Liar, Liar: Gigantic Chinese Fence on Fire

I have a hunch that this post might actually set off a series, larger than I care to imagine at this point. However, as the improperly, overly literally translated Spanish saying goes: the polite doesn’t remove the brave!* – so write this, I must…

If you know me fairly well, you also know that not many things irritate me as much about translation errors as false cognates that are the product of sheer laziness: a flagrant unwillingness to engage the thinking organ. Sometimes, false cognates pop out of a relatively innocent (but wrong) assumption that homogeneity or morphological parallelism is a good yardstick for “proper” translations; if the the term rendered in the target language appears similar enough to the original, it is therefore more likely a good solution, right? Well, no. I won’t bore with a litany of infamous, exemplary pairs like embarrassed and embarazada, as we both know what I’m talking about, right?

Now here, in this instance, my irritation is prompted by the fact that I’ve been a cook before a friar, i.e.: I have been previously engaged in a (very) different profession, from which I now can draw knowledge to help solve a given, current problem or situation. Meaning here: I know my way around information technology fairly well. That’s why I wince, whenever I hear Spanish speaking people refer to a rúter; I stubbornly prefer “encaminador” over the literal router.

In this instance, it’s about the term firewall which refers to IT and networking architecture; I am fairly convinced that the term firewall is known and used broadly enough to disbelieve that people in general have the following definition of such a thing in mind:

A wall made of a large fire!
A wall made of a large fire! (Click for the original image, by artist Dan Dos Santos)

Without getting into the staggeringly complex details of how it works, a firewall as widely used in computer technology is a device to keep unwanted traffic out of a given network or computer system. And the metaphor prompting its name doesn’t refer to a sort of ring of fire (sorry Kinks fans!) but to a fire prevention and delay construction assembly. In Spanish, the widely and more correctly used term for that thing is cortafuegos (even though the unaltered firewall is also used often – much to my chagrin.) Its form follows a similar pattern as in English; that is neither surprising or unique, given the enormous influence of the English language from which many new terms and notions are adopted.

More interesting even is the relatively new term Great Firewall; a nifty transformation, which combines the famous Great Wall of China with the firewall, and serves in reference to something which Chinese authorities prefer that Western media call the Golden Shield Project. Leaving the unsavory reality of that term completely aside, it does present a stubborn problem for translation. The Spanish term for a firewall literally refers to a (more abstract) fire blocker, so the reference in the English version to a ‘wall’ is absent. Out of the window goes the opportunity for a linear translation to convey the dark irony in Great Firewall; after all, referring to a ‘Big Blockade of Fire’ mostly elicits blank stares, with or without ‘of China’ added to it. However, the Spanish word for the Great Wall (or Great Wall of China, the original construction designed to literally keep cultures separated) is Gran Muralla – or Gran Muralla China: now that is a direct or linear equivalent of the same term in English…

So, how does one translate a complex pun like Great Firewall into Spanish? Well, in my opinion, the answer here is ‘hardly.’ The notion of a ‘Virtual Great Wall’ is just so strained that it might break your computer screen on impact. One alternative approach could go for the other part of the compound, i.e. the ‘huge firewall’ solution, referring to a massive instance of that computer device. It fits better, but it hardly connotes with the monument; it does only on a deeper semantic level. Although somewhat acceptable, the problem is that it doesn’t visualize too well, and it omits the pun of the English original. Which merely serves to pun-ctuate (sorry) a well-known fact: jokes are hard to translate; word plays even more so.

Now, it gets really wild in a case like this when people don’t think, and just blindly break down the ‘original’ nouns of the composite in English (fire and wall) and then happily translate that combination – literally. And just to make it a total cluster-mishap, the word large is added. The utterly derailed wreck is: Gran Muralla de Fuego. An enormous erected blockade, made of fire indeed.

Don’t you think now that that illustration above makes a lot more sense here?

Well, according to an over-active and arguably hyper-correct on-line editor of Spanish newspaper El País, it does:

[…] Pekín, de hecho, ha desarrollado uno de los sistemas de control de Internet más sofisticados del mundo. Tiene un ejército de ciberpolicías escudriñando la Red y espiando correos privados permanentemente. Es la llamada Gran Muralla de Fuego (Great Firewall of China), que en los últimos meses ha redoblado su censura, con el bloqueo del sitio de vídeos Youtube (perteneciente a Google), la red social Facebook y el servicio de mensajes cortos Twitter. […]

It’s a good thing that the English ‘of China’ was helpfully provided; it’s a pity that precisely that semantically significant bit wasn’t translated in the blockhead’s translated pseudo-Spanish version. Behold the world famous Big Blockade Made of Fire of the Chinese! Can you hear me now? One wonders why that editor didn’t go, instead, for Gran Cortafuegos de China. Not all that elegant, but I think it’s effective.

It’s an interesting object lesson. For me, the conclusion here is that it’s better to settle for a conservative and marginally acceptable solution than a ridiculous one.

*Just to be sure that that obscure instance of deliberately mangled translation isn’t lost in its humorous intent here: the original expression is: “Lo cortés no quita lo valiente.” It denotes that being courteous and well-mannered doesn’t necessarily preclude an occasional need to be candid; i.e., sometimes it’s better to be honest (but impolite) than flattering (and dishonest). That wacky sense of humor – premised on the comical effect of a deliberate, overly literal translation into English of common Spanish expressions – became an instant fad in the early naughties in Spain, when a book purportedly “teaching English” came out, under the now (in)famous title: From lost to the river. It goes downhill right there from the cover… I still chuckle, just by thinking about that book.

2 Replies to “Liar, Liar: Gigantic Chinese Fence on Fire”

  1. also, didn’t you mention at the chocolate bar that you were interested in ….some type of investigative ? what was that? blogging on that?

  2. Ah! You have a mind like a steel trap. I was referring to forensic linguistics; if you’re interested, here’s a good write-up by Peter Tiersma, professor at the Loyola Law School in LA, which explains what it deals with. It’s something which truly fascinates me, as the practice of law is to a very great extent a matter of semantics. For example, how does one establish that a statement is indeed a threat? That may sound trivial or perhaps even an overly belaboring question for something seemingly obvious (to paraphrase a now legendary assertion of discretion in discerning facts: “I recognize a threat when I see it!”) but when you compare it with the intricate steps required e.g. in the context of a criminal trial involving a DUI case to establish that indeed the measured BAC level was appropriately obtained by a qualified professional using a properly set up piece of equipment, that question isn’t as far fetched as it seems anymore; its answer isn’t remotely as simple as it appears. I sincerely doubt that in the everyday practice of criminal law there is a generally embraced means of establishing something like that in a manner consistent with the high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” especially when considering that the crux of such a matter involves a markedly linguistic issue. Given the by now well-established field of forensic linguistics, I believe it’s an interesting gap. Or, as I prefer to see it: it’s an opportunity for professional development.

    But that’s fodder for deeper, separate contemplation. So yeah, I might at some point dedicate a separate post to that issue…

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