Translation and
Happy Birthday in Spanish

What can a simple song (like Happy Birthday in Spanish) teach you about translation? Well, let me share with you.

As everybody knows (even if they don't speak Spanish), happy birthday in Spanish is usually rendered as feliz cumpleaños, although slight variations are indeed found among different speakers of Spanish.

Everybody also knows that when you sing the happy birthday song in English to someone on their birthday, there is only one way to sing it (aside from the various incantations thought up by children):

Happy birthday to you,
happy birthday to you,
happy birthday, dear (insert name),
happy birthday to you.

Now, let's say that you have just received a translation contract from someone who desperately needs the above-written song translated into Spanish. There are lots of ways that you could go about translating Happy Birthday in Spanish. Below are some possible scenarios:

1. Translate the English text straight up without taking into consideration any outside cultural issues. The translated text would read something like:

Cumpleaños feliz,
cumpleaños feliz,
cumpleaños (el nombre),
cumpleaños feliz.

2. The second option would be to make a more idiomatic translation based on a version you might know in Spanish. A possible result could be something like:

Cumpleaños feliz,
te deseamos a ti,
cumpleaños (el nombre)
que los cumplas feliz.

3. A third option would include localizing the idiomatic version of the translation for a specific Spanish-speaking region or group, which in this case might produce the following version of Happy Birthday in Spanish (specific to Argentina, for example):

Que los cumplas feliz,
que los cumplas feliz,
que los cumplas (el nombre),
que los cumplas feliz.

So what does this say about translation? That there are multiple ways to approach it and that what your preconceived notions about what the right translation is for a certain text might not be what the client wants or needs. While you might be used to singing the second version of Happy Birthday in Spanish, your client might want the localized third version. Your perception of what is right is not important in this instance; rather, what is important is your client's perception.

We as translators need to keep that in mind and understand that while there are no right answers, there is indeed only one.


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