Jump Or Climb Out A Window? ... Depends On The Translation

I recently read a book by Jonas Jonasson, translated from Swedish into Spanish. It was the most outlandish and humorous literature I could remember—a story full of colorful and fantastic episodes. Although intriguing, the novel was a bit difficult to understand at first. As a Mexican and native Spanish speaker, the words were easy to decipher, but not the humor—for the novel was translated—not in Mexico—but in Barcelona. Although Spanish is my native language, as a Mexican, my syntax, expressions and colloquialisms are quite different from those of Spaniards. 

I craved a different perspective on this translated story, so I bought the English version of the novel, and with it, the motivation for this column.

Let’s take the title of the book as an example. In Swedish it is Hunraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann. As I don’t speak Swedish, I cannot attempt my own translation, but I can offer you the official Spanish one: “El Abuelo Que Saltó Por La Ventana Y Se Largó,” which roughly translates into English as “The Grandfather Who Jumped Through The Window and Took Off.” In contrast, the official English title is “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared.”



The title variations led to curiosities. Why is the protagonist in the Spanish translation a grandfather, while in English simply a 100-year-old man? Is it because Spanish speakers are more family oriented? Furthermore, why does the protagonist “jump” out of the window and “take off” in the Spanish version, while in English he “climbs” out and passively “disappears?” 

Also intriguing, in chapter one of the Spanish version, the man “climbs” down a lattice from his “first floor” room, whereas in English he “steps out” of his “ground floor” window. Was this an arbitrary decision on the part of the translators? Or, is it that in Spain (as in much of Latin America), buildings have a “Planta Baja” or ground floor with a first floor right above it? In the U.S., it’s customary to have a lobby followed by a second floor.

Another interesting difference is the cover of the book itself.

The Spanish edition is white, the font is Helvetica-style and the title is black and purple. Below, framed in a blue rectangle, is an actual photo of a proud, defiant-looking elderly man. He’s wearing a pink sweater and tie with a photoshopped, ignited TNT cartridge in his right breast pocket.

The English cover is bright orange and peppered with phrases such as “The International Bestselling Sensation,” “It’s Never Too Late To Start Over...” and “Over 3 Million Copies Sold Worldwide.” A gold banner displays the title. Beneath it: a monotone drawing of a slouching man who precariously drags a small suitcase.

Regardless of the cover art or whether the old man steps or jumps from his window, what matters is that this Swedish story made me—a native Spanish reader and acculturated English reader—laugh like all humans do. 

This brings me to the takeaway of this piece: globalization and its need for an effective, integrated advertising strategy. Whether a message “jumps” or “climbs” into the general market, it’s important that the message remain relevant to its audience—whatever language they may speak. It must, therefore, not be lost in translation. 

3 comments about "Jump Or Climb Out A Window? ... Depends On The Translation".
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  1. Zeph Snapp from Not Just SEO, January 24, 2013 at 10:28 a.m.

    I could not agree more. Syntax is an important factor that many mid-size brands completely overlook when translating their material. The fact is, they shouldn't be translating, they ought to be localizing which is very different.

  2. Michael Porte from The Field (social), WheresSpot, January 24, 2013 at 12:51 p.m.

    Great article! and very well put.
    For our PSA campaign this year for the National College Finance Center - - our Social Media team needed to post in English and in Spanish. Not only was it sometimes difficult to make a direct translation - but when it came to twitters 120 character limitation - we often needed to make translations that had similar intent, but completely different actual translations.
    Your article demonstrates this perfectly, and also underscores how difficult it is to do this properly. Even with the best intent!
    Thank you!

  3. Greg Alvarez from iMeil, January 24, 2013 at 7:25 p.m.

    I would suggest American printing companies to search for Spanish translations in other countries. I, for one --a Mexican too--, always look for the English original or a Portuguêse version, mostly when translations come from Spain (heck! I prefer Argentinian Spanish above Spain one!). Can understand also, big US based companies, that present horrible Spanish translations (some come from their ad agencies).

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