sound and sense

In the post Sound Reasoning, I talked about how in Spanish each letter corresponds to a single sound. This must make it hard for a Spaniard to visualise the spelling of a word when he hears it spoken in English, and therefore must make comprehension more difficult.

It does, however, add to the pleasure of watching films in English with amateur Spanish subtitles. I admire the guys who attempt what is clearly a task beyond their capabilities. They gather up their inadequate grammar and try and create meaning from sound alone.

They not only confront the complications of similar sounding words, but also of true homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings). And, of course, there’s the idea of chunking, which I mentioned yesterday, resulting in set phrases that a native speaker never even tries to parse and analyse, but simply recognises as a complete unit.

Take for example, these three phrases:

Is this the car?
It’s a sound proposition
It’s anybody’s guess

Are all fairly simple phrases for a native speaker. The second, referring to a train carriage, might make a Brit trip, but most of us are familiar with American English, and, anyway, the image on screen gives all the context needed for us to make sense of it.

But they resulted in the subtitles:

¿Es este el auto?
Suena como una teoría
No le ha invitado nadie

The first is totally understandable, and if the translator had used the Iberian coche instead of the American auto, it would probably have passed unnoticed. The second translation – “it sounds like a theory” – is almost acceptable, and certainly it’s clear how it relates back to the original spoken phrase.

The third, however, is one of those serendipitous non-sequiturs that confuse and delight. “It’s anybody’s guess” simply doesn’t translate as “no one invited him”.

In fact, it does make sense. “Guess” has been heard as “guest”. And the years of English teachers affirming that “somebody” is used in positive sentences while “anybody” is used in negatives and questions has obviously paid off. So what has actually been translated is “He isn’t anybody’s guest.”

“It’s anybody’s guess” and “He isn’t anybody’s guest” are, I think, potentially confusable phrases, at least when spoken. Of course, context would make it clear to a native speaker which was the correct version. But where’s the fun in that?

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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