By Adriana Adarve – Owner & Director of Adarve Translations
While reading a new historical novel the other day I came upon an expression that I’d never heard before. The heroine of the story says, “I was never a diamond of the first water, I’m afraid. I hope you are not disappointed.” (The Secret of Pembrooke Park, by Julie Klassen, Pg. 151.)
Well, now, that’s quite an interesting expression, isn’t it? At least that is what I thought, especially because I could not quite understand what the expression meant, or what the author really wanted to express with it.
It intrigued me so much, that I decided to look it up and find its meaning. Then, of course, I went further with my research and wanted to know whether the same expression exists in French and/or Spanish. As it turns out, a somewhat similar expression exists in French. A closer one, using water also, existed in Spanish as well, though it is no longer used, not even figuratively.
This English idiom appears to have been used for the first time around the 1600s, and referred to a grading system used by Arab diamond traders. They categorized gems as first water, second water, and third water—diamonds of the first water being perfect, flawless ones [Facts on file, Encyclopedia Of Word and Phrase Origins]. A diamond or pearl was considered of the first water when its limpidity and color, or luster, were perfectly pure and transparent. In other words, the more the diamond was like water, the higher its quality, the greater the perfection of its complexion. From there, the figurative phrase, “a man or a genius of the first water,” that is, of the first excellence, was born.
That grading system is no longer in use in Europe, though the idiom remains in English in a figurative sense since the early 1800’s as a synonym for unsurpassed perfection. As such, it is used as a degree of quality or conformity to type, and it can have positive connotations—“an artist of the first or purest water,” “that was a play of the first water”—as well as negative or undesirable ones: “He is a bore of the first water.”
There is a similar expression in French—un diamant de la plus belle eau. That is, a diamond of perfect purity, of excellent quality. In the French gemstone trade, a diamond’s eau (water) refers to its transparency. In this case, the French language does not qualify the water as being “first water,” but as being “excellent water”.
In Spanish, diamond traders used the expression to refer more specifically to the color of the diamond, rather than to the stone itself. This could be considered as a roundabout way to describe the quality of a gemstone, though it is not really so. It is simply a different way of expressing things in another language. Gemstone traders give the name blanco de primer agua (white of the first water) to colorless, pure and perfectly transparent diamonds. The whiter, perfectly colorless or transparent—the rarest of colors—diamonds are, the more beautiful, rare and most valuable they are! And the present-day translation of “a diamond of the first water” becomes, in Spanish, un diamante de primera magnitud—primera magnitud meaning “great excellence.”
As interesting as the research into the origin of this expression has been, I cannot stop wondering how to best translate it without it losing its idiomatic sense, and without its translation being too literal either.
Literal translations are a trap into which way too many people fall all too often. I have seen, for example, “a diamond of the first water” translated in Spanish as un diamante de primer agua and in French as un diamant de première eau. This does not make any sense whatsoever in Spanish and the French literal translation is simply obsolete. It makes little sense in the present time. Evidently, the number of people who have dared post such translations on the net, or use them in clients’ documents, have not done the research necessary into the origin and the true meaning of the expression.
And that is what it takes in order to produce translations of the first water: It takes research, in depth research of the unknown expression in the source language, followed by research of the origin and true original meaning of the expression. Then, it takes imagination to try to combine the translations of different components in the target language, followed by more research into the history of such components in the target language and how they might correlate to the source language expression at hand.
Writing a translation is not a simple matter of transferring words from one language into another. It is not a matter of making words switch places. Doing this only leads to bizarre, to say the least, and ill-fitting translations that end up having no meaning at all. Translation is not about transposing words. It is about interpreting words, concepts and core meanings from one language to the next.
That is what we do at Adarve translations. We look for words, we look for their meaning and we look for the origins of words and expressions. We work hard at finding the correct terminology to interpret the meaning in the documents our clients entrust us with. This is how we consistently produce translations of the first water.
So, what do you say, would you rather have a literal, nonsensical translation in your hands, or would you rather trust Adarve Translations to produce a translation of the first water for you?
All the best,
Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
I hope you share this love affair with family and friends!—Kindly re-tweet, re-post, pass it on 🙂
About the Author: Adriana Adarve is the owner and director of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French). She also has basic and intermediate knowledge of three other languages, German, Italian and Portuguese, as well as being pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual.