orge and I have a kid who is a namer. Believe it or not, our Axel names stuff for an obscene amount of money. If you haven't heard of this profession, it suffices to say that it is one of those new jobs for twenty-somethings with spiked, bleached hair and a respectable number of piercings. Well, my baby came home for a weekend a little while ago and asked if I had read Orwell. With an air of tolerance only a mother can muster, I tried not to roll back my eyes. Patiently he said something to the effect of: "I'm not talking pigs, Mom; I mean 1946." You can well imagine my look of dismayI remember buying him Orwell back in middle schooland now wondered if anything had stuck. He must have noticed my face drop because he immediately said: "forty six, Mom, not eighty four," and cracked an impish grin that clearly meant 'I have a degree in rhetoric from that school across the Charles and you don't.'
A few days later, when Gabe Bokor asked if I would write a short piece about myself and my chosen profession for the Translation Journal, I found the invitation intriguing. To be honest, it was high time for me to figure out why I became a translator and love what I do. So please bear with me.
I soon found out that my bread-and-butter was not translating good English, but modern English of the worst sort
I got started on a sunny morning some 16 years ago when I stood at the window and took a long, deep breath. With an inflated chest like that of a crackerjack general, I voiced to myself: Vero, you speak English and Spanish fluently, you have lived in the US and Mexico roughly an equal number of yearsand that must mean you are biculturalyou have college degrees from both countries, and your main background is in Romance languages and literatures. It's perfect, girl! I now pronounce you 'a translator.'
I should have known better. When the first job landed on my desk a few weeks later, I realized that all I was trained to read were beautifully written, deep works of literature. Furthermore, the only texts I knew how to write were formal academic essays. What I had in front of me was far from being beautifully writtenand about as deep as spit on the sidewalk. Whatever it was, it could not be translated as a formal anything, let alone an essay. That first day at work wasn't exactly a good day. Neither was the next, nor those that followed.
I then started asking myself what it meant to be a translator. And I keep on asking this question to this day because there are too many people who think translators are something they're not. At the university where I teach, for example, some of my colleagues think that I'm a linguist. They talk to me about coarticulation resulting in a nasal vowel, or whether certain speech acts are locutionary or illocutionary, or discuss important linguists, andbecause they are very nice peopletell me that it's okay when I don't know who or what they are talking about. Truth is, I'm not a linguist and never wanted to be one. I know absolutely nothing about linguistics.
What my non-translator colleagues can't begin to understand is that whenever I hear a new word my mouth waters and I run to Webster's, then to Random House (to get a quick checks-and-balances on the term) and then I fix myself a cup of tea, butter two crumpets, and sit down with the Oxford English Dictionary to find out where the word originated, how many times it has been used and by whom, and whether or not its meaning has remained unchanged over the years. I must confess that I often spend entire days browsing through my collection of nearly 400 dictionaries analyzing parts of speech in order to determine whether or not their placement in a sentence I have been asked to translate is meaningful.
Now let me tell you about my Dad and what I think the real world of translation is about. When my Daddy was in his early eighties, he was invited to dinner at the American Embassy in Mexico City. Much to his delight, he was seated next to a very attractive woman in her forties. When coffee was served she turned to my Dad and said: "Josh, I've never enjoyed myself more at the dinner table." My Daddy, without missing a beat, responded by telling her that when he was a young man, women used to say to him: "Josh, I've never enjoyed myself more in bed." Smiling, he added: "I'm still the same guy. It's just the furniture that has changed over the years."
What my Dad really meant, of course, is that if you can't change what's bound to come, you'd better change yourself to make the most of it. And we'd better change ourselves if we want to find joy in our profession, because what's bound to come our way is texts like the following:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.1
We've all seen texts like this one, not once, not twice, but in all likelihood, daily. In fact, it wouldn't be far-fetched to say that it is representative of what we might term 'the thoroughly modern text.' What may surprise you, though, is that this particular text was not written last month, nor last year, not even in the last decade. This text is 56 years old.
If you are as bad at math as I am, you may need to bring out your calculator. But trust me, this text that is now 56 years old, is one that was written in 1946. Its author was George Orwell. You may also not know that Orwell was a translator toono doubt inspired by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who some 30 years earlier set the stage with his translation of Hamlet's most famous soliloquy into what we may now term exemplary 'bureaucratese'for this text is Orwell's rendering into what he termed "modern English of the worst sort"2 of the hauntingly beautiful verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.3
But before we irretrievably condemn the writers of "modern English of the worst sort," we ought to keep on listening to Orwell because, as he puts it "[...] if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes."4 With my utmost respect for Mr. Orwell, baloney! I would, he wouldn't. Yet, I admire his humility.
Now that I'm writing this piece, it surprises me to confess that when I first started translating nearly a score years ago I did not fear metonymies and metaphors, nor similes and synecdoches. I can perhaps explain it away by saying that as a student all I had to do was recognize figures of speech, understand them, and sometimes comment on them in a way that wouldn't sound too stupid for an A. As a translator, I no longer have that luxury. I have also learned that beautiful English does not have to be as loaded with figures of speech as the quoted verse to be extremely difficult to translate. The complexity of translating the beauty, brevity, and alliteration of Dylan Thomas' extraordinary semantic deviation "A grief ago" is capable of making any healthy heart stop beating.
It was indeed a grief ago that I realized true talent with words is a gift. So let me tell you about my Spanish 416 class at Rice University called The Art and Mechanics of Translation II. I gave the students an excerpt from the New York Times. It was used by the American Translators Association's English into Spanish grading team, to which I have belonged since 1991, for the accreditation exam. NYT articles are usually well written, but they are not necessarily the epitome of beauty or wit.5 My student, Naturaleza Moore, managed to impart both in her translation. The source text read as follows:
TOKYO - If Japanese leaders listen carefully Thursday afternoon, they may hear the jets of Air Force One whisking President Clinton high above the island nation, straight to his state visit in China.
Government and business leaders in Tokyo will wonder nervously, as a senior Japanese diplomat put it: "Has 'Japan-bashing' turned into 'Japan-passing'?"
Here's how Naturaleza, a sophomore who had never translated before in her life, rendered the last sentence:
"¿Se habrá convertido la 'era de ira contra Japón' en la 'era de no ir a Japón'?''
I might be able to teach Aleza a few things about the mechanics of translation promised in the course title, such as minding agreements, paying attention to the transliteration of non-Roman alphabets, remembering that English and Spanish punctuate differently, and so forth, but what can I teach her about the art of our profession when she already thinks about words the way she does? Absolutely nothing. She is innately very good and that's all there's to it. Which leads me to Orwell's next point.
When one is not a gifted writer, "You can shirk it [responsibility] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for youeven think your thoughts for you, to a certain extentand at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself." Or you can take the responsible route by becoming a scrupulous writer who asks what it is he/she is trying to say, what words will express it, how it could be put more succinctly, and finally, whether something said "is avoidably ugly." 6
When I first started translating I thought that my being acquainted with literary language would make me a good translator. I didn't know that being a competent reader of English was only one of the
many skills required for translating the utterances produced by our timeless
habit of dwelling upon abstractions and using words in ways that transcend
their dictionary definitions. But I soon found out that my bread-and-butter was not translating good English, but "modern English of the worst sort," and I almost quit the profession. How snobbish of me! I have since switched sides. I am now most grateful for bad English because, even though I can't write like George Orwell, it's helped me learn to write better than the average Joe. And although I now shake in my boots when I get to translate gifted English, I jump at the chance because I know that I'll be in for one hell of a good fight.
Those good fights have taught me that both types of texts pose challenges that allow translators to grow, whether it'd be by us improving on what was ineloquently said, or by us not casting a shadow on great writing. But regardless of the text we may face, regardless of its inherent flaws or qualities, analyzing it never ceases to be a rigorous, yet delightful, intellectual game. The trick is that as translators, this intellectual game does not limit itself to one language, but two. And as my daughter Andrea eloquently wrote in her college application essay: "Language is inseparable from culture; it is the pull of a common memory based on tradition, history, literature, and national pride; language is love of country." Translation allows me to work with language in this context, and I find it a most rewarding way to earn a living.
Before wrapping this up, I have to tell you about a promise I made. It has to do with a pilgrimage to a small and humble graveyard in the heart of Old New Haven. My first two visits to that city were when my children were looking at colleges; the third when we helped Andrea move into her freshman dorm. I feel a little less guilty when I consider that on my first two visits I didn't know who was buried there. Regretfully, I have no excuse for not stopping by on my third trip three years ago, for by then I knew who lay at the cemetery, and was also well aware of the man's unparalleled and meticulous research into the English language; a man who, unlike George Orwell, few remember. It saddens me to think that I had read and studied this man's work for years without ever knowing that it was he from whom I was learning.
On my honor, when Jorge, Axel and I go to Andrea's graduation next spring, I
will bring some tea and crumpets and sit down for a chat at the grave of Dr.
William Chester Minor, U.S. Army officer and graduate of Yale medical
school, who for over 20 yearsfrom 1876 to 1896was the most prolific of the
thousands of volunteer contributors whose efforts made the Oxford English
Dictionary's creation possible. To Dr. James Murray of Oxford, editor of the
first edition of the exemplary vade mecum, Dr. W. C. Minor was a most
enigmatic man who seemed overly modest and never willing or able to leave
his home in the town of Crowthorne, England. The thing, you see, is that Dr.
Minor, surgeon and fellow lover of words, was not a physicianbut an
inmateat the Broadmoore Criminal Lunatic Asylum.7 And thus, when I return
to Old New Haven, I shall lament at Evergreen, that simple graveyard under
the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,
nor yet favour to men of skill; but that time and chance, alas, happeneth to
- Orwell, George. Politics and the English Language, 1946 http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/patee.html
- For an example of muddled writing in the New York Times, see Hale, Constance Sin and Syntax New York, N.Y.: Broadway Books, 1999 (p. 108)
- Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 1998