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Don’t forget the nuance if you’re a traduttore, traditore — translator

November 25, 2018

Whenever the late Nobel Laurate Gabriel Garcia Marquez had an itch to read his Spanish novel, “Cien Aňos de Soledad,” in translation, he’d turn to Gregory Rabassa’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude,” a beautifully rendered English version.

Marquez often said that reading Rabassa’s translation was akin to reading a different novel. Translations can be a cumbersome game because the translator is not only translating a text but re-creating the nuances and tonality of an original work.

The word translator in Spanish is traductor, closely related to Italian as traduttore and a cousin to traditore — which etymologically plays on the pun “traitor.” Capturing the essence of a foreign text and translating its internal meaning can be troublesome, but not impossible.

Vicente Guillot, who teaches Spanish and is chairman of the English, communications and foreign languages department at Palo Alto College, says, “It all depends on the text. The translated text must be faithful, and then, again, how does one define faithful and to whom?”

When I asked him, “Is the text faithful to the translator or faithful to the author?”

He grinned, adding, “Translators are tricky avatars because they use different strategies to achieve an understanding of the complexity of the text.”

Of course, certain texts require absolute faithfulness to the document. One can translate a “birth certificate” and repeat the narrative accurately because translations are done for targeted audiences and for specific reasons. Some idiomatic expressions are difficult to translate because of cultural, linguistic idiosyncrasies, such as, “Hey, you’re pulling my leg” or the catchphrase greeting, “What’s up?” prompting the listener to look up at the sky and inquire about the leg.

Although Google Translator may give literal translations, the algorithms running the program neither detect linguistic nuances nor emulate the idiolect of foreign languages.

But give them a couple of years.

What about translations attributed to historical figures who are complete fabrications?

If you happen to visit the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, you’ll be surprised to know that a translated quote attributed to Antonio Navarro on an entrance panel is as bogus as a $3 bill.

Historian James E. Crisp argues that the translated quotation, “I will never forsake Texas and her cause. I am her son,” engraved on limestone panels displayed in the museum, was lifted from Joseph Dawson’s (1969) “Jose Antonio Navarro: Co-Creators of Texas.”

And Dawson, of course, lifted it from former Texas legislator Dan Kubiak’s “Ten Tall Texans,” a book that Crisp asserts is “without scholarly merit or reliability” because Navarro never said it — not even in his Spanish native tongue.

Crisp, however, recognizes that the quote may be attributed to Texas historian Jacob De Cordova, a bilingual acquaintance of Jose Antonio Navarro.

But Navarro’s famous phrase may not even be an oral interpretation, because Navarro had misgivings when he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, doing so with “great reluctance in 1836.”

Which brings us back to translations.

Historians warn that the search for accuracy and truth is more important during these times than ever before. In the past, many historical documents prior to 1836 were written in colonial Spanish, and the influx of American historians either did not read Spanish or attempt to learn it, thereby discarding many useful documents. Others relied on incompetent translators.

And here Crisp warns “mucho cuidado” (be careful) when attempting to translate documents, because precision and accuracy is tantamount in translating documents, both new and old.

Rafael Castillo, who teaches English and humanities at Palo Alto College, is director of publications and special projects for Catch the Next, Inc.

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