Some burning translation questions…

Last week, a Montreal-based communications firm contacted me to translate a short Spanish text into English—my first Spanish project of the year! Once I completed a draft, I sent it to a fellow colleague for revision. Before submitting the final version, I spent several moments soaking in the comments and suggestions the reviser made. By and large, I was satisfied with the reviser’s work, for he made a lot of constructive comments that helped to improve the overall structure of the translation.

Upon observing the comments, a few questions about word order, filler words, and passive and active voice rose to the surface:

1 – When should translators switch sentence order in a target text (TT)? Is it ever appropriate or advisable depending on the context?

2 – If some source text (ST) words act as “fillers,” should you or shouldn’t you translate them? In the latter case, will overall meaning of the target text be lost in any way, shape, or form?

3 – Some source languages (SLs) have a habit of frequently using the passive voice. When should English imitate passive voice structures? How will they be effective? Must all English texts be cast in the active voice?

To help you better understand the above questions, I will provide examples of texts I came across in books. I will also provide examples from some translated texts. (I’m not breaching any non-disclosure agreements, I promise!)

One of the comments my reviser made was that changing word order can (slightly) alter the meaning of a text. What, then, is the difference between “As I was waiting for John to arrive, I decided to read a book” and “I decided to read a book while waiting for John to arrive”? Am I not transmitting the same information?

In the following examples, word order has been slightly – or significantly – altered, but overall, the meaning is the same:

Les paupières battantes, Tchen découvrait en lui jusqu’à la nausée, non le combattant qu’il attendait, mais un sacrificateur. (A. Malraux)

Chen’s eyelids fluttered as he stood there, and the thought that came to him, rose up till it sickened him, that he was not the fighter he expected, but one performing a sacrifice.

(Translation: A. Macdonald)[1] [My bold print and underlining]


When the Supreme Court ruled 95 years of English-only laws in Manitoba invalid this June, the judges were writing another scene in a drama that has an endless run on the province’s political stage.

En déclarant invalides, en juin dernier, toutes les lois manitobaines rédigées uniquement en anglais depuis 95 ans, la Cour suprême ajoutait une nouvelle scène à la pièce qui tient l’affiche depuis près de cent ans au théâtre politique de la province.[2] [My bold print and underlining]


De forma aparentemente anecdótica, pero que da mucho a reflexionar, podría sintetizarse la situación social y psicológica de EE.UU. desde 1963 para acá en personas.

A synthesis of the social and psychological history of the United States since 1963 could be made by looking at a few individuals. This may seem anecdotal, but it does give much food for thought.[3] [My bold print and underlining]

If you were the translator of the above source texts, would you have remained faithful to the ST word order, or would you have changed it in the TT, as the authors and translators have done? What factor(s) would influence your decision?

Another comment my reviser made pertained to “filler” words—words that you may decide not to translate because they don’t add anything to the text. As I look at the third example above, the connector para acá is filler information. In some contexts, the connector may be translated as “on some occasions,” “for some time now.” These translations are effective if ST sentences have only one time-related connector. However, the example provided has two connectors: desde and para acá — both related to time. Because desde already serves the purpose of describing activities during or throughout a certain length of time, the translator has rightfully decided not to translate para acá.

 How do you deal with filler words in your translations?

The final point I would like to address is the ever-growing conundrum of the passive vs. active voice. In the text I translated last week, I replaced an active-voice sentence with a passive structure. From the looks of my reviser’s comments, it didn’t necessarily work given the context. Instead of writing “we were supported by,” I should have written “we felt the support of…”

Two questions arise:  a) When is it appropriate to cast a passive-voice structure in an active light, or vice versa?  b) Should the passive voice be used at all in English translation? If so, when?

Spanish-to-French colleagues are in for a bit of a treat, since passive voice structures are more common in French than they are in Spanish. For instance, the sentence

Desde niña, le habían fascinado los secretos, los pequeños actos clandestinos y, aún más que ellos, los emocionantes rituales que los acompañaban y envolvían, ese recluirse en penumbras aledañas al misterio…

could be translated as follows in French:

Depuis son enfance, elle était fascinée par les secrets, les petits actes clandestins, et plus encore par les rituels palpitants qui les accompagnaient et les enveloppaient : cette réclusion dans des pénombres voisines du mystère… [My bold print in both examples][4]

The authors, who presumably are also translators, observe that the passive voice in the above example is effective to maintain ST word order (sound familiar?) and accumulation of ideas (my paraphrase). But caution is needed: in some contexts, French passive voice may make sentences heavy. In the example below, the authors avoided it by using the pluperfect tense:

Por eso, si un muchacho por el que estábamos interesadas no aparecía en el lugar calculado, podía ser porque se hubiera ido ya, porque se hubiera metido en un café, o porque en aquel trecho hubiera decidido cambiar de sentido para acompañar a otra chica más afortunada.

Ainsi, si un garçon qui avait éveillé notre intérêt n’apparaissait pas à l’endroit escompté, ce pouvait être parce qu’il était déjà parti, parce qu’il était entré dans un café, ou parce que dans l’intervalle il avait décidé de changer de sens pour en accompagner une autre, plus chanceuse [My bold print in both examples].[5]

Like every translation, context is everything. And don’t forget to put an ounce of common sense in your decision-making!

How do your source and target languages deal with the passive voice? Is there a need to encourage the use of active voice more than the passive voice?

[1] Françoise Grellet, Initiation au thème anglais : The Mirrored Image, p. 45, Hachette, 1992-1993.

[2] Jean Delisle, La traduction raisonnée : manuel d’initiation à la traduction professionnelle de l’anglais vers le français, p. 142, Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa, 2e édition, 2003.

[3] Allison Beeby Lonsdale, Teaching Translation from Spanish into English: Worlds beyond Words, p. 64, University of Ottawa Press, 1996.

[4] Virginie Rajaud et Mireille Brunetti, Traducir : Initiation à la pratique de la traduction, pp. 57, 59, 60, Armand Colin, 2e édition, 2005.

[5] Ibid, pp. 81, 83, 84.


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