Monday, February 28, 2011

Translating Humility

One of my projects this semester is translating a contemporary short story from Spanish to English. The author of the short story "En la Estepa" is Samanta Schweblin, an emerging young writer from Argentina. I found her work through Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Novelists.

I've only ever translated a poem before, "el Octubre" by Juan Ramon Jiminez, when I was in college. Because I'm not very experienced, I wanted as straight-forward a project as I could make it while still being challenged. There are many reasons translating "En la Estepa" should be a straightforward task: 
  • The author is in my generation, and in this globalized world, that ought to mean something. 
  • The Spanish is contemporary rather than archaic. Imagine a native speaker of another language trying to translate Shakespeare versus trying to translate Nicholas Sparks. What I'm getting at is it's hard enough for some English-speakers to understand Shakespeare. The more modern the dialect, the easier to translate.
  • Spanish and English share a ton of Latin-based words, though Spanish is a Romance language, and English is primarily West Germanic and Anglo-Saxon.
  • The story's language is spare and exact; think Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, or one of my favorites, Lydia Davis.
But in spite of these ground-leveling facts, I found out for certain that translating is never, not ever, straightforward. Take this Google Translator literal translation, or "trot," of the opening paragraph from "En la Estepa." 

First the original:
No es fácil la vida en la estepa, cualquier sitio se encuentra a horas de distancia, y no hay otra cosa más para ver que esta gran mata de arbustos secos. Nuestra casa está a varios kilómetros del pueblo, pero está bien: es cómoda y tiene todo lo que necesitamos. Pol va al pueblo tres veces por semana, envía a las revistas de agro sus notas sobre insectos e insecticidas y hace las compras siguiendo las listas que preparo. En esas horas en las que él no está, llevo adelante una serie de actividades que prefiero hacer sola. Creo que a Pol no le gustaría saber sobre eso, pero cuando uno está desesperado, cuando se ha llegado al límite, como nosotros, entonces las soluciones más simples, como las velas, los inciensos y cualquier consejo de revista parecen opciones razonables.
The Google literal translation:
No easy life in the desert, anywhere is just hours away, and there is nothing else to see that this big clump of bushes dry. Our house is several miles from town, but it's good: it is comfortable and has everything you need. Pol goes to town three times a week, sends magazines agro notes on insects and insecticides, and the shopping lists prepared following. In these times when he is notcarried out a series of activities that I prefer to do alone. I think Pol would not want to know about that, but when you're desperate, when it has reached the limit, like us, then the simplest solutions, such as candles, incense and any advice magazine seem reasonable choices.
Say what??

And here is my very first, very rough, halfway literal halfway literary draft:
It’s not easy, life in the steppe, when anywhere else is hours away, and there isn't anything more to see than this field of dry shrubs. Our house is several kilometers from town, but it’s OK: the house is comfortable and has everything we need. Pol goes to town three times a week, sending the farming magazines his articles about insects and insecticides, and going shopping, following the lists that I prepare. During these times when he is not around, I carry out a series of activities that I like to do alone. I don't think Pol would like to know about these, but when one is desperate, when you have reached your limit, like we have, then the unsophisticated solutions, like candles, incense, and whatever the advice columns say, seem like reasonable options.
You can see where I had to make changes to the literal, exact translation just to make it make sense and to match the spirit of the text. 

I venture to say that even when we read or hear something in our own language, we translate. The "meaning" adapts through each person's filter of experiences and imagination, for better or for worse. We've all experienced mis-translation: anyone who's been married, in a serious relationship, worked in an office, dealt with kids. You say something like, "Next time you do X, make sure not to forget Y again," and they hear, "You failed the last time you did X, so try to be smarter next time." When they slink off crying, you're left wondering what you said. 

Working on this translation has reminded me of the value of humility in the way we communicate, read, form and share opinions. I'm a spiritual person, most familiar and involved with the Judeo-Christian tradition, so when I hear people say things like "The Bible says it, so I believe it," my heart starts beating faster and my scalp starts itching. 

File:Bible paper.jpgI hate confrontation, but I want to ask which Bible words they're basing their unshakeable dogma upon. A modern English translation, of which there are upwards of 30 major distinct versions, some word-for-word literal, some paraphrased? (And even the "literal" have major differences between them.) An old standby, especially in the South, the King James Version, which was translated from a translation (and in some places, poorly)? The Latin Vulgate? The Greek Septuagint? The multifarious Hebrew texts

I'm not putting down any of these translations, per se. Whatever we read, be it in the newspaper, a magazine, a blog (yes, even this one!), or the Bible itself, inspired as I believe it may be, we must retain humility, taking the words with a grain of salt, knowing that after all, words are transmitted through humans, and humans make mistakes in the delivery and in the interpretation

Nowadays, mathematicians use "approaches" instead of "equals," knowing that even in terms of quantifiable, exact numbers, we can only try to come close. I hope to "approach" an elegant and faithful translation of Schweblin's work, but in process, I am learning the importance of dogged humility. 

I'm sure my husband will appreciate better translation in our communication, too!


  1. Love this. We can't come to anything with a blank slate. We are psychologically wired that way. But, were we supposed to? I think God, God is a God who is reconciling all things, and, by adapting a pluralistic understanding of life, our interpretations through our experiences can bring healing and hope to someone else. I think God is bigger than we give him credit for, I think we also have a Christian community, when embraced in humility, who can help us know when we have stepped too far.

    Great stuff.

  2. Thanks Mike. You're right! Thanks for your thoughts.