New Russian Chronicles
Surviving monotaxocausofilia

Translating graffitti!

I know I promised to talk about THE BIG, UNBEATABLE, UNSURMOUNTABLE TRANSLATION MOUNTAIN a long, long time ago, but I haven’t got around doing it. Be so kind as to deal with it.

Today we are going to study a practical case of translation and a very interesting one. To give you some background, I found a grafitty. I *KNOW* graffitis aren’t usually translated, and certainly not thought up from the start to be translated (but is literature made to be translated? Methinks not, specially good literature, but hey, food for thought).

It’s a particular challenge. It’s a very short thing, with a visual component (look carefully at the letters), designed for impact, multiple and varied viewers, and demands certain background knowledge. And if that wasn’t enough, it contains a pun.

Lemme show you.

So here we have it.
Io lavoro et tu RUBY

Needless to say, half of the big job of translating and interpreting is to understand. (BUT! We only get paid for the other half, namely, to be understood.)

So let’s analyse this. At the very first reading you’ll get the straight meaning. “I work and you steal”. The second reading will let you notice that, in italian, “you steal” is written “Tu rubi” and not “tu ruby”… so we are up to something there. At the very least it’s a pun with rubys, the gem.

En español: Yo trabajo y tu Robas / Yo trabajo y tu, Rubies…. un poco cruda la traducción huh?

Already several options open before us. The first option is the plainest translation of it, the translation favoured by all those stupid airheads at translation school that, for some reason, have decided that

1. The author is some kind of all-powerful god
2. We, plain humans, can’t possibly understand what the author meant therefore
3. We have to stick to the text as closely as possible (because you know, something not understood at all and/or garbled is better than an educated guess!!)
4. The author will be displeased if we don’t.

Seriously, I had many colleague slike that in translation school, during our final year. Seriously, have you coasted through 4 years of translation school with your ears closed? Seriously?

I mean, what kind of stupid intellectual lazyness is that? We have to stick as close as possible to the original text because it’s not up to us, mere humans, to try and understand (don’t think about guessing!) what an author meant? Oh of course because they speak in an alien language reserved only to other authors and gods in heaven, well above the mortal realm of simple translators who earn their living by re-typing someone else’s text, right? WELL YOU SHOULD BE HIT IN THE HEAD WITH A BAT AND PUT TO WORK IN A FACTORY!*

(Actually, let me pause here for a second…. read those 4 points above. You probably see pretty plainly how they make NO SENSE whatsoever, and the logic that underpins them is purely in a misguided belief, namely that the author takes precedence above everything, and that we can’t understand the author, so we have to not touch it. Now… think about Jewish, Christian and Muslim theology…… ooops! There you have it, exactly the same kind of logic at work!! Hah! That explains a couple of things! … 😦 )

Sorry, I got carried away there, with my rage and with my (fascinating, if I may say so myself) tangent..

So yeah, we have two layers of meaning there. The first one (I work, you steal) and the second one (Rubies).
Now, as much as I would like to keep the analogy, and transform the pun in another pun (to try and keep as many layers of meaning as possible) I don’t see that as possible.

In English I love a little idea I have: “I work and you steel”. But steel is not a valuable material, so it doesn’t work.

Y en español podría decir “Yo trabajo para que tu rubis”, que queda mejor que “Yo trabajo y tu rubis”. Porque la segunda persona singular del subjuntivo, Robes, queda más cerca de Rubí que la segunda persona del presente de indicativo, Robas.

Robes + Rubi = Rubis
Robas + Rubi = Rubis … ? Si, la vocal E queda más cerca de la I, desde el punto de vista fonológico, que la A. Pero vamos, que si alguien no está de acuerdo que me escriba.
(por cierto, ya se que el plural de rubi es rubíes, no hace falta que nadie se pase de listo).

And then…. I realized how massively important understanding everything is. I don’t add this element now to catch you, or to pull a fast one. I am the first not to have understood the full meaning of the grafitty. I saw it one morning when going to work and only 24h later, when I saw it again I realized what the point was….”Ruby” is the assumed name of the girl who sits at the center of the biggest sex scandal of Berlusconi’s career!! And that’s what the grafitti refers to!


Now, about the sex scandal, many people don’t understand what the big fuss is about this time. Specially supporters of Berlusconi (and I mix with some all the time. Lovely people, specially with me, and I owe them big…. but no one’s perfect… specially supporters of Berlusconi, who live in an alternate reality dictated by the “Just world” hypothesis or something, so they don’t count.)

Now, what’s the big fuss, then? Berlusconi has always been a massive womanizer.
Well, yes, I’d answer: Berlusconi has had sex scandals since that time, at age 6, when his mom had to find a new babysitter because the one they had couldn’t stand little Berlusconi’s creepy gaze.

But this time it’s different because the aforementioned Ruby was allegedly a minor at the time when Berlusconi had sexual relationships (insert joke about viagra) with her. Not that they stand a great chance of succesfully prosecuting him, but this is the best shot they have, so the whole opposition is pushing the issue. They have to keep trying, it’s their civic duty and I’m with them. But considering Berlusconi’s track record, I’m tempted to think that the loopholes in Italian law are the size of……. no, wait, I’m going to make a disgusting joke about a well known (and disgusting) internet meme, and I’d rather stop that train of though before the inevitable trainwreck.

But I have to go on another tangent. One thing that surprised me quite a bit of the latest bout of Berlusconi’s sex antics is the reaction of the Church. They issued a strongly worded condemnation of Berlusconi’s parties because the drug use in them. THE DRUG USE. And then I read in a well known international newspaper that Berlusconi might be doing something very reckless by alienating his staunch Vatican allies, since they are permissive with sexual scandals, but drug use and scandals about drugs are a big no-no for them. (I’ll find the article to back my words, promise)

Ok, now pause and think about that. The Church, with all its hang-ups about sex… unless you are a right wing politician… but if you get accused of snorting, then… even if it’s a minor ? Aaaaaaaaaaah ok.
“Let the children come to me” (Mark 10, 14) … ? Maybe the church has been misunderstanding that passage all along? Just maybe?

But anyway, enough tangents. We are speaking about translation and other important matters here.

We’ve got three layers of meaning here. And luckily we are translating, meaning, I’m sitting at a quiet café, with a capuccino by my side as I type this (and the internet). If this came up in the booth I’d be within my rights to give a half-cooked answer, but this is not the booth, this is grafitti. (And honestly, who has seen grafitti in the booth?)

– I work and you steal (first layer)
– I work and you ruby (second layer)
– I work and you John on north-african underage girls (third layer)

To sum up: I work, you steal and pay underage prostitutes called Ruby with that.

En español:

– Yo trabajo y tu robas
– Yo trabajo y tu Rubis
– Yo trabajo y tu te vas vas de putas.

Resumen: Yo trabajo y con lo que me robas te pagas putas que se llaman Ruby

So what’s a man to do? First, don’t go lazy (Lazy! You’re staying in bed… You’re lazy! You’re staying in bed… <— Listen to this song! 2 minutes in you'll be wanting more!)

There must be something to be done here. Yes. But I think we'll have to abandond the plain original structure "I work and you steel".
So let's try changing the structure. What about…

What about "My work paid your Ruby". Ha! I like that one. Hey everyone, I had an idea!
Of course, since I had a workable idea I'm in the tunnel-vision zone, so I can't be asked to come up with different alternatives, for a while I will only see mine. A dreaded effect to be aware of.

But I think I came up with a nice way of putting it! Ok, the "stealing" part becomes implicit, but anyone in their right mind will understand, right? Let's take a look at it:

My work paid for your Ruby

– First layer: Made implicit, no talk about stealing, but I think people would understand the other two layers and understand that it's illegal, corrupt, not kosher
– Second layer: Ruby is mentioned directly
– Third layer: More closely intertwined with the second, anyone who knows the affair will see the pun between the precious stone and the girl.

Now, there can be many other alternatives, and some of them better, meaning-wise. For instance, why do I have to make the stealing part implicit? I could say

You stole my work to pay for your Ruby.

That's another alternative, but I'm taking something else into consideration here, namle space. It's a grafitti, a political one, it has to be short and produce an impact. So my preferred alternative would be the bolded one.

That said, feel free to give me your points of view with your comments, this amazing profession thrives in exchange of views and conversation! 🙂

Y en español? Como traduciría yo este grafitti en español? Pues parecido: Mi trabajo te paga el Ruby.

Me da la impresión, modestia aparte, que la traducción no está del todo malograda 🙂

A last commentary concernts the relevance of my little intellectual exercise. Is it pertinent, would we ever have to translate a grafitti? Probably not. But translation of very short texts with many layers of meanings is far from unheard of. Think about proper names, for instance. The most famous example being that of Bilbo Baggings (Nenya, this goes for you 😉 ). Tolkien wrote an entire guide for translators who had to deal with the meaning-laden names of his characters.

But my favorite example was the time, in a novel, when I had to translate the name of a particular Chinese fast food restaurant. Particular in that the (female) owner and waitresses worked in very skimpy outfits, or naked. The name of the restaurant?

Food Ho’s.

After much thought and consulting many colleagues someone (I can’t take credit for this magnificent solution) suggested the following:

Restaurante chino: Fu-La-Nas.


But what if nothing of this works. What if a name is very full with meaning, so much so that no alternative captures more than a part of the possible meanings, but the meanings are very important for the plot?
Well…. in those cases, legends are heard of translators who surrender, who give up and use footnotes**. That is, of course, the greatest shame a translator can suffer, and it condemns you to an eternity in hell, proofreading English texts that were translated from Mandarin, with a dictionary, by the 12 nephew of the factory owner that originally redacted the technical manual.

* Please understand that I’m raging against ghosts of my distant past, people who were very silly at the time. Luckily none of them works as a translator nowadays.

** There’s actually nothing wrong with footnotes, if you accept them as what they are: a a humble acceptance that you could not find a functional equivalent in your translation. Which sometimes you HAVE to do. But try to resist them!


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