Day: January 3, 2018

Lost in translation: linguistic differences in expressing grammatical aspect.

I was reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist earlier today, and one sentence in the translation seemed a little odd to me.  I realized that the problem lies in how grammatical aspect is expressed in Portuguese and in English. Being a semanticist, I can’t help being a stickler and pedant. So let me describe the problem in more detail here.

My discussions here will be based on the following two journal articles:

  1. Bonomi, Andrea. 1997. Aspect, Quantification and When-Clauses in Italian. Linguistics and Philosophy 20(5). 469–514. doi:10.1023/A:1005388230492.
  2. Deo, Ashwini. 2009. Unifying the imperfective and the progressive: partitions as quantificational domains. Linguistics and Philosophy 32(5). 475–521. doi:10.1007/s10988-010-9068-z.

The interested reader can refer to those two articles for a more technical account of aspectual specifications in various languages, and how they are different from English.

Now let’s come back to the main topic here about the translation of the novel. The English edition I have is the 25th Anniversary Edition of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist published by HarperOne (HarperCollinsPublishers). The “problematic” sentence is on line 4 of page 6:

“He arose and, taking up his crook, began to awaken the sheep that still slept”

The part that seems odd to me is “the sheep that still slept”. A better translation would be “the sheep that were still sleeping”. The use of the simple past form “slept” cannot express the nuanced meaning that the sheep were sleeping at the time when “he” started to awaken them, although the simple past form does not contradict that meaning, and it can Read more… »