Translating the Antipodes 

Between 210 and 250 million years ago, what we know today as the Australian landmass formed part of the Gondwana supercontinent. During the Tertiary Period 40 million years ago, it drifted to its current location, in the complete opposite position from my hometown of Barcelona.

Five months ago, I was assigned to translate track names for the “Sounds of Nature” albums, registered in the island continent by Dr. Eric Fassbender. The difficulties of translating the antipodes took me back to my anthropology lessons in college and the false clichés about Eskimos having untranslatable words for different kinds of snow.

Birds of Australia’s National Parks

Fortunately, human instinct always plays a role in this type of work, and untranslatable concepts don’t really exist, even in the most distant of cultures. Explain to a native Spanish speaker that a billabong is “a branch of a river forming a dead-end channel, or a stagnant pool, made by water flowing from the main stream during a flood,” and they won’t be struck with culture shock. Rather, they’d be happy to learn that there is a word for that. The true difficulty lies in honoring the basics of zoology or geography with the evocative landscapes contained in tracks titleslike Big Crystal Creek or Platypus Waterholes.


Journey to the Top End

The Top End, the northernmost section of the Australian Northern Territory, covers a huge area behind the northern coast, from Darwin across to Arnhem Land, and has a wide variety of unique wildlife. The remoteness makes it difficult to render the names of some places into other languages.

It is true that there are guidelines like the List of Countries, Territories and Currencies published by the European Union, or the United Nation’s Manual for the National Standardization of Geographical Names, but some locations at the Top End seem to be too far-off, even for them. General rules of style are useful for specific aspects like when to “Castilianize,” even if there’s definitely nothing one can do about places like Bukbukluk.

Birds of the North Australian Tropical Rainforest

As is the case with toponyms, translators working with names of animals are never working with just two languages. There are multiple layers, including Latin and Classical Greek, and in this particular case, English, aboriginal Australian tongues and Spanish. Kookaburras or Barking Owls, for instance, hold difficult harmonies both on their beaks and their names. The Bellbird call, on the other hand, is simply one singular chiming note which seems to resonate through mountains and gorges of the Australian rainforest. But the name has up to three possible translations in Spanish; one that is a reference to its sweet tooth, another to its tintinnabulating sound, like in English and, lastly, korimako, a sonorous aboriginal denomination.

Journey to Australia, 1 & 2

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Every culture can be understood from the outside and is therefore translatable, as evolutionary psychology very convincingly claims. This principle stands true with everything from having to translate website content to translating speeches. But the challenge remains to go beyond literal translation in the short space of a track name. For that purpose, context is everything, starting with the suggestive sounds in Dr. Fassbender’s recordings of the most tuneful inhabitants of the antipodes.