Translating pictures

Translating pictures

Many types of translation can be automated nowadays, with varying degrees of success. But there are still areas where the machines will always have their work cut out to compete with human beings. I was reminded of this in a job I was doing last week that also made me think about discussions I’ve had over the last few months with my RevClub colleagues Tim Gutteridge and Victoria Patience about the process of translation and how we actually go about our work. We had been talking about finding a way to get inside a translator’s head and look at the process we go through when we work. I’ve written before in general terms about the process I go through when I translate. But in this post I wanted to give an idea of exactly how I went about translating particular short extracts from this job, not so that people would pat me on the back and say how well I’d done – in fact, I’m sure there will be people reading this who can come up with better solutions than I have – but rather to give an idea of a translator’s thought processes and the way we go about solving problems.

My task was to translate a book of photographs – beautiful photographs of a stunning, natural area of Catalonia by a superb photographer. Of course, such photos speak for themselves, but they also have captions and,  in this case, they’re rather poetic ones. Apart from a couple of short introductions they were “all” I had to translate. I also had the advantage of having them in both Spanish and Catalan, which usually makes it quick and easy to resolve doubts: if the Catalan doesn’t make sense to me I can always look at the Spanish, and vice-versa.

But, as many of us know, short, descriptive texts without a great deal of context are among the trickiest things to translate successfully. All I’d been sent was a Word document with all of them in, one after the other. Before starting to translate, what I needed were the photos, because trying to work on these texts without seeing what is being described is like trying to do your job blindfolded – a rookie translation error. Your translation will never get it quite right and you leave yourself open to some really serious and embarrassing mistakes. The previous week, for example, I had been translating a text for an art exhibition and it was only when I found the artist’s website online and had a look at some of his work – not only the sculptures and videos described in the text I had to translate – that I could properly understand not so much what the original was saying, but, most importantly of all, how I needed to say it in English.

Anyway, let’s take a couple of examples from my translation. For one of the photos, I had this in Catalan first, and then Spanish:

“Ben aferrats, tot esperant que s’acabe el vent.

Bien sujetos, esperando que finalice el viento.”

If you run that through commercial machine translation, you get something along the following lines:

“Well fastened, waiting for the end of the wind.”

The problem is the concept of aferrats/sujetos/fastened. How can we possibly know what the right English verb is until we’ve seen what’s “fastened” and exactly how they are doing it? Sure enough, with the photo all becomes clear. What we’ve got is a group of dragonflies, each clinging to a stem of grass. With a little tweaking, I can even link this concept with the idea of “waiting” by introducing a bit of word play:

“Hanging on until the wind drops.”

Then, I found this one:

“Febrer es resisteix a despullar-se.

Febrero se resiste a desnudarse.”

Again, the literal translation only gets us so far: “February resists stripping”. It certainly doesn’t tell us what’s in the picture. When I saw it, of course, it all started to make sense: amid a group of bare trees, one or two are stubbornly hanging on to battered golden leaves.

This one took considerable thought and I’m not sure my solution was the neatest. In the end, I decided to do away with any idea of “stripping” or “stripping bare”. It just sounded too silly. Instead I hung on to the resistance part of the sentence and decided to create my own wordplay to make the caption more interesting. Eventually I settled on:

“February: root and branch resistance to winter.”

Another caption also used the same idea of stripping and nakedness. I found:

“M’agrada despullar la vostra blanca nuesa.

Me gusta desnudar vuestra blanca desnudez.”

Once again, without the photo this was extremely cryptic and open to all kinds of misinterpretations: “I like to undress your white nakedness.” What on earth was going to be in the photo? I’m not sure quite what I expected, but I was rather surprised to find a small flock of great egrets: large, white birds.

Seeing them, of course, made my job a lot easier, but I still balked at the idea of using the word “nakedness”, not out of prudishness but because these birds simply weren’t naked, they were covered in feathers! I was also concerned about what to use for “despullar/desnudar”. For me, “strip” just didn’t sit right in the sentence. Eventually I went for: “I like to lay bare your naked whiteness.”

I find that little trick of switching nouns and adjectives (or sometimes verbs and adverbs) very handy, particularly for this type of translation. Sometimes, though, you need whole new words.

I had this, for example:

“Espills, miratges, llums, sobre terres inundades que regalaran arròs.

Espejos, espejismos, luces, sobre tierras inundadas que regalarán arroz.”

Or, as DeepL would have it: “Mirrors, mirages, lights, over flooded lands that will give away rice.”

That, of course, sounds terrible, so what are the real problems here? For me, first of all there are all those plurals. Mirrors and mirages are OK, and in fact they sound good in English because of the alliteration. But lights? Lands? A quick look is enough to confirm that there aren’t lots of lights in the photo – we’re just talking about light in general. Nor does land need to be anything more than singular.

Having fixed that, we can turn our attention to the clunky end to the sentence: “…lands that will give away rice”. It’s the verb that’s the problem because it brings with it the ugly, unpoetic “that”. So what if we didn’t have a verb at all? What if we could incorporate the idea of “giving” into another word? What if we tried something like:

“Mirrors, mirages and light on flooded land generous with its rice”?

However poetic its captions, a book of nature photographs also throws up more prosaic problems. It refers to many species of birds, plants and animals, all of which have to be correctly identified. That in itself is relatively easy – it’s something the internet is very good at – but sometimes it’s not so simple to know just how much detail to go into in the English caption.

Take this one, for example:

“El botxí d’estepa (Lanius palliridostris) visita d’incògnit el delta de l’Ebre.

El alcaudón de estepa visita de incógnito el delta del Ebro.”

The only real problem here is what to call the bird. The Latin name makes it absolutely clear that we’re talking about something called a steppe grey shrike. As the English name is something of a mouthful, there’s a definite temptation to shorten it a little. Surely no-one’s going to care if we lose the word “steppe” here? It’s still a grey shrike.

Initial research seems to back up that idea. It turns out that steppe grey shrikes don’t even live in Spain. Could the author have made a mistake anyway? Except… why does the text talk about “visiting incognito”? One more check reveals a documented visit by none other than a steppe grey shrike to the Ebro Delta at about the time the photographs for the book were being taken. So we really do need to maintain accuracy:

“The steppe grey shrike visits the Ebro delta incognito.”

One of the main concerns for any translation, is word choice. And that applies particularly when the original captions have been so carefully written. It’s not just the meaning that’s important here, it’s the sound and the rhythm.

For example, I had:

“Empremtes fantasioses de la mar.

Huellas imaginarias del mar.”

Here, the Spanish and the Catalan diverge slightly, the Spanish talking about “imaginary footprints of the sea” while, rather than imagination, talks about “fantasy”. So which to choose? First of all, we need a look at the photograph to see what we’re talking about. It’s a striking image of the ridges left behind in the sand when the tide goes out. Suddenly, I can see the sense in which the word “empremtes/huellas” has been used in this case. Because the marks in the sand look like the lines of a magnified fingerprint, which is, in fact, another possible meaning of the word. And, the translation is there for me, with some attractive alliteration as an added bonus: “Fantasy fingerprints of the sea.”

Translating pictures isn’t something I do every day, although I have worked on a couple of other books for the same photographer/author. But it’s probably some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever had. If you get the chance, I’d recommend it – but don’t be tempted to do it without those photos in front of you.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for the book itself, it’s going to be called “The Ebro Delta: Pleasure of the Senses”, with photos by Vicent Pellicer Ollés, and is about to be published by a company called Cossetània, based at Valls in Catalonia. For copyright reasons, the photo that appears here is not from the book – it’s one of my own photographs of the stunning Ebro Delta.







  1. Chris Durban

    Excellent post, Simon. Also worth reminding readers (and clients) of research showing that photo captions are read *before* catchy page titles and headings in many publications. So it makes sense to take extra care to get them right.
    Likewise the importance of taking in the big picture: we’re not translating words, or even paragraphs. We’re translating "documents" that can (with sufficient care) carry a whole experience along with them.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Chris. Most of my posts tend to be about being a translator rather than actually translating, so it’s good to have been able to get inside the way I work, for a change.

  2. Ros Schwartz

    Excellent post. And the book sounds lovely too.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Ros! If the others are anything to go by, it will be.

  3. Timothy Barton

    Good example of a document for which you *definitely* don’t want to charge per word!

    • Simon Berrill

      Yes. Although rarely do you get a translation where every single word counts like it does here.


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