Translation, Anthropomorphism and Venomous Mammals

By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations

Dictionary definition of anthropomorphism: to attribute human form or personality to a non-human entity: a god, an animal, or an inanimate object.

On Halloween, many people dress their cats in costumes.
On Halloween, many people dress their cats in costumes.

On Halloween, many people dress their dogs in costumes. Throughout the year thousands of cat videos appear on the Web, many of them captioned with the supposed words of the cats. The folk who costume their dogs and propagate captioned cat videos usually portray themselves as being animal lovers. The captions are nearly always anthropomorphic, in that the captions were clearly produced from a Homo sapiens sapiens orientation, not from a canine or feline perspective. The so-called “Animal Lovers” love their own humanity much more than their professed love of animals, animals whose actual points of view they appear to fail to understand.

I very much dislike the American cartoon character Scooby Doo. Scooby Doo is a large dog who can sort of but not quite communicate using human speech. Scooby Doo is a mush-mouthed kind of dog. He’s been mangling human speech for decades. His linguistic skill never improves. It seems to me that if Scooby Doo could really speak his speech would have improved over all the decades. Practice cannot necessarily make perfect, but some progress should be evident.  Although Scooby Doo parrots intelligent speech, the creature is simply a little bit of anthropomorphized thing. Scooby Doo is caught in an anthropomorphological and linguistic stasis that can only exist in a cartoon world.

Today I watched a BBC documentary on Slow Lorises, a small (two to four kg) primitive primate that lives in Southeast Asia. At most, a scant few thousand still survive in Indonesian and Malaysian jungles. Their numbers have recently plummeted, their populations having been robbed out of the wild because of a U-Tube clip of a Slow Loris that went viral. “It’s so cute! I want one as a pet.”

Cute though they are, Slow Lorises make very bad pets. For one thing, Lorises are nocturnal—their human captors must stay up all night in order to see them moving about—and they smell really, really, seriously bad. They have glands on their arms that produce an oil that, when mixed with Slow Loris saliva, is very toxic—and smelly—indeed.

The toxin appears to serve three purposes: to render the Slow Loris immune from vermin such as ticks and leeches, to protect it from attacks by such large predators such as the Sun Bear, and for male Slow Lorises, to inflict major wounds, which do not heal, on their competitors when competing for females.

The Slow Loris is an attractive, apparently engaging little animal that one might wish to keep as a pet. In fact, they are overly stinky, and if they bite you, your blood will not coagulate and your wound will take a devilish long time to heal. The Slow Loris isn’t really slow in its natural environment. Lorises are nocturnal keen and deadly predators that freeze when they are confronted with bright, white light.

“Oh, but they’re so cute!”

“Oh, but they’re so cute!” exclaim the people who want to keep them as pets. What gives those people who think the Slow Loris is “cute” the right to rip them from their native environment into captivity for their own gratification? Especially because after a few months those exotic pet owners learn how smelly the Slow Loris is, and how dangerous its bite can be.

People anthropomorphize the unique, strange and potentially deadly creature that the Slow Loris is into some kind of cuddly teddy-bear pet that they can buy on the black market and show off in their salons just because “It’s cute.”

And precisely why are we discussing on these pages, pages that are usually devoted to language, communication and translation, the natural history of a weird little creature like the Slow Loris? It’s due to a major disconnect in the perceptivity of the public at large. To anthropomorphize a Slow Loris is to mistranslate its natural history.

Cutesy is as cutesy does. Let’s get one of those little critters because they are so cute! A cute image on your computer screen does not equate to a viable pet that can live in your world. A cute little critter that steals your heart away when you see its tummy being tickled on your screen can give you a toxic bite and produce a wound that will take months to heal, if it heals at all. A Slow Loris bite just might could kill you.

We cannot simply equate an adorable visage to an adorable character. We cannot translate an adorable-seeming creature into an adorable acting one. We cannot translate the viewing of an exotic and harmless animal into real harmlessness in the face of a tiny, adorable and very toxic primitive primate.

Here at Adarve Translations our expertise is linguistic, not zoological. At the same time, it is incumbent upon our Translation Bureau linguists to be able to discern when folks are on the money or when they are off in some kind of anthropomorphic, zoological or other la-la land.

Occasionally, one of our clients will move so fast through our service that they do not pay their bill or even leave a forwarding address. Nothing slow about those folks, though they are not Slow Lorises, they’re just Low-Lifes. Other clients move so slowly that they gobble up our time on minutia.

We do our best to provide full translation services to all our clients who require translations. Sometimes we get side-tracked by investigating creatures whose lives are so different from our own that it’s difficult to convert their life histories into words that we can understand and translate into human terms.

While we derive much satisfaction (and, it must be said, a major portion of our income) from translating technical, medical, governmental and other practical documents, at the same time we also love to try to translate the natural history of our obscure primate relatives like the  Slow Loris into terms that everyone can comprehend. At its base, translation doesn’t only concern language, it concerns a greater understanding of the world at large. We are aware of our tendency to anthropomorphism, of our arrogance, and of the fact that in our self-absorption and lack of perspective we might exterminate unique wild creatures and poison ourselves in the process of trying to keep as pets toxic wild predators, however “cute” they might appear to be on U-Tube.

Our Bread-and-Butter translations are what keep the Adarve Translation Bureau going. Our philosophical meanderings about anthropomorphism, the Black Market of exotic and endangered creatures, are what keep our minds open, active, and able to evaluate all information received and to make the best translations going.

Don’t buy an exotic “pet.” Before you dress your dog up for Halloween or write an anthropomorphic caption for the cat photo you want to post, please take a step back and try to home in on the perspective of the cat, the dog—or the Slow Loris. Familiar as dogs and cats are, and bizarre as Slow Lorises are, they each have a unique perspective that is different from our perspective as Homo sapiens sapiens. Our human world will be much poorer if we lose the perspective of the other creatures with which we share our planet.

All the best,

Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC


Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual.
Adriana Adarve
Donnamarie Leemann
Donnamarie Leemann

About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.

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Published by Adriana Adarve

I’m Adriana Adarve, a multilingual, plurilingual, multicultural and pluricultural English to Spanish freelance translator. My primary interests—besides my passion for languages—are in science, chemistry, and medicine. That is the reason why I concentrate on medical, scientific and technical translations. I am also passionate about cultural diversity, which means that my translations always take into account my clients’ culture, as well as that of the audience for which the translations are intended.

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