Off topic: The Little Translator turns Little Detective
Thread poster: Mervyn Henderson

Mervyn Henderson  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:25
Spanish to English
+ ...
Dec 12, 2007

The Little Translator claws his way back:

The Little Translator goes for the Big Lie:

The Little Translator meets the Mob:

The Little Translator runs into Brookesduddy:

The Little Translator runs into Brookesduddy (II):

My integration with the Basque Country is consolidating daily. Only last week I got a job via the Basque police, the Ertzaintza. Basque is a quaintly weird language, you know. Occasionally it’s spoken back to front. They don’t say “I ate an apple” – they say “Apple an ate I”, “Sagar bat jan dut”. And “Ertzaintza” is an evolved combination of “herri” and “zaintza”, “overseeing the people”. Which is as good a description as any for a police force, don’t you think? Whatever you might think about the police.

Anyway, seemingly a woman had jumped seven storeys down out of her flat in Asmatutakoizena, a town near Vitoria, to the great chagrin of her husband. The woman had English-speaking relations involved in winding up her estate, and the lawyers needed translations of the statements. So they had been talking to the Ertzaintza, and somebody got in touch with Little Translator.

As you know, translators are in the privileged position - or frequently the unprivileged position - of getting to grips with 101% of the material. Anyone else can just breeze through a report on something, and if there’s some reference, some acronym, some damn abbreviation understood by three people within a radius of only five or six kilometres, some in-house jargon they don’t have a clue about, well what the hell, they just read on and forget about it, whereas WE have to sort it out down to the last painstaking, annoying, exasperating nuance and detail.

… Sound familiar?

So what we had here was a suicide, and there I was translating the husband’s statement. It had all happened around 7 in the morning. Most suicides happen in the morning, I’m told. It makes sense. If you’re having a bad time, you might think “Well, maybe I’ll sleep on it, and things will look rosier in the morning.” Then you wake up the next morning and you suddenly find everything looks even blacker than the day before, and you start hunting around for razor blades.

Everything was “perfectly normal”, said her husband. He was finishing breakfast, about to leave for work, when his wife reminded him to take out the rubbish on his way downstairs. So he drank up his coffee in the lounge, went into the kitchen to tie up the plastic bag of rubbish, and suddenly heard a scream. Rushing back into the lounge, he found his wife was gone, and cold air pouring in through the window. He looked down and saw she had jumped out. At this point he freaked, and ran around knocking hysterically on all the neighbours’ doors. Two or three of them came into his flat and tried to calm him down. He couldn’t remember much more from this point, but I also had to translate the neighbours’ statements - one of them said he eventually had to go downstairs to find the porter and investigate the scene, because the husband kept asking him: “Is she dead, is she dead, do you know if she’s dead?” She had been suffering from depression for over a year, he said, too. Terrible stuff to translate, let me tell you. But later I found it got even more terrible ...

As I was saying, we often have to translate in inordinate detail, but personally I find that the stressful task of putting it all together nicely in the target language can distract me from the actual contents. “I suppose you learn a lot about all sorts of stuff from your translations”, people say, and to a certain extent that’s true, anything from the Mona Lisa’s underwear to rocket science, but more often than not I finish a translation and I’ve retained very few details in my mind. A day or two later I may start to piece it all together again, and in this case the whole job was just a fuzz until I was thinking about it “from the outside” a few days after.

The thing was, it just didn’t make any sense.

Imagine you have a depression. Depression is a living hell. You hate life. Life hates you back. You’ve had it with life. There’s no way out. You want to end it all. You’re at the end of your tether. Goodbye cruel world. Nothing, but nothing, is of any importance any more. You stand up and make for the window. Then a thought strikes you, and you stop.

“Oh Lord”, you think, “I must tell my husband to be sure and take out the rubbish this morning”.


Get out of here. “Don’t forget to take out the rubbish, dear”? As your last act on earth? Come off it. I know what you’re thinking - she could have done it to distract him, so he didn’t stop her from doing it, but hey, he was just going to work, she had the entire day. She could have stood up and said: “I love you my darling, but I can’t go on any more, adiós”, or “I hate you, you loathsome unfeeling moron”, or “We’ll always have Paris”, or “I did it my way”, even - something, something dramatic, meaningful, but certainly not “oh by the way, you will take out the rubbish, won’t you?”

You can see where this is taking us. Since she couldn’t possibly have said it, that means she didn’t say it, and so he must have been lying. She didn’t jump out no window, no sir. Maybe she was just gazing out at the morning mist, hoping forlornly that the new day would bring a few shreds of joy into her miserable life, before he came up behind her and shoved her out.

I rang the Ertzaintza, asked to speak to the sergeant on the case, Garmendia. “It’s about the incident in Asmatutakoizena”, I said. “Oh yes”, he said, “the suicide”.

So I outlined it all to him, especially the clinching bit about the rubbish. He was quite surprised, and more than a little sceptical. “I must warn you that this is a very serious accusation, Señor Traductorcito”, said Sergeant Garmendia. “After all”, he went on, “that man was so upset. The neighbours said he was crying his eyes out, just couldn’t believe she was dead.”

But I was having none of that. “Merely a cold calculating killer who had got rid of his wife and was obviously psychologically prepared to act out the part of the grief-stricken spouse afterwards, Sergeant. Let’s not forget I translated his exact words according to witnesses, and that wasn’t quite what he said. He just kept asking if she was dead. And of course he did. It was important to him, certainly it was. What if she had survived the fall? What if she talked? What if her last act was to desperately scrawl the name of the killer in her own blood on the cold, hard, damp, unforgiving concrete?”

“Look, Señor”, said Garmendia, “I don’t know what you expect me to do about this, but …”

“All I need is a big room”, I told him. “We just gather everyone together in a room, all the witnesses, with Matey as well, then I can come in and say “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve asked you here today”. You’ve read the Agatha Christie books, I suppose, Sergeant?”

“Oh yes”, he said. “Now, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was my favourite. The way that woman puts a ring through our noses and leads us up the garden path is …” He checked himself. “Er, I don’t see what you mean by the room, sir”.

“That would be the scene, you see. I would take them all through it just like I have with you, until someone says the likes of “But why are you going on to us all about this suicide?”, or even mentions the word suicide, and that’s my cue to say: “No, mon ami” – or perhaps, in this case, amigo mío – “not suicide. This was murder. Murder most foul.”

God, the kick you must get out of saying that kind of thing, I thought as it went down the phone theatrically to Garmendia. You would really need a waxed moustache like Hercule Poirot’s to gently twist at as you said it, though.

I went on: “Then I would say “Arrest this man, Sergeant”, and you could cuff the blighter and take him down for interrogation. He’ll crack real easy, take my word for it. Especially after a few mild threats, a bit of shouting, a spell of the white noise, a couple of hours of the good-cop/bad-cop routine, and no sleep.”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to decline that invitation, sir”, said the Sergeant. “There’s really no case. No proof, no nothing.”

I was dumbfounded. “Have you checked under her nails for signs of a struggle? Were the fingerprint lads put on the job? Can’t you at least put a tail on him? Bug his flat to catch him cackling fiendishly into the mirror as he realises he’s got clean away with it? Who speaks for his wife, Sergeant?” I cried. “Who speaks for Edurne?”

Sergeant Garmendia had had enough of me, though. “Don’t you dare speak to anyone about this”, he said. “And don’t ring here again, or else it’ll be you we’ll be cuffing. Goodbye.”

There is no Justice, you know.


ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:25
English to French
+ ...
I sooooo understand you! Dec 12, 2007

This was a hilarious story on a much less hilarious part of our work. I, too, am sometimes affected by what I translate (once, I translated a document on all the illnesses some people have because of pollution by herbicides - about people who carry their bowels in a bag and such). That's why I am often proud of my work, because indirectly, I am contributing to something bigger that leads somewhere (the above mentioned document was a report that was going to be used to establish the compensation the victims of the herbicide poisoning would get). Of course, I will always refuse to translate stuff that goes against my moral values.

Bless you for bringing these topics up - and for giving them such a treatment worthy of printing and filing.

Please, keep posting these!


Juan Jacob  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:25
French to Spanish
+ ...
I highly... Dec 12, 2007

...suspect that The Little Translator doesn't exist.
It's, here, Hercule Poirot, or Conan Doyle, whatever, reborn.
He's making out all this stories, for shure... and quite well, must I say.
Why doesn't he try to write a best seller? He'll earn probably much more than being a Little Translator.
But keep on writing... we'll say, "I knew that guy when he was not famous, you know?!"



Lia Fail (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:25
Spanish to English
+ ...
Great! Dec 12, 2007

.... getting to grips with 101% of the material. Anyone else can just breeze through a report on something, and if there’s some reference, some acronym, some damn abbreviation understood by three people within a radius of only five or six kilometres, some in-house jargon they don’t have a clue about, well what the hell, they just read on and forget about it, whereas WE have to sort it out down to the last painstaking, annoying, exasperating nuance and detail.

… Sound familiar?

You bet!!!!

As a newbie once said to me: I can't believe how with one tiny little translation error they are down on you like a tonne of bricks, never mind that the source was full or typos and inconsistencies etc!


Marina Soldati  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:25
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Great! Dec 12, 2007

Hi Mervyn,

This one was really great!
Keep them coming!


Anabel Canon
Local time: 16:25
English to Spanish
+ ...
Mila esker... Dec 13, 2007

for another delicious chapter, LT! Since my own integration here is still consolidating (after 6 years...), I've specially enjoyed these "pinceladas" on life and language in the Basque Country.

Keep them coming!


Andrew Steel  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:25
Spanish to English
Not sure what to make of the opening sentence Dec 13, 2007

My integration with the Basque Country is consolidating daily.

Is Little Translator having a little translator's joke with us here?icon_smile.gif

To me, the opening sentence reads like unidiomatic translatorese and is completely out of keeping with the style of the rest of the text, which suggests to me that it's a deliberate leg-pull.

But what if it's not? And if it's not, am I being over-zealous?

I'd be interested to know LT's intentions, as well as what others think, as much for my own peace of mind as for anything else.icon_smile.gif




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