The Translation of National Holidays: a “carrying-over” of references
The English word, translation comes from the Latin translatus notably meaning “carried over” . The German, übersetzen, despite drawing on different radicals, has a similar literal meaning. As the etymology of the English word suggests, translating is not simply a question of decoding a message in one language and re-encoding it into another, however complicated this message. Translation, considered as an ethics, also means relating to more than one community, noticing cultural practices not immediately obvious to the casual onlooker, and building bridges which acknowledge deeper human needs, hopes and joys.
Translators hence play on cross-cultural equivalences, injecting meaning into otherwise illegible references, “carrying over” monuments, days of celebration, recipes, works of art and more.
The translation of national holidays, specific to individual countries, is an example of such reference-juggling. We suggest having a brief look at the way national identity is celebrated across seven different European countries, thereby gleaning a little more insight into one of many translators’ skills. Our countries of choice are Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the UK.
The Translation of National Holidays: a plethora of holidays in Western Europe
Globalization over the recent decades has not only led to previously inconceivable cultural exchange, with languages melting in pots as fast as ice-cream on a Summer’s day in Rome, it has also sparked renewed feelings of national belonging. Yet, this, of course is not entirely novel; national identity has been celebrated in most Western European countries for over a century.
Have a quick look at our rather trendy diagram and you will realize that these holidays can roughly be organized into three separate categories, different categories making the translation of national holidays that much more difficult.
- In Germany, France and Italy, historical, wide-ranging political change is their holidays’ raison d’être. France’s Bastille day is perhaps the most well-known of the three (it happened just 30 minutes away from Mytranslation’s offices!); Germany’s Tag der deutschen Einheit (German Unity Day), commemorating Germany’s reunification, although far more recent, is probably somewhat overshadowed by the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall.
- In the Netherlands and the UK, despite the latter’s fuzzy disagreement over the matter, national holidays celebrate political continuity and stability rather than the hours of upheaval that led up to them. Both countries honour their monarchs. Dutch Koningsdag (literally, “King’s day”) is particularly spectacular when Amsterdam’s canals merrily flow with citizens dressed in orange.
- For Spain and Portugal, the translation of national holidays involves Spanish and Portuguese, the languages themselves more than politics. Hence, Portugal’s Shakespeare, Luís de Camões is remembered for his famous epic poem, Os Lusíadas, singing of the valour of Portuguese explorers. His tales of adventure make visits to the local library a little more special.
“Cease man of Troy, and cease thou sage of Greece,
To boast of Navigations great ye made;
Let the high Fame of Alexander cease,
And Trajan’s Banners in the East display’d:
For to a Man recorded in this Peece
Neptune his Trident yielded, Mars his Blade.
Cease All, whose Actions ancient Bards exprest:
A brighter Valour rises in the West.”
Canto I, st. 3 (as translated by Sir Richard Fanshawe, 1655) .
Present Holidays rooted in Past Trials
The translation of national holidays: a “carrying-over” of shared history
Whatever one’s conception of nationhood and national identity, and however it is celebrated, these few translations of national holidays show that history plays a crucial role in its formulation: moving forward as a common entity involves looking backward at past achievements and events, whether this is at gun-powdered prisons in Paris or adventurous 16th century poets. Such an idea was elegantly expressed by the French historian Ernest Renan in 1882 when he suggested, a little worried about the boldness of his metaphor, that a nation was a “referendum held every day” .
National holidays resemble such punctual referendums, fostering feelings of belonging which transcend the specific historical references they are based upon. The translation of national holidays, for its part, is recognizing what forges these identities and diagnosing, beyond their irreconcilable differences, the common need from which they stem.
Professional translation: a unique, human skill
This is just one of the reasons why the art of working the intricacies of cross-cultural equivalencies is one an algorithm will probably never entirely master. Decidedly, understanding is for humans alone, and multilingual understanding, most certainly for professional translators alone. That is why Mytranslation only works with professional translators from all around the world.
Photo credits and sources
 – Online etymology dictionary
 – Glanzfolienprägung “Keep Calm and Carry On”
 – Koningsdag
 – Luís de Camões, Os Lusíadas, Canto I, st. 3 (as translated by Sir Richard Fanshawe, 1655)
 – E. Renan, Qu’est ce qu’une nation ?
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