Lost in translation: linguistic differences in expressing grammatical aspect.

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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 be inferred easily from the context. This is actually a common problem in translations from Romance languages to English.

Let’s check the original Portuguese version of this sentence:

“Levantou-se e tomou um gole de vinho. Depois pegou o cajado e começou a acordar as ovelhas que ainda dormiam.”

The google translation for this is:

“He got up and took a sip of wine. Then he took the staff and began to wake up the sheep that still slept.”

It’s interesting that “and took a sip of wine” is gone. I guess there are different Portuguese versions too and “e tomou um gole de vinho” is deleted in the standard Portuguese version. So let’s focus on “as ovelhas que ainda dormiam“, which means “the sheep that still slept“. The verb “dormiam” (“dormir”: “to sleep”) is in the 3rd person plural form of the indicative Pretérito Imperfeito (“past imperfective”).

But the verbal form of “past imperfective” in many Romance languages can be used to indicate a wide range of aspectual meanings. Let me give some examples in French. These examples are taken from https://www.linguee.fr

1. Past habitual:

Je dormais habituellement 5 heures par nuit.

I usually slept five hours a night.

2. Past episodic:

Je dormais dans un sac de couchage attaché à la paroi d’une station de sommeil.

I slept in a sleeping bag that was attached to the wall of a sleep station.

3. Past event-in-progress:

Elle est sortie et elle a vu que je dormais encore.

She came out and saw me still sleeping.

The past imperfective of “dormir” (to sleep) in French in the 1st person singular is “dormais”, and it can be used to express a habitual event in the past as shown in 1 above, an episodic event in the past as shown in 2, and an ongoing event at a certain reference time in the past as shown in 3.  Correspondingly, the English simple past form of the verb “sleep” can also express a habitual or episodic event, as shown in 1 and 2. But for a past event-in-progress such as in 3, the past progressive form is more appropriate. Therefore to translate from a Romance language into English, we need to pay attention to the context and use the more appropriate form of the verb.

As can be seen from the google translate example given above, the standard corresponding form in English of the Romance past imperfective is the simple past. Thus it is quite common for translators to just “preserve” the original past imperfective form by using the simple past in English.

In terms of the semantics of aspect, such cross-linguistics variations are quite important. English is unique in that there is a specific form for the progressive aspect, while in the Romance languages, and also in Standard German, the imperfective form can indicate a progressive aspect according to the different contexts. When I first started studying French and German many years ago, I always felt that the simple imperfective forms could not express the progressive meaning. For example:

French: Je lis. >> “I read”, or “I am reading”.

German: Ich lese. >> “I read”, or “I am reading”.

To me, “Je lis” or “Ich lese” should mean “I read” only, but not “I am reading”, and it is very difficult for me to interpret “Je lis” or “Ich lese” as “I am reading”.  Of course, eventually I realized that some languages just do not distinguish the ongoing event verbal form from the other imperfective forms. I guess this entrenched notion of a more “complex” form specifically used for the progressive aspect might be a factor for the problematic translation in this English edition of The Alchemist, as I have pointed out in the beginning of this blog post.