What do geography and translation have in common?
Here’s a hint: How many continents do YOU think there are? (Oh yes, a question can TOO be a hint!)
Not seeing it? OK, here goes. Both geography and translating have a cultural component. Still no “ah-hah!”? Let me back up then.
I do a lot of translating from Spanish to English and often stumble onto (or over) the claim that something is “disponible en todos los 5 continentes,” which very straight-forwardly (though perhaps somewhat non-sensically) translates to “available on all 5 continents.”
But Wait. Just. A. Minute! Whaddya mean all FIVE continents? Everyone knows there are SEVEN continents!
Well, actually, no. Not everyone knows there are seven continents. Some people know there are five. And others know there are six.
Now you’re probably ALL scratching your heads—and depending on where you were educated, you’re puzzled for different reasons. You might think that geography—being a science and all—would consist of rather universal truths, but think again.
If you’re from Chile, you know that there are 5 continents and can’t understand what the heck the gringa is going on about now. If you’re from the US, where we know there are actually 7 continents, you might wonder what parts of the globe the Chileans have yet to discover. If you’re from Europe, you probably think we’re all nuts, because YOU know there are SIX continents!
Many areas of knowledge—such as geography and translation—have a cultural element that affects the way we “know” things.
A little research into the HMC (How Many Continents) question shows that in the so-called classic times there were just 3 known continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. Then Christopher Colombus (AKA Cristóbal Colón to Spanish speakers and Cristoforo Colombo to his Italian paisanos) decided to round out this flat old Earth and bumped into the Americas along the way, and ah! we start running into problems. Then other Euro-sailors who couldn’t leave well enough alone got the itch and kept sighting all these islands in the Pacific, and Oceania (which isn’t a continent in the traditional sense at all) made its way onto the list (except where they call it Australia, which hardly seems fair to all the other islands). And then, not all that long ago, the first explorers made it to the south pole and voile, Antarctica joined the Big 7 (or 6, or 5).
So What’s a Continent anyway?
Warp back to 5th (or was it 3rd?) grade geography when you learned the definition of a continent. It was probably something along the lines of “a large, continuous land mass,” which is all well and good for Africa, but what about the rest?
Take a look at Europe and Asia on a map. One land mass or two?
How about Oceania/Australia? Looks like a bunch of islands to me!
Antarctica? A large ice mass.
And then there’s the brouhaha (love this word!) over America.
One America or two?
Danger! Approaching socio-linguistic eggshell minefield zone!
Another translation anomaly that comes up fairly frequently is what to do with “estamos presentes en toda América,” or literally, “we’re present in all of America.” But what does that mean, exactly? You can bet your bottom peso that anyone from Latin America is not referring to the United States. (I’ll dig out my 10-foot–no, make that 11-foot(!) pole and get back to THAT issue in another post). America, in the Latino world, includes everything from Canada to Patagonia. North, Central, and South, it’s all just one America and therefore just one continent. And given that the Panama Canal was a relatively late-breaking human idea, they’ve got a point.
So that would add up to a 6-continent system: Africa, America, Antarctica, Asia, Australia (ever notice how many A’s are in this list?) and Europe.
Europe + Asia = Eurasia
But wait! There’s more!
If you accept that North and South America combine to make just one continent, then it’s pretty hard to claim that that enormous northern landmass with England on one side and Japan on the other is really, in fact, two separate continents. ¿Cachái? Capisce? Catch my (continental) drift?
So there you have a pretty strong argument for 5-continent system: Africa, America, Antarctica, Australia/Oceania, and Eurasia.
Except, oops! Not in Chile—even though Chile owns a sizable chunk of Antarctica, they don’t count it as a continent! Chile’s 5 are: Africa, America, Asia, Australia/Oceania, and Europe.
The Culture of Geography
The cultural element at the root of knowledge.
National Geographic acknowledges that “to some geographers, however, “continent” is not just a physical term; it also carries cultural connotations.”
I think the Chileans are moseying down this route. It makes sense. Europe and Asia are joined in a huge mass of land, but culturally couldn’t be more different, which would justify the continental divorce.
The same logic could also justify NOT dividing the Americas in two, although I suppose someone could make a good argument for separating the two just at the US-Mexican border.
And then there’s Antarctica, which has no endemic culture of its own, so they just skip it, and therefore when a Chilean product is available on “All 5 continents,” it means you can find it in Africa, America (North & South), Asia, Europe, and Oceania (because they’re nice and include the rest of the islands along with Australia).
The Culture of Translation
Getting back to the translation bit, we’re still stuck with what to do with a potential continental stink bomb like “todos los 5 continentes” and “en toda América.”
Because the goal of translation is to clearly communicate an idea from a speaker of language A (Spanish) to a speaker of language B (English) in a way that makes sense to both, it is often necessary to tweak the words in favor of the idea. And therefore, since Spanish speaker A is more interested in having English speaker B understand that the product is available “everywhere” than in quibbling over the number of continents in the world, it makes more sense to say that the product is “available on every continent” or even “available around the world.” I have yet to hear a client complain.
The America vs. Americas issue is a bit stickier, however, because Latin Americans have more vested interest in what they see as “United Statesians” usurping their continent. But the bottom line is that what they want to communicate is that the product in question is indeed available in many countries between Canada and Patagonia and if they want the English speaker to get that—like it or not—they need to go with “the Americas” (plural) or go long and specify “throughout North and South America” to avoid confusion.
7 Continent Scheme:
Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia (or Oceania), Europe, North America, and South America
6 Continent Scheme:
Africa, America, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, and Europe
Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America
5 Continent Scheme:
Africa, America, Antarctica, Eurasia, and Oceania
Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania
So, how many continents does YOUR globo terraqueo (globe) have?