Igualdad de armas: el traductor a la búsqueda del equilibrio

La cuestión del desgaste físico y mental, tanto a corto y a largo plazo, es reconocido en muchos campos. Entre atletas hay todo tipo de terapia, dieta y tratamiento para evitar la inevitable pérdida de rendimiento que viene con los años y el entrenamiento. Los políticos nos ofrecen el ejemplo de cortos descansos, preferiblemente en el mismo sitio y al mismo tiempo que el año anterior, protegido de todo tipo de intrusión.
Aun si hay todavía bastantes empleos en los cuales uno puede descansar, al menos el domingo y quizás el sábado también, sigue siendo casi un derecho a defender. Como si no hubiera buenas razones en contra, asistimos al aumento de empleos 24/7. Su aumento no ha cesado en las grandes ciudades, creando un aumento de estrés en otro segmento de la población, ya que el rendimiento económico es a menudo tan bajo que aun si el empleado trabajara horas extras, la barrera psicológica del estrés les afecta, como parece que afecte a tantos hoy en día.
No es para nada nuevo, el desgaste debido al trabajo es un problema de hace muchos años. Pese a las muchas mejoras en cuanto a las condiciones de trabajo en las últimas décadas, parece que tengamos mucha destreza en inventar nuevas formas de estrés – el trabajo sedentario delante de una pantalla siendo uno de ellos.
Lo que me interesa aquí como traductor autónomo en un mundo informatizado y un tanto enredado como es el mundo virtual, es examinar el desgaste y el estrés que el traductor puede sufrir para mantener vivo tanto su creatividad como su lengua materna.
Antes de otra cosa, lo que el traductor tiene que cuidar es el idioma al cual traduce, digamos lo que debería de ser su lengua materna, aun más cierto si vive en otro país ajeno. Existe una tensión entre idiomas que se asemeja al primer contacto entre el viento y las hojas: por mucho que vuelen las hojas acabarán en el suelo. Como las hojas que reflejan nuestro propio entendimiento del idioma extranjero nunca serán equivalentes a las de la lengua materna, y a pesar de que el porqué de todo ello nos escape, propongo que el estrés llegue precisamente cuando se acepte que el otro idioma nunca será equivalente a pesar de vivir rodeado por su influencia y ambiente. Y claro eso equivale hasta cierto punto a renunciar a cualquier futuro progreso. Es decir no somos siempre conscientes de que la lengua materna se está desgastando simplemente por vivir en otra cultura. Miramos alrededor del mundo y se ven los enclaves lingüísticos que son evidentes y es lógico que en ciertas partes la gente se agrupe para defender su idioma. El conjunto es mucho más fuerte que las partes constituyentes. No importa cuántos emigrantes vengan a España, el país los absorberá y seguirá siendo esencialmente español y el emigrante acabará siendo españolizado, convertido parcialmente en Catalán, o lo que sea, Andaluz, Gallego, Vasco, Castellano-Leonés, Murciano, Valenciano, Extremeño o incluso Madrileño.
Los primeros pasos en otro idioma serán formadores en cada instante y es mejor que se tomen despacio. Nuestro discurso entonces es como una huella que desvela historias y características personales. Por erudito que sea, cada cual lleva un equipaje lingüístico que es suyo. De la misma forma que los críticos sociales, portavoces de un grupo u otro, son capaces de censurar cualquier declaración pública que no concuerde con las creencias y las convenciones del día, nuestras palabras delatan nuestra forma de pensar y nuestra manera de proceder. Sin embargo, existe una línea en la arena, un punto de no-retorno, cuando con respecto al todo poderoso y dominante lengua materna, otro idioma empieza a competir y a atraer el foco de atención del individuo. Es un proceso inevitable cuando se vive en otro país durante un largo tiempo.
Hay mecanismos de defensa que la mente tiene para preservar la lengua materna, el apego a un acento es como un corte de fuego, luego hay esa incapacidad totalmente involuntaria que consiste en no poder pronunciar los sonidos o no seguir unas normas básicas del segundo idioma, cuyo fin es el de mantener la dominancia en el cerebro de un idioma a expensas del otro.
Tanto a nivel colectivo como a nivel individual, vemos una supresión de idiomas. En España como en Inglaterra, miles de niños han sufrido en las escuelas por hablar en una lengua prohibida, la cual años más tarde desaparece, como en el caso del Asturiano, el bable, o el idioma de Cornualles (Kernow) cuya última hablante supuestamente dijo Me ne vidn cewsel sawznek! (¡no quiero hablar inglés!), como tantos jóvenes estudiantes de España hoy en día que reaccionan ante la fuerza de la globalización y uno de sus principales vehículos de comunicación. Sin embargo, otro porcentaje sí quieren y aprenden y emplean a buen efecto sus conocimientos en ese idioma, sin dejarlo apoderarse de su identidad, sea lo que sea, antes de nada Asturiano y luego española, o vice versa.
Por identidad, me refiero a ese viejo golfo entre la herencia y su empleo. Es innegable que nacimos con un idioma y que podemos embellecerlo, aprender más sobre ello, ir más adentro por decirlo de una manera, o sino complementarlo, programar nuestros mentes con más palabras para adaptarnos al vocabulario del trabajo, para facilitar la comunicación con colegas. Si se puede mantener la meta de un bilingüismo equilibrado será más que enriquecedor y mi argumento es que eso se convierte en un deber inescapable para el traductor.
Sin embargo, hay esta persistente diferencia entre la manera de entender la palabra, la cual está fuertemente arraigada en las diferencias entre la lengua materna y la lengua extranjera y el deseo de añadir otras palabras que vienen de otro universo lingüístico, otra cultura, cuyo significado complementa la comprensión y será siempre más superficial sin la necesaria inmersión en esa cultura. De ahí, los errores de traducción que reflejan un desconocimiento a veces absurdo de la otra realidad, como las camisetas que los hispanohablantes de los EEUU no compararon, que llevaban las palabaras “Yo vi la Papa”. Pues, en la historia sí que hubo al menos un mito de una mujer que llegó a ser papa durante un muy breve tiempo.
Volviendo al hilo conductor, tenemos esta división entre los idiomas y el traductor tiene que mantener la tensión entre los dos; en el momento que cede a la idea de que no vaya a mejorar más, sería mejor dejar la traducción que seguir con ella. En el momento que se acepta la necesidad de seguir aprendiendo, si se trata al menos de igualar su capacidad en su primer idioma, de ahí vendrá la tensión creativa. Es una meta al largo plazo, no hay que pensar en ello cada día pero la intención tiene que estar ahí. A la vez por supuesto el traductor tiene que mantener su primer idioma en una condición impecable, capaz de expresarse sobre la más reciente literatura o los eventos novedosos que forman la opinión pública: en contacto con su cultura y al final su gente.
Esta paradoja se soluciona hasta cierto punto a través de la lectura. Se soluciona a través del viajar a las regiones en donde se habla el idioma, manteniendo un contacto vital con más de un país. Se resuelve a través del escribir en el idioma y a través de escuchar audio desde el mundo digital. Es un equilibrio en constante movimiento con sus altas y bajas y la recomendación tiene que ser precisamente de buscar el equilibrio que refleja la dirección en la que se quiere mover: más de lo mismo o más de lo novedoso. Pero cuidado, hay un fuerte enganche para seguir con el diablo que conoces. Después de todo, se dice que no se puede aprender un segundo idioma más profundamente que su propio conocimiento de su lengua materna, razón duradera para seguir hasta el extremo de sus capacidades.

Freelance translators and agencies

The job of a freelance translator has numerous strong and weak points. Some of these may depend on the “translator-agency-client” triangle. For instance, the freelance translator when relating to an agency often has no direct contact with the client and invaluable information may not be transferred by agency staff that would otherwise help with the task of translation. The freelance translator, when working alone, exercises few inter-personal management skills and team work only comes through coordination with either colleagues or outsourcers.

Freelance translators, while improving on their own particular skills and capacities, need to be aware of the strong and weak points of the agency and the end client.

It is generally accepted that good project management and well-coordinated translation teams lead to productive work flows, the quality, and certainly the quantity of which an individual translator could never surpass. Recognition of this basic fact is perhaps a strong reason to establish proof-reading agreements with other translators. It is unlikely that a successful author would prefer an agency, were it possible to engage directly with a translator. However, if not done by word -of-mouth recommendation, an agency may be the first point of contact to find the right translator. In any case, authors with an understanding of the target language usually liaise more closely with the translator in one-to-one relationships and dispense with the intermediary relation.

One of the fundamental strong points of working alone is that the translator may in theory accept (or indeed reject) jobs and adapt in more flexible ways, with quicker learning curves, to the constraints of each piece of work.

The basic weakness of working alone as a translator is that four eyes are better than two. Arguments over whether proofreading and translation can be done by the same person are again linked to time constraints. Even though it is not explicitly stated, translation involves drafting in a target language and then checking, which is a near second best to proofreading if done thoroughly. Others would argue, probably more persuasively, that two different minds will consistently produce better quality results than one, and that the same translator may only, with great difficulty, switch the translator’s hat for a proofreader’s hat for only part of the day. Once again, arrangements with colleagues and the creation of loose-knit networks to share proof-reading when required are signs of a freelance translator’s maturity.

Freelance translators’ websites all too often praise individual mastery, punctuality and painstaking attention to detail; all sufficiently sharp to render any source language text in the target language and return what reads like a “native” (sometimes near-perfect) translation to the client; quite understandable, as it is a translation after all. Of course, punctuality and precision matter, but so do other skills and qualities which are of such a wide and varied nature that, one rather suspects, they could never all be neatly stored away within the mind of one single translator.

Punctuality, for instance, could be calculated in terms of creativity, speed of thought, speed of understanding, and keystrokes per minute. A large volume of work that exceeds the capacities of a single translator will often leave the organization that requires the translation with little or no alternative than to approach an outsourcer. Nonetheless, the freelance translator who is willing to act as an outsourcer for a particular period before leaving the project-manager role to one side, to return to the more peaceful existence of one job at a time, can happily liaise with a network of colleagues, between whom work may be distributed on the basis of availability and agreement. These initial contacts could lead to more durable networking skills.Thus, a good freelance translator will have greater capacity than that of a single translator, if willing to act at times as an outsourcer. Such periods of intense activity may not always be desirable, unless the single translator’s business wishes to go down the road of becoming an agency. The individual freelance translator who occasionally becomes an outsourcer is often motivated by a desire to attend to every single client, which although reasonable as a business attitude can distract and derail efforts to specialize.

Nonetheless, the realities of the translation world often leave many freelance translators largely dependent on agency outsourcers, unless they connect with one or more clients with whom they can work directly. There is a sensitive borderline between jobs completed by agencies (i.e. projects involving multiple target languages) and work that a freelancer is more than capable of doing in direct relation with the client. These sorts of jobs are all too often channelled through the agencies that may add a lot, a little or no added value at all to the chain. Clearly, direct relations with suitable clients are far preferable than relations with these kinds of outsourcers. Some freelancers enjoy exclusive relations, for example, with a large industrial production plant, and have accepted a degree of specialization in return for consistent, uniform work flows.

Thus, the freelance translator, who produces high-quality work and runs a reliable service, should in the long run consider clear cut decision-making over whether to accept work in new areas (or tend towards specialization), and would also do well to keep a work-leisure time balance in mind as a reason for refusing work. The freelance-translator-cum-outsourcer has embarked on a path that requires determination, as human relations between translator and outsourcers in the form of agencies are often competitive and demanding. Cultivating the relationship with the client and acquiring lay knowledge of the subject can be of enormous help with the translation itself and any long-term aims to achieve further in-depth specialization.

The conclusion is that the freelance translators by necessity have to establish links with other colleagues and that the exchange of particular pieces of work, perhaps on a quid pro quo basis, would add to their appreciation of both the target and source language.

Resisting the urge to go native: lifestyle decisions and translation tendencies

The British colonial expression “going native” was often used to describe the attitudes of colonial administrators and workers whose social immersion in the lifestyles of the Indian community, usually through marriage and work, created a social grouping or sub-culture known as Anglo Indians. This avenue that led to social integration and that dropped the cultural baggage of British formality along the way, which they might have shook off on arrival in the Indian sub-continent, repeated itself in many other parts of the British Empire, from Malay to China. It was even found among various frontiersmen in North America, where Europeans formed meaningful relationships with red Indians, although the sub-group or culture was always very small and individualized, unlike Spanish colonialism under which numerous “mestizo” sub-cultures flourished. Similar processes of may be seen among the coloured peoples of South Africa and the USA, who have created thriving cultures that in many ways bridge a cultural gap between their mixed parentage.
Usually expressed in the present continuous tense, “going native” suggests that a person is not quite native, is going in that direction, but has yet to get there. Now, many translators may feel that way about their second language –that they are learning more about it- and those who do not feel quite the same way about their first language must have already worked it to such a state of perfection that they probably need a more stimulating challenge and could easily be composing authentic prose rather than translating works written in another language. A little humility should never go amiss in linguistic matters, as comprehension is such a subjective matter.
Sometimes the slightly nuanced expression “gone native” rather than “going native” may be heard, which suggests that somebody has perhaps gone so far as to reach a point of no return. Many people learning a language decide at some point that thinking in that language has become crucial to making any further progress at all. The new language has to become part of the cerebral processes, has to be absorbed by the subconscious and has to be spoken to other people, preferably native speakers of the language.
A translator’s work may be evaluated against the yardstick of free or precise literal translation. The translator will always be struggling to capture meaning where knowledge and experience of one culture outweighs that of the other. This shortfall can always be compensated by numerous shortcuts, by the proximity of certain languages and by the fortune, insight or intuition of the translator working from a language where nuances might not be fully grasped, yet recasting same ideas in the idiomatic expressions of the target language.
To what extent, we may say that the translator embracing another culture -who is “going native”- will at worst lose or at best merge aspects of the other culture. The mere fact of thinking aloud and dreaming in the second language indicates a degree of acceptance and immersion in that culture. Quite easily, the two cultures may be said to fuse and to create a sub-culture, in the same way that Anglo-Indians created a sub-culture in India. It could easily be argued that the mind of the individual translator at times moves towards fusion, a sub-culture composed of personal insight into the two mainstream cultures that represent the two languages, the source language and the target language. This daily reality about what language in which to think are reflected in words such as Franglais, Spanglish, Pidgin-English, and indeed Lingua franca.
The translator is caught between two (or more) cultures and has little choice but to do anything other than create a synthesis of the two, fall back on the reduit of the home language, or embrace with no compunction the language that is providing the source material for all the translation activities. There is little or no alternative to these three attitudes and all the translator can do is to shift constantly between one and the other, although such changes often avoid the deeper question of whether a reluctance to loosen a grip on one language may be preventing or indeed enhance a more complete understanding of the other. Perhaps the truth lies in the overall understanding of the translator’s lifestyle, the extent to which the language may also mean a commitment or an emotional attachment to the people of a region. These transitional periods are mysterious, in as much as we may hear people complaining that they are “losing their English” and yet they are at the same time making immense progress towards feeling at one with the other culture.

Traductore Traitore

How many reasons can you think of to explain the old saying Traductore Traitore, expressed here in Italian, that assimilates the translator to a traitor?

One of the first and most obvious reasons that may spring to mind, in order to understand its gist, is the impossibility of capturing the meaning of a text.

Impossible, as anyone will tell you, to praise with equal grace the great classics – Shakespeare’s plays or Baudelaire’s poetry – and their translations. There is something essential about the creative act in one language which gives the original work its essential vitality. The mere fact that a translator wishes to render this vitality into another language is enough to detract, albeit only slightly, from this creative act, turning the author’s creative work into the painstaking work of the translator; a mirror of a more powerful act of creation. Hence the treachery, the treason, the disregard for the essence of the text in one language, creating an image of the text in another language that can pass on some, but not all of the passion of the original. Shakespearean translations, as if an open advertisement for 16th Century English, will always bring the reader closer to the original culture, as if the translation were ever insufficient in itself.

This overarching mastery of the original, which is at all times before the translation, stands to reason. When all is said and done, human language is the kernel of truth that gives us dialects, accents, and linguistic curiosities such as Cockney rhyming slang and the “verlain” of Paris (mais on ne dit plus chébran on dit cablé). Those that employ these linguistic expressions that reinforce social identity believe that they alone can be understood and force an awareness on outsiders that they do not belong to the “local” society, because they do not pronounce words in the same way or even know them; they neither have the same vocabulary, nor accentuate them, nor share the same musicality.

In contrast with such extreme introverted forms of communication, translation moves in the other direction. It wishes to open up understanding, remove barriers of misunderstanding, and assert the right to know without belonging to the group of the initiated. This polarized reality, of either inclusiveness or exclusiveness, of either introversion or extroversion, is a facet of human nature, evident for many translators, regardless of the text they may be reading.

A study of translators in the history of humankind (Translators through History, Ed. Jean Delisle and Judith Woodsworth) is an inspiring story. The role of these alchemists of language is behind so much cultural expansion: -Chaucer’s translations of Giovanni Boccaccio, Luther’s translations of the Bible, Buddhist texts, translations of which date back to the 3rd Century in Christian monasteries in Spain, 6th century translations of Sanskrit manuscripts into Chinese, or 12th century translations into Latin of Arabic treatises commentaries, which in turn entailed translations of the classic works of Greek philosphers. The skills of translating have varied over time. In Granada, Spain, for example, when treatises in Arabic held in library of Al Albambra were translated into Latin, following the expulsion of the Moors and the Catholic reconquest of Spain in the 15th Century, two translators would work together, one reading out a kind of simultaneous interpretation of the text, the other writing down the translation and introducing any pertinent modifications. Modern day programmers, building on the theoretical work of linguists such as Chomsky have worked on complex machine translation programmes that have achieved 60%/70% accuracy when translating repetitive, official European Commission texts from English into French, which may be quickly edited.

These alchemists of language are usually unsung heroes. At times, characters such as La Malinche, the consort of the conquistador Cortés are remembered for better or worse. At other times, others such as the interpreters of US forces in Iraq have been reviled by extremist elements within their host nations for allowing foreigners to communicate on a more equal footing. This is, from a deeply subjective point of view, the great constraint on communication for humankind. Our unwillingness to communicate openly condemns us as human beings to think in terms of “our own knowledge” instead of “human knowledge”.

The power of this seemingly permanent contradiction in the mind of human beings is evident in the anti-globalisation movement. We would very much like to have international communication through English or other international languages and yet many of us do not wish to be party to the slow disintegration of so many other identities, so that English or for that matter may reign supreme (and, of course, the same could have been said of Latin and Mandarin at other times in history).

Translation, reviewing and checking, checking and checking

Welcome to Transap’s Blog – a short diary sharing the reflections of an aspirant translator. The header picture is of a statue roundabouts Palenque, in southern Mexico, but for me it expresses many aspects of the emotive and pensative experience and the struggle against “automatism” that translation involves.

Slightly elongated so that it would fit the dimensions, the photograph is not a faithful copy, its reproduction here in that form adds to its metaphorical value. The pained, open mouth, looking upwards for assistance from the Gods, the outpouring of thought and mental effort from the subconscious -by no means is translation only a subconscious activity-, the hand somehow relating physical and mental stimulus, perhaps seeking inspiration. The grip on the mind engendered by the impossible search for ever better alternatives.

Translation theory is a very useful guide and it helps to be aware of whether you are moving towards a freer translation or homing in on a literal “fit”. It is a mystery how easily translation shifts between artistic creativity and science. It is both, for me, and if the scientific approach is far more difficult than the creative approach, the conclusion has to accept and reconcile them. On the one hand, the creative effort that a novelist has put into a recently published book will probably be sensed by the competent translator during its translation and may well lead to the sorts of expressions in the photo from Palenque. On the other hand, a description of alimentary contents will lead much sooner to a right or wrong scientific mentality.

Hence, the mind of the translator struggles to reconcile first and foremost the relative knowledge of two different cultures and environments and the degree to which the completed text will fufil its mission impossible of faithfully reflecting the original verson. Hence the need to review and check work as many times as possible, which will naturally come after the standard checks on grammatical and lexical coherence -style- and accuracy of meaning.