Yesterday I attended a workshop sponsored by ACTI, the Cuban Association of Translators & Interpreters, on literary translation. It’s a field that interests me mainly because besides fiction and poetry, literary translation also includes books that are not strictly technical, like the one I did for Atilio Boron, and I’d like to do more.
The agenda included two presenters – one was a Cuban translator who is also a longtime member of the Cuban artists and writers union’s literary translation section, the other an American translator who happened to be in Havana on vacation and therefore available to elaborate on Lawrence Venuti’s translation theories as well as teach the workshop.
This is surely a terrible thing to admit in certain translation circles but being unfamiliar with Venuti, I downloaded his The Translator’s Invisibility last week and read as much as I could digest of it before the workshop. I’ve never had a great deal of patience with academic prose. Nevertheless he raises important questions concerning the “violence” that can be done to an author’s original work when a translator, in the interest of readability, creates a fluid, elegant translation but winds up substituting one cultural context for another. This, the theory goes, deprives the reader of the original style and possibly the most truly accurate meaning. In the world of translation theory, it’s known as “domestication” with its dialectical opposite being “foreignization,” with various degrees of separation between the two. Also, Venuti addresses the whole question of the translator as an invisible element, which enhances the unfortunate tendency to devalue professional translators, already undervalued and underpaid.
Venuti also discusses the terrible imbalance in the translation world where works originally created in English are picked up for translation at a much greater rate, and much higher price, than those originally created in other languages, compounding an already lopsided transfer of culture and therefore, values. The voluntary translation collective, Tlaxcala (the international network of translators for linguistic diversity), makes a conscious effort to address that imbalance, broadening the global audience for alternate points of view in many different languages and focusing on lesser-known authors as opposed to those more frequently translated.
The Cuban translator gave a rambling (but actually very informative) hour-long extemporaneous overview of various translation theories, including Venuti’s, but also offered a summary of the long history of these kinds of theoretical discussions, including the viewpoints of various well known Latin American writers and translators, like José Martí and Jorge Luis Borges. It was definitely interesting if somewhat hard to follow, especially when to demonstrate some of his points, he resorted to diagrams that he drew on a notepad visible only to himself. At the break a friend laughed about this curious habit, saying, “Yeah, let me just move my (nonexistent) overhead camera in for a moment so I can see what you’re talking about.”
For me, the more interesting phenomenon was one I’ve observed elsewhere here: that of the articulate Cuban in the spotlight. Very one-way. When he concluded his presentation, ACTI’s president thanked and praised him for his “masterful” overview, and the American guest interjected to say that he had attended many lectures on translation theory but never one with that level of brilliance. During the break, there was some eye-rolling among the Cuban translators about the guatequería. For an American this level of lengthy nonstop note-free extemporaneity is stunning, but here, where it happens with such frequency, it can be viewed as just another Cuban enamored with the sound of his own voice.
Before a reader suggests that the Cubans must have learned this from someone – because I’ve heard that theory – I don’t buy it. Fidel Castro had a very different speaking style; a charismatic one that drew his listeners into an intimate circle through a sequence that went something like this: you, me, we. You might have had to be a native Spanish speaker to catch it. Hugo Chávez had the same gift, and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed by intelligence analysts.
The American’s presentation in contrast to that of the Cuban, was not the least bit note-free. He read his remarks directly from his iPad – reminding me that in the United States, extemporaneous speaking is not as highly valued as it is here. I learned it as, well, a Mormon – where you begin as a child to offer 2-1/2 minute “talks” in Sunday school and gradually move on to longer presentations, but also in high school Debate, where our competitions had a section dedicated exclusively to the craft. But if you didn’t have that background, you might not have assimilated the tools. This year in my son’s elementary school, I can see that he is learning some of the elements through a great deal of memorization coupled with oral presentation. Initially it’s very rote, but I’ve noticed it evolving to something more organic.
While he may have lacked the parlor trick, the American made up for it through an engaging interaction with his audience where he offered practical examples of domestication and foreignization, and shared an example of a translation he’d done of a piece by Miguel Barnet, replete with idiomatic Cuban expressions that pose a special challenge for translators outside Cuba to carry from Spanish to another language. The Cuban translators were active and vocal and not the least bit shy about pointing out misunderstandings.
A “bicho raro” (literally: strange bug) is someone or something out of place, period, not specifically homosexual – although Barnet’s text was quite focused on that. I pointed out that personally, I’d never have chosen “queer bird” as the translation, since it pushes the reader to see something the author himself waits a little longer to reveal.
“No se me duermen los lechones en la barriga” (literally: piglets don’t sleep in my belly) does have its origins in the campesino expression regarding the difference between a pig that pushes her piglets out the moment gestation is completed, as opposed to a lazy one whose piglets die inside because she simply can’t be bothered – which I imagine probably doesn’t happen much, if at all. But it doesn’t necessarily call for a farm analogy in translation. The American’s choice: “take the bull by the horns” is actually not a bad one, but there are many other ways to suggest a lively, active person that don’t involve animals.
We didn’t get as far as discussing “de armas tomar” (literally: to take up weapons) but it’s always been one of my favorite expressions, though I’m not sure how idiomatically Cuban it is. Certainly redolent of Cuban history, it’s a vibrant phrase that suggests a strong, even fierce personality, definitely not a pushover.