The Terrible Translations: Notes on Some of the Spanish Editions - submitted by Antenora
Because it relies so much on codes and wordplay, A Series of Unfortunate Events presents a unique challenge to translators. Here follow some notes on how the Spanish editions of a few of the books rise to some of those challenges-- or rather, don’t.
TBB: Un Mal Principio
The “executor/executioner” joke is executed slightly differently, since both words are translated as “ejecutor” in Spanish. The relevant passage is:
Había dicho que era el ejecutor testamentario, y Violet tuvo la sensación de que era realmente un <<ejecutor>>, un verdugo.
Which back-translates to:
[Mr. Poe] had said that he was a testamentary executor [i.e., the executor of a will] but Violet had the feeling that he was really an “executioner,” a hangman.
Although Count Olaf is “Conde Olaf” in Spanish, the translator did not realize that “Al Funcoot” is an anagram of “Count Olaf”; that name is simply left intact.
During her introductory scene, Josephine says: "me considero una experta en lengua inglesa" -- "I consider myself an expert in the English language," not Spanish. This isn't a one-time error; "ingles" appears again and again whenever grammar is mentioned, despite the fact that everyone is speaking Spanish and no English grammar is actually discussed. (The grammar errors which Josephine corrects in dialogue are pretty straightforward translations of their English counterparts.)
An even more egregious howler is the phrase "fiesta de murciélagos," which literally means "party of bats" or "bat party"-- as in, the flying mammals. Comparing this to the English version, it's intended to translate "bat mitzvah."
The grammar error on Sham's sign: Spanish does not use apostrophes, so the translation employs a verb conjugation error: "cada barca tienen sus velas". Literally: "each boat have its own sail." Confusingly, the correct version with "tiene" appears in the chapter 3 illustration of Sham's card and is quoted as such in the text, but Josephine states that the card bears the incorrect "tienen." It appears that someone fixed this error without realizing it was meant to be an error.
The grammar code: The Spanish version uses only spelling errors, instead of grammatical errors along the lines of "leaded" for "led." The phrase "cold as Ike" ("frío como Ike") still appears in the letter, but is not part of the message-- nor is it identified as the signal for the code. In fact, it is not even discussed. And it would not be a plausible misspelling because the Spanish for "ice" ("hielo") does not sound or look anything like the name "Ike." (The phrase spelled is "Cueva Sombria," which actually means "Gloomy Cave" rather than "Curdled Cave.") Aside from that oddity, the grammar code seems to be translated pretty well.
From that same book, I recall a passage where the translator replaces an English idiom with a semantically similar Spanish one, but renders a passage explaining the idiom entirely literally. There are probably other examples of this that I overlooked.
However, some English expressions and allusions are replaced with Spanish ones. For example, I recall that "speak of the Devil" becomes an expression meaning (funnily enough) something like "speak of the Pope," and a reference to the tooth fairy is replaced with "el Ratoncito Perez."
Also, TWW's schm-reduplication ("truth, schmuth") becomes first-syllable reduplication ("verdad, veveverdad"). I gather that this process has the same derogatory meaning in some form of Spanish as does schm- in English dialects, but I can't find anything about it online, nor have I seen it mentioned in anything I've read about Spanish. Perhaps a native Spanish speaker can shed light on this?
The last name Squalor is changed to "Miseria"-- no other character names are changed in this book or the other Spanish books I own.
"VFD" = "VBF": The doilies are called Volátiles Blondas para Fiestas, which translates to "volatile doilies for parties"-- presumably, "volátiles" is being used to mean something like "lightweight." Assuming the translator had some knowledge of either Snicket’s books beyond TEE (the translation is copyrighted 2003, the year TSS was published), or Snicket's plans, the letters VBF may have been chosen to stand for a phrase including “voluntarios bomberos” (volunteer firefighters).
The cul-de-sac passage is translated fairly literally from the English. However, "de" is actually the same word in French and Spanish, but the translator doesn't comment on this, so we have what literally back-translates to "of means of." It arguably works better than the English version, though, since the humor of the passage comes from the absurdity of guessing what foreign words mean based on their frequency alone, and not anything so reasonable as cognates in related languages. Rather than figuring out that "de" means "de" because they look exactly alike, Snicket reaches his conclusion through a silly and obviously flawed process of guesswork. This may be a rare example of wordplay becoming funnier in translation.
I own only the Spanish editions of TBB, TWW, and TEE. The first two are hardback and translated by one Nestór Busquets, the third in paperback with Verónica Canales Medina credited as translator. The publisher is Montena. Their covers look like this:
These editions retain all the Helquist illustrations of the English editions, though in somewhat poor quality-- those in El Ascensor Artificioso /TEE look faded and slightly blurred. Some text in the illustrations (e.g. on signs) is translated into Spanish; they are otherwise unmodified.
My copy of Un Mal Principio/TBB has an editor letter that should have gone with TRR, referring to Lake Lachrymose and giving the book title "La Ventana Grande," which isn't even the correct title of the Spanish TWW. That in El Ventanal/ TWW correctly mentions TMM (El Aserradero Lúgubre). However, El Ascensor Artificioso /TEE contains a Kind Editor letter which translates that found in the English edition, but omitting the book's title.
Judging by the books listed in the front of El Ascensor Artificioso /TEE, the lack of a title in that book's Kind Editor letter, and the lists of translations given in each book's Wikipedia article, there exist no Spanish-language Montena editions of the books beyond TEE.
However, further searching reveals that a company called Tusquets published TVV and THH in Spanish, with covers closely matching the American originals. They are entitled La Villa Vil and El Hospital Hostil, respectively.
There are apparently no Spanish editions at all of any later books. The Spanish Wikipedia has a page for TCC, which actually mentions that the book hasn't been translated into Spanish. This blog appears to be offering unofficial translations of later books.