1 August 2012

Words Come and Go

My ‘word of the week’ last week was disenfranchise. For some reason, a word I’d never used before came to me in the midst of working and I ended up using it at least twice in the week. The thing is, if you were to ask me to give a definition for it, I’d be lost for words. However, there and then, I knew it was the right word for what I needed to convey in the document I was translating. Is it only me or is this popping up of words quite common among translators?

It’s funny how there are words stored in our brain that we’d never think to use in our everyday life, for no apparent reason other than we’ve never found the need to; this is probably because we have another ‘linguistic building block’ (word, phrase) to explain the same concept or, depending on who you’re with, you might be able to switch to another language on-the-go to get the idea across.

In any case, those words are in there somewhere. Words one picks up from reading, from listening to others, from watching TV, words we pick up without noticing. That is, until they find their way out of the neuronal prison we place them in. Once they’re out, they roam around until, more often than not, they settle in our ‘front of mind’ ready to be used again at will. And, although we probably won’t be using them in our day-to-day life, they can come in handy for our work as translators.

Strangely though, they sometimes creep back into the neuronal burrow where they came from and disappear into some sort of linguistic ether, leaving but a tiny imprint of their existence outside our brain. I think disenfranchise could be one of them. It probably has to do with the fact that I don’t really have a feeling for the word, I find it too clinical, so to speak. I get no vibes off it.

Talking of vibes, not so long ago I was chatting online on an American internet radio station with fellow listeners. Because I maintain that I never really knew how to speak English until I lived in the UK (despite having a British education in Spain and being spoken to in English at home by my mum), I find it really interesting to observe how people actually speak, or write in an informal setting like online chatting; how they express their liking or disliking for a piece of music or an artist or their opinion on a certain event. Having experienced nightlife in the UK almost 20 years ago I don’t really know how (young) people ‘speak’ in real life anymore. So these chat sessions (which take place twice a year, for a fortnight each time, during the station’s fundraising live programming) are the perfect place for me to stay up to date with ‘street parlance’ both in the US and the UK.

I think it’s funny how words that traditionally have a negative connotation are now consistently used on both sides of the pond to signify the epitome of positiveness, with the Brits having a liking for wicked (this one harks back a few decades now) and Americans prone to using sick and dope, for instance. That I’m aware of, this has never been the case in Spanish. Or, how something that is hot is also usually cool. Explain that to a physicist!

I have also observed (through watching British ‘telly’ as well) that the US has become an exporter of idioms. For some reason I thought that language would always expand and evolve outwards (applying the logic of the physical universe!). Quite naively, of course. Obviously it makes more sense (especially in such a globalised, TV-driven world) that the world of British English would eventually import/absorb part of the American English culture into its own language.

Of course, these observations are wide generalisations. Obviously, it’s not only time and place which set linguistic trends but there are also social factors at play in the words used. What words are used in a wealthy area of a big city won’t be the same as in a deprived area of the same city, nor the same as in a smaller town 300 miles away.

I recently learned about the word poquero in Spanish (though I guess it’s probably written pokero by people in real life) which as far as I know isn’t related to poker (though there might be some connotation as to a liking of gambling card games, who knows). From what I gather, it's similar to what is known as choni. Now, I’m not sure if choni is for females only and poquero is for males only (I harbour a guess that they are) and they actually co-exist in modern day parlance. Neither do I know if these are words that are used in Madrid only. To those who’re lost as to what I’m talking about, the British equivalent (at least similar in its social and behavioural connotations) would be, I guess, chav… now, is there a female-only word related to chav or is it a unisex word? What about chavette? A bit like lads and ladettes

Indeed, these are all words that’ll come and go as society changes and evolves… just like the words held in our neuronal prisons, they’ll turn up again eventually, after they’ve been lost in everyday speak… In any case, going back to our generalisation, I wonder what the it words were in the post-war 50’s, the roaring 20’s or even in 19th Century London, New York or Madrid, for instance. I’m sure someone’s written about this! Any bibliographical suggestions, anyone?

19 April 2012

"Push" by Sapphire

I’m conflicted about the limits of translation as a way to convey culture. When I first saw the Spanish translation of “Push” by Sapphire, having read the original book, I was very annoyed. However, now I believe that the editorial decision made in this case was perhaps the right one to make. To what extent can translation convey cultural references related to the use of language? Can anyone tell me, is there a uniform “official” academic practice in translation in this case?

SPOILER ALERT If you haven’t read “Push” and plan to, continue at your own risk.

I haven’t actually read the whole translation of “Push”, but I did manage to notice that the illiteracy of the main character and first person narrator of the novel, Precious, was lost in the translation into Spanish. In a case similar to “The Artist” (see my earlier post), a significant part of the message conveyed by the words lies in the form, not the content. Yes, the story is important; it’s a novel after all. However, the novel relies heavily on the fact that Precious is, for the most part, illiterate. It is her story of overcoming social and family adversity to forge herself some sort of future. This is reflected in her expression, but most of all in how the words are written. Her writing is full of what should be considered ‘creative spelling’, mostly associated with how words sound, as opposed to ‘misspelling’, which is a convention, after all. Given the context of the book, this makes a lot of sense considering the general difficulty of the written English language.

So, originally I was disturbed by this. I thought the translation would be unable to convey the message. However, now I can understand the publisher’s or translator’s decision not to pursue that path. After all, misspelling the English and Spanish languages are two completely different issues altogether. Although there are exceptions to the following, Spanish misspelling is generally limited to mistaking “b” and “v”, “g” and “j”, “y” and “ll”, doubting whether a word has a silent “h” at the start or somewhere in the middle or leaving out your “tilde” (for an example of an increasingly common orthographical and grammatical horror, take a look here: http://tomasee.blogspot.com.es/2012/02/gramatica-profesional.html ).

However, as any student of the English language will testify, English spelling is, to put it mildly, unconventional. Especially since people aren’t usually interested in the origins of a language when they learn it. To be honest, I’ve never had much of a problem with it; I guess I have a good visual memory. However, I completely sympathise with people who complain about how difficult it is for them to grasp English spelling and pronunciation. For people brought up in a language like Spanish, which is pretty much written the way it’s spoken, with a letter for each phoneme (more or less), English spelling and pronunciation seem mostly unrelated. So, how can we translate misspelling, when misspelling in each language is rooted in a different thing?

Now I wonder, were Precious's social background and educational shortcomings reflected in the book at all? If not in the spelling, perhaps in the vocabulary used?

12 April 2012

Spotting the translation

In the case of English and American authors I avoid reading their works translated into Spanish, in the same way I avoid watching dubbed films. Call me a snob if you will*, but as a translator I understand the limitations of the task at hand. Besides, reading in English for me is a ‘must’: a language, like any other skill, is easily lost if not practiced regularly.

There are exceptions of course. I’m looking forward to reading Julio Cortázar’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe, which was given to me a while back but haven’t got round to reading yet. I guess I can trust a great writer to transfer the setting, the darkness surrounding Poe’s words, choosing the right words and expressions for every nuance in the original.

Anyway, I’ve occasionally read translated novels which have been given to me as a gift. One of them was “The Informers” by Bret Easton Ellis. The translation in general was fine. Not great, but at least it captured Ellis’s dynamic style of writing and so was easy to read. However, I suddenly read something that made me want to burn the book. I’d ‘spotted the translation’, or rather a mistranslation (if such a word exists).

 I don’t remember the details right now, the exact expression; it would have been something like suddenly reading “eligió pavo frío” and being certain that the original text would have read “he went cold turkey”, with regard to a drug habit rather than with choosing a cold turkey sandwich for lunch…a bit like reading “calluses” in a menu and knowing that they meant “tripe” (I’ve seen it!). This hasn’t been the only case, but is one I remember vividly.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens? I know I have my own limitations as a translator, but things like that really bother me. I find it disrespectful of the author and of any possible readers. If you’re not sure about something, if something just doesn’t seem to scan, please ask other translators or a native speaker of the language, the author even!!!

For my first ever translation job as a freelancer, before I had Internet at home, I visited the first cable DSL Internet café in Madrid. I was trying to locate priests and linguists online, hoping they could help me with a few words and expressions I couldn’t find anywhere else. There was an expression in that book which I’m still unsure of to this day. No one was able to give me a meaning for certain, though a good friend of mine gave me what seemed like a plausible answer. Given that those words didn’t seem to constitute a linguistic expression for something else, I opted for a literal translation, leaving it as ambiguous as the original. If my mind serves me right, those words were “black oak shop”.

Can you tell me of other instances of "spot the translation" you've come across?

*I wonder if the use of “will” in this expression has anything to do with the fact that ‘want’ in Dutch is “willen”?

4 April 2012

The Artist (2011)

I recently went to the cinema to see "The Artist", recent Oscar winner for best film, best actor and best director, if I remember correctly, and famous for bringing the silent film genre back into the 21st century.

As such, I guess you're wondering what a translator would have to say about it. Well...

SPOILER ALERT! Continue reading at your own risk...

So, for those of you who have seen this movie, you know what happens right at the end: the actor speaks. But, not only does he speak; he does so in a French accent, thus solving all the narrative tension in a single, short sentence, the content of which is actually unimportant.

This is where my comments as a translator come in. I'd gone to the cinema with a couple of Spanish friends who were left unperturbed by the film. They had missed the nuance of pronunciation, the raison d'etre of this script. Accent for me is the deal-breaker in this instance, the key information to be communicated.

Subtitling of this film should have therefore been approached like subtitling for the hard of hearing, with "[French accent]" (in the corresponding language) preceding whatever the character actually says.

I wonder if, in this case, it was a general shortfall worldwide, a poorly managed international project, or if this has been a local failure that has only occurred in Spain.
Happy Easter!

25 March 2012

First Post: Purpose and Disclaimer

First of all, welcome to ‘Translating Culture in a Culture of Translation’. As the world becomes more global, the more likely it is that the texts we encounter on a day-to-day basis will have been translated in one direction or another at some point or other. Quite unknowingly, we’re living in a culture of translation. As someone who works in translation with no real training except growing up in a bilingual household and having lived in both my 'countries of origin', I'm especially interested in the relationship between language and culture and how these elements interact.

Though I'm sure there's a whole field of linguistic anthropology out there, I haven't really looked into what the academics have to say about this. In fact, when I googled "translating culture" to check whether it would be available to use as a name for this blog (it wasn’t!), there were 154,000 hits, many of which were of an academic nature. Interesting stuff to read in the near future, I'm sure.

Anyhow, despite my academic shortcomings in this field, I'm fairly sure that a language reflects the culture of the people who 'speak' it (inverted commas because I'd say this also holds true of the myriad of sign languages around the world); that is, culture (as I understand it in this context: the worldview of a people, related to their environment and having an impact on their personality and, therefore, psychology) moulds how language develops, not only in its vocabulary but also its building blocks, its grammar. And, in turn, culture develops with the development of language; language also moulds the people. Now that I think about this, I'm pretty sure a similar reciprocal argument can be used with regard to the languages of music and mathematics, my other two passions.

Anyway, this blog intends to be a space for people who share this interest, open to comments and hopefully a place for anecdotes, debate and reflection. However, I insist: I'm  not a linguist. That is my disclaimer. Please feel free to qualify, refute or further explain any of my thoughts, I’m always open to learning.

This won't be a place where I necessarily 'talk shop', a shop on the other hand which I don't really consider my own but, rather, one with a window I'm looking into closely from the outside. Though at times I might try to ponder about certain issues at length, for the most part I'll probably just be pointing out things I encounter in everyday life that refer to language in general and translation in particular.

Some posts will be short simple anecdotes, whilst others might try to make sense of the world of language and translation and how to convey a culture when transferring words from one language to another; sometimes in general, others in particular as regards the two languages I grew up with and express myself in: English and Spanish.

Hopefully, over time, people will join me in sharing their experiences, anecdotes and thoughts.

In the meantime, enjoy!