Imagine you’re translating a document, from English into Spanish. Say it’s a letter, dated Tuesday, August 13, 2013 (that’s today). How do you translate that into Spanish? Well, that’s not too difficult: you might render it as ‘martes, 13 agosto 2013’.
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Martes 13, Tuesday the 13th: a combination of day and date that are the object of widely-held popular superstition in the Spanish-speaking world.
(Like November 2012, the month of January 1931 had a ‘martes 13’ – Tuesday the 13th. By the famed artist and cartoonist Florencio Molina Campos, whose humorous but loving depictions of old-time scenes and characters of the Pampa have adorned wall calendars in Argentina for the better part of a century. Molina Campos was admired by Walt Disney, with whom he struck up a friendship.)
The bad luck commonly held to attach to ‘martes 13’ actually comes in a double dose. To the triskaidekafobia (a terrific Greek word, composed of thirteen+fear, that has the lovely property of sounding exactly like the thing it designates) that Hispanic/Latin American culture shares with Anglo-Saxon and many others across the world, is added a negative apprehension surrounding Tuesday.
Tuesday aversion is not common in the English-speaking world (though in the cycle of the work week, it’s certainly not many people’s favorite day). Think of the nursery rhyme foretelling a child’s fortune from the day of its birth (“Tuesday’s child is full of grace…”), or old Solomon Grundy who was “christened on Tuesday”.
In Spanish, though, the name for the second day following the Christian Sabbath is martes, Mars’s Day. Around this deity, most commonly known as the Roman god of war (equivalent to the Greeks’ Ares), spin a series of negative qualities: aggression, duplicity, hostility, selfishness. Reputedly despised by both his parents, Zeus and Hera, Mars could be worshipped for his valor and power (and apparently Venus did so), but perhaps more often feared. Herein lies at least part of the reason why Tuesday’s stock is so low in Hispanic-Latin American culture. “Día martes,” goes the well-known folk saying reflecting this, “no te cases ni te embarques”
So, thinking of all these associations, let’s go back to our little translation problem. Only now, let’s imagine the year is not 2012 but rather 1980, and what we need to ‘move across’ (the original, physical meaning of ‘translate‘) from English to Spanish is not the date of a letter but the title of a movie. Specifically, director Sean Cunningham’s newly-released horror flick Friday the 13th (still with us almost a third of a century later, having reached twelve installments and a grand total of eleven different directors; is anyone truly in suspense over whether there will be a Part 13?).
With strict ‘dictionary accuracy’, we could release the film under the title Viernes 13. But to tap into the deeper resonances within Hispanic/Latin American culture, maybe we would better off shifting the day of the week to Tuesday and rendering the title as Martes 13. And that’s exactly what happened in Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, and other countries of the Spanish-speaking world. However, the direct or ‘dictionary’ translation was used in still other countries, including Mexico and Spain.
One result of this convoluted set of circumstances: the association of Friday the 13th with bad luck, not native to Hispanic/Latin American culture, has to some extent been ‘imported’ from the English-speaking world—due to the power of what is often called popular, and might more accurately be termed commercial, culture.
And, let us not forget, it’s due also to the influence of an often overlooked group of ‘unacknowledged legislators’: members of the translators’ profession, whose decisions can have a significant impact on human affairs. What’s at stake is clearer when we think of the texts of laws and treaties, or the way that a statesman’s words are translated in a tense international negotiation. But even in this seemingly trivial example of a movie title, there are ‘real world’ implications. People’s likelihood of making certain personal or economic decisions—travel, a purchase, an apartment rental—is influenced by beliefs regarding numbers, dates, days of the week.
More adventures in the world of translation, this science, craft, and art all at the same time! And never more challenging than when cultural phenomena are what we’re translating.
A version of this essay appeared at https://mslsec.com on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011 and Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012.
Pablo J. Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, English>Spanish, and a Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter, EnglishSpanish. With over 20 years of experience and particular specialties in the legal, business, and medical fields. Contact info