Translating our souls

Originally published at Translators Cafe

The process of translating is, by its very nature, a difficult, demanding task. I have translated other author’s works and I have always found it hard to decode their experiences, to unearth the exact word, the one that would convey the right meaning. I want to avoid being called “traduttore, traditore.”

It can be overwhelming to translate a dead author… you don’t have anybody to consult with in case of doubts. In that sense, dealing with a living author can make things easier. When I was translating, not too long ago, “The Imam of Auburn,” a wonderful short story by Lorraine Lopez, who was a finalist for the PEN Faulkner Awards, I remember asking her if her characters had meant to call each other “tú” or “usted” (the informal and formal Spanish pronouns for “you”) because that would change the whole tone of the dialogue, and ultimately of the story. But even when you can go back and forth and discuss with the author, translating is never an effortless job.

If it not easy to translate someone else’s work, you would think that translating your own is a piece of cake. Well, it is not. I dare say that it is even more difficult. We know exactly what we meant in the first language it was written, so we are, because of that, much pickier about finding the precise word in the second, or target language. And this, my friends, can be quite daunting.

So, isn’t it okay to translate “ay” as “ouch”?  How proper is to sprinkle a text written in English with Spanish expressions? Does it serve any purpose, really? Or is there any way of preserving the original flavor of a scene written in language different from the one spoken when it occurs?

I believe that most hyphenated writers (Cuban-Americans, French-Americans, Haitian-Americans…) struggle with these questions. I don’t believe that there are definite answers but I will refer to my own experiences in the process of conveying Cuban life, and Cubenese speech, to an American audience. The easiest way of doing this is by comparing my way of writing in English and in Spanish, and noticing the similarities and differences.


Word choice

I once heard a friend, Cuban-American writer Teresa Bevin, say that she preferred to write in English because she censored herself in Spanish… All the internalized prohibitions, the voice of her parents saying “eso no se dice” (we don’t talk about that), had influenced her, and she felt freer in her second language. I wish this were my case, because I currently have more opportunities to publish in English than in Spanish. But I am still freer in my mother tongue. Actually, my mother’s witty tongue and loud mouth still provide me with phrases and expressions that I use profusely in my books. The result is that she recognizes herself in most of my characters and, no matter how many times I explain to her that it is just fiction, she always snarls, “Chica, but I do no t say so many bad words!”

It is almost impossible for me to translate her vivid vocabulary into English. Let’s take “ranfla moñuda,” for example. It means a kind of spring cleaning, and she would use it when going through the house (usually in a frenzy) getting rid of everything she deemed disposable at the time. A couple of weeks later, she would discover she had thrown away useful, irreplaceable tuff, but then it was too late. So the “ranfla moñuda” was often followed by “un tremendo encabronamiento” which meant the huge indignation she felt at herself…and everybody else who did not think of putting an end to the “ranfla moñuda” when  it was still time. But somehow words like indignation or even fury can’t convey the true meaning of “encabronamiento”… which has its root in a not very polite Spanish word, “cabrón”.

What I do in this case is to leave the Spanish words in the English text and add a glossary at the end of the book. My novel in English A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) contains quite a large glossary. More collar than dog, my mother would say here. If nothing else, the text will make the readers familiar with a few Cuban choice words….

Narrative voice

In terms of the narrative voice, I find it easier to use the first person in Spanish, often combined with stream of consciousness and monologues. That gives the reader an intimacy with the characters and their point of view, something that the omniscient third person can’t provide. But when describing a scene that has taken place in Spanish, many times I also feel the need of giving too many details in order to situate the reader in time and space… Since that would make the first-person discourse quite awkward, I end up resorting to the third person. For example, in my novel Posesas de La Habana (Haunted ladies of Havana, Pure Play Press, 2004) Elsa, one of the main characters, says:

No hay mucho que pueda echarse a perder en el refrigerador. Ayudándome con el olfato descubro un resto de pasta de oca que no necesita el apagón de hoy para apestar a difunto de cuatro días. Fo

A possible translation would read:

There isn’t a lot that can go wrong in the refrigerator. With the help of my nose, I discover the leftover of a goose dough that does not need today’s blackout to smell like a four-day dead body. Arf.

The problem here is with the word “pasta de oca.” If I translate it as “pasta of goose” it sounds like a very refined, cosmopolitan dish. “Pasta de oca” is actually a pulp made of who knows what, maybe the intestines of a goose mixed with ground bones and other unmentionable parts of the bird.

It wouldn’t sound natural for Elsa to start describing what a “pasta de oca” is when she is tired, hungry and in the middle of a blackout. So if I were to write this passage in English, I would probably adopt the third person approach, describe the contents of the refrigerator, or lack of thereof, and proceed with Elsa voicing her frustration about the scarcity of food.

Though I am talking here about describing in English events that happened in a Spanish-language context, it can go both ways. You would think that in today’s globalized world everybody knows what an ATM card is. Right? Well, wrong. Most people in Cuba don’t know that they are; they don’t have the faintest idea of how you can put a piece of plastic inside a slot to instantly get a wad of bills. “Just like that?” my friend Belinda asked, incredulous, when I tried to explain it to her. “You just put the plastic thingie there and it gives you the money. You don’t have to sing any papers, nada? Just like that?”

If I were writing for my “natural audience”, that is, the Cubans who live in Cuba, I would have to go into a lengthy explanation of what ATM cards are, so my book wouldn’t fall into the category of science fiction.

In his essay Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation Harish Trivedi states

“Thus, in a paradigmatic departure, the translation of a literary text became a transaction, not between two languages, or a somewhat mechanical sounding act of linguistic “substitution” as Catford had put it, but rather a more complex negotiation between two cultures. The unit of translation was no longer a word or a sentence or a paragraph or a page or even a text, but indeed the whole language and culture in which that text was constituted.”

In that sense, sometimes I have felt the need of altering a whole paragraph, or even changing the text’s point of view, as I mentioned in that scene of Posesas… I could conceivably do it were I translating my own book, but I am afraid that if I were commissioned to do a translation of someone else’s work I wouldn’t be allowed to take such liberties.  And this is a problem many translators are now contending with. How free are we in approaching a text? How much can we modify it without getting in the author’s domain, a forbidden land from which we may be expelled?

Translating, either one’s work or someone else’s, is then, decoding. It is not a mechanical, Google-translate process, mesa-means-table procedure. It means being faithful to the sense while often betraying the syntax.  It may mean rewriting a whole book, fishing for new phrases and idioms and co-authoring it in all the senses of the word. It is making the unknown, recognizable and the exotic, familiar: it is bringing another culture to nuestra casa, close to home.