Latina Heritage

Is true translation possible? Let’s try it!

photo credit of top image Hello’s: flixtranslations.com

A typical scene at my house as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s: Dad picks up the guitar and he and Mom start crooning a Spanish love song, harmonizing and smiling into each other’s eyes. I sit cross-legged on the floor, enjoying the tune, the rhythm, the guitar strums. But one major element is lost on me: the lyrics.

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My parents, 2013

“What do the words mean?” I asked.

The answer could take anywhere from one second to one week, depending on how accurate they wanted to be. Mom often gave a quick approximation. Then Dad would re-word every phrase. Then Mom tweaked shades of meaning. Then Dad would add nuance to that with whole new phrases. The translation for a single line in Spanish turned into a paragraph in English.

The good news: language is rich. The bad news: Straight definitions fall short.

Around each word poofs a cloud of connotations and cultural contexts. These extend the meaning of each word. Translators, then, have a tough job. How to transmit meaning in new words, and pull in as much of the connotation cloud as possible?

Let’s try it for ourselves. Here’s a short poem by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer:becquerga300x300

¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¿Qué es poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía… eres tú.

A clunky, but useful starting translation into English might be:

What is poetry? you ask while you hammer
onto my pupil your blue pupil.
What is poetry? And you ask me?
Poetry . . . is you.

This “translation” stays close to the dictionary meanings of the words, but it doesn’t sing as poetry, and most crucially, is doesn’t sound romantic. And romance is the point of this poem! ♥

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Poet Jane Hirshfield has translated for decades. She advises, “convey each poem’s particular strengths” in her book Nine Gates. To find out what this poem’s strengths really are, I went to Dad.

First, he said “poetry” is more than just a genre of writing when a Spanish speaker says it. Poesía can mean . . .

  • the sublimity of life
  • the music of existence
  • the marriage of wisdom and beauty

And of course, poems. Secondly, he pointed out that our poet, Becquer had a thing for blue eyes. Most importantly, he emphasized that this poem is about the couple drowning in each other’s eyes. The word “hammer” is not going to work very well!

Giving ourselves permission to make a version of this poem that stays true to the heart, but not the letter, we could create a version like this:

What is the sublimity of poetry? you question
as you pour your blue ocean eyes into mine.
What is this poetry? Do you not know?
You, my love, are poetry.

Purists may balk at the liberties I took here. Others will say it’s not great writing. True! I can imagine ten different versions, none of which are “best.” Go ahead and try one yourself. Paste it into the comments!

So. Is translation possible? The short answer is no. But are we willing to deprive ourselves of all the literature and speech of the world outside of English? No way!

Foundational texts such as the Bible and Homer’s Iliad? Gotta have them. What about Jung and Kafka? Li Po and Shikibu? Gotta, gotta, gotta. Even if true translation is impossible, we must do it anyway. We can read multiple translations and learn a second language to broaden our sense of a text, but we’re going to be relying on translators a lot. Growing up with bi-lingual parents showed me the complexities translators face. Given the service they render, what can I say but THANK YOU, TRANSLATORS!

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Writing Tips

Exercise for Finding Your Voice

Photo: My kitty, Zoey, ponders voice.

Last time we talked about voice = word choice and angle of vision. This time, we’ll apply those ideas in writing. Grab the nearest piece of paper or open a “note” on your screen of choice!

  • Step 1: Describe the night sky in the voice of a child.child looking up
    Get into child mind here. The word choices for children will include balls and snow cones and made up words like “splooshy.” Children don’t compare a star to a diode, but a piece of glitter. Angle of vision for a child includes his/her inexperience and limited knowledge, priorities such as safety or fun, and attitudes such as wonderment, confusion, or fear. GIVE YOURSELF FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE.
    Ready, set, go!

Cowboy

  • Step 2: Describe the night sky in the voice of a cowboy, scientist, or artist.
    Your choice! Again, use vocabulary specific to that identity, word choices appropriate to the personality. Take the attitude and angle of vision of this person. Is she nostalgic? Analytical? Dreamy? Make each sentence convey the individuality of the speaker. GIVE YOURSELF ANOTHER FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE.
    Ready, set, go!
  • Step 3: Notice that you started building a character in your paragraphs. You already have a sense of the person’s values, wishes, loves, and fears. You could list traits of this person, describing him as generous or stingy, contented or dissatisfied, etc. How do you know this about him? Because you created a definite voice.

For fiction, screenwriting, or persona poems, the writer gives each character a distinct voice of the kind we just practiced. Distinct voices keep readers from confusing Tia Rosa with Abuela Christina. But what is your author voice? You may try on different hats as you write your characters, but you still have a narrator’s voice that is your own. This brings us to . . .

  • Step 4: Make a list of words that describes the YOU on the page.
    More specifically:blank-photo
    a) Write a short sentence that states two of your priorities or values, such as “Follow your heart and always wear clean underwear.”
    b) List a trait that you want your writing to have, such as liveliness.
    c) Write down three roles that you play in this world, such as brother, pianist, and basketball fan.
    d) Write down two traits of yours that stand out to those who know you.
    Now you’re ready for the final challenge!
  • Step 5: Describe a night sky in your own voice.
    TIPS: Bring to life the person you said you are in step four. Give yourself free reign to be unique. As author Cynthia Heimel says,

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.”

Write in a way that shows your angle of vision and uses your unique word choices. GIVE YOURSELF FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE. Go!

How does it feel? Are you brilliant yet?

Here’s a last bit of inspiration: It turns out that the word grammar derives from an Old Scottish word for sorcery. In fact a grammary is a book of spells in Old French. So when you arrange words on the page, you’re making a kind of magic. You’re conjuring a fictional spell. The reader longs to be under that spell from first page to last. Your pen is your wand. And as Olivander says to Harry Potter,

“The wand chooses the wizard.”

The pen chooses you. Channel your magic. Channel your voice!

girl reading magic book

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