Consideration of the Passive Voice in Spanish Translation

Let us begin with a definition of the passive voice. In sentences that use the passive voice the subject of the sentence does not perform the action. Instead, it is acted upon by some thing or some one else; that some thing or someone generally remains unstated. It is contrary to the active voice, where the subject of the sentence performs the action. ‘I could not start the car´ is an example of active voice where the ‘I´ is performing the action of starting the car.

The passive voice in Spanish translation usually poses problems for the translator. This is because: Firstly, the passive voice exists in Spanish grammar (for example, ‘El coche fue vendido´ or ‘The car was sold´); Secondly, its use is not grammatically incorrect, and yet, compared to the English language, its use is very infrequent in the Spanish language. If, in Spanish translation, the translator retains even half of the passive voices of the source text, then he or she will be guilty of creating a target text that is unnatural and foreign-sounding.

How then can the Spanish translator render the passive voice in Spanish translation? In the first place, he or she could try reformulating the sentence in the active voice. In the second place, the Spanish translator could try using a reflexive verb, generally a reflexive verb in the third person with the pronoun ‘se´.

In English, it is not possible to construct a sentence in the active voice without specifying the name of the person who or the thing that is performing the action. However, Spanish allows a sentence in the active voice to be constructed without specifying the name of the person who or the thing that is performing the action. Hence, the Spanish translation of the English sentence ‘Juan was arrested´ can and should be ‘Arrestaron a Juan´.

The English sentence is in the passive voice, and does not name who arrested Juan, the Spanish sentence is in the active voice, and it does not name who arrested Juan either. This, then, would be an easy way of translating simple English sentences in the passive voice into the Spanish active voice.

Using reflexive verbs can also help to avoid the passive voice in Spanish translation. A reflexive verb is one in which the verb acts on the subject. For example, ‘I saw myself in the mirror´. Reflexive verbs are very common in Spanish. They resemble the English passive voice in the sense that, once again, the name of the person performing the action is not explicitly stated.

So the passive English sentence ‘Apples are sold here´ is translated into the Spanish ‘Se venden manzanas aquí´ with the help of a reflexive verb. Neither the English nor the Spanish sentence mentions the name of the seller. That is perhaps because the action that is being performed is of more importance than the person who is performing the action.

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