneral,' rather than 'general,' and I'll cover that in a later post).


Seriously though, some books are fascinating. For example, in 1898 a Buenos Aires-based journalist decided to visit southern Argentina, stop in at Punta Arenas and sail along the coast of Tierra del Fuego. The journalist was Roberto J. Payró, and he collated his articles in a book called La Australia argentina: Excursión periodística a las costas patagónicas, Tierra del Fuego e Isla de los Estados, or 'Southern Argentina: A journalist's excursion to the Patagonian coast, Tierra del Fuego, and Island of the States.' Payró writes beautifully and his stories are intriguing (though one or two are harrowing), covering landscapes, stories he hears in bars, sheep farming, gold panning, economic facts and figures (though not too many), and fables of Indigenous groups.


The drawback with reading these books is that most of them are in Spanish. Whilst I understand quite a bit, I sometimes want to find out more about the meaning of particular words or phrases. To do this I start with Google Translate. That's when my research becomes very entertaining. Here are some examples of translations from Payró's book, showing the original Spanish phrase or sentence, Google's translation, and my translation after sourcing information from other locations. For those of us who fear that technology and machines are taking over the world, we can breathe a sigh of relief (at least for now) because the human touch is definitely needed in the following translations:


Spanish: pingües rentas

Google's translation: income penguins

My translation: substantial profits


Spanish: Es el comandante del Villarino un hombre joven, pero avezado a las rudas tareas del mar.

Google's translation: Villarino is the commander of a young man, but he is experienced by the rough tasks of the sea.

My translation: The commander of the Villarino [the Villarino is a ship] is a young man, but he’s experienced in harsh marine work.


Spanish: Sorprendente espectáculo que me llamó fuertemente la atención y que dio ancho campo a las conjeturas.

Google's translation: Surprising show that caught my attention and gave wide guess to the guesswork.

My translation: A surprising spectacle that impressed me and suggested a wide range of possibilities.


Spanish: En efecto, estábamos rodeados de ballenas, desgraciadamente muy alejadas de nosotros para poderlas ver de un modo distinto. El polvo de agua que lanzaban por los espiráculos, parecía tenues vapores blancos que brotaran del mar en ebullición. Apenas se diseñaba una parte de su obscuro lomo en la superficie del canal. Dos de ellas se levantaron de repente, sacando gran parte del cuerpo enorme sobre el agua.

Google's translation: In fact, we were surrounded by whales, unfortunately far from us so we could see them differently. The dust of water that they threw down the spiracles, looked like faint white vapors that sprang from the boiling sea. Barely a part of its dark spine was designed on the surface of the canal. Two of them suddenly stood up, pulling much of the huge body over the water.

My translation: We were in fact surrounded by whales, though unfortunately they were too far away to be seen clearly. The spray of water from their blowholes seemed like a faint white steam that rose from a boiling sea. Only parts of their dark backs could be discerned above the surface of the canal. Two of them suddenly soared upward, lifting most of their enormous frames above the water.


Spanish: Una visión inesperada en aquellas latitudes nos sorprendió a todos agradablemente: era un ligero bote, a cuyo timón iba una dama; otra se hallaba a su lado; manejaban los remos niñas vestidas de colores primaverales, y jovencitos que bogaban con vigor. El sol caprichoso brillaba en las aguas y animaba el cuadro, que parecía arrancado del Tigre para trasladarlo por encantamiento a aquellos solitarios parajes, animados y alegrados por su nota vibrante.

Google's translation: An unexpected vision in those latitudes surprised us all pleasantly: it was a light boat, at whose helm a lady went; another was at his side; The oars were dressed girls dressed in spring colors, and young men who were vigorously shopping. The capricious sun shone in the waters and animated the painting, which seemed torn from the Tiger to transfer it by enchantment to those lonely places, animated and happy by its vibrant note.

My translation: An unexpected scene for those latitudes [the Beagle Channel] surprised us all pleasantly: it was a light boat, with a lady at the helm and another by her side. Girls dressed in spring colours, and young men, rowed vigorously. The whimsical sun shone on the water and animated the scene, which seemed torn from the Tigre [the delta of the River Plate, near Buenos Aires] and magically transferred to that lonely place, animated and cheered by its vibrant mood.

[These were the wives of two Europeans living in Ushuaia, with their children, out rowing].


And if you'd like to find out more about Patagonia, read my book, An Argentine in my Kitchen.




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