Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Translation trials

I've known since I started pursuing an interpreting career several years ago that foreign-language translation is a real skill independent of language fluency, and my activities of the last several weeks have only reminded me of that reality.

A couple of Sundays ago I delivered my first sermon at church, on the lack of racial diversity in our congregation. I wanted to close with an excerpt from Alfredo Cortez's song, "No me llames extranjero", which I find profoundly moving. It's not often that I translate for other people (interpret, yes; translate, no), and I've never translated something where I felt so strongly that every nuance had to be preserved. It was a difficult task; I struggled even with the title. "Extranjero" is most frequently translated as "foreigner", but would "stranger" or "outsider" be better in this case? For me---perhaps because I've grown up as a racial minority---the word "foreigner" already carries a connotation of "outsider", whereas my Caucasian husband felt it simply meant a neutral "someone not from here". As with any art, a work of translation inherently contains within it our own experiences and biases.

I've written before that I have difficulty moving between some of my foreign languages, particularly German and Spanish. In my mind it feels like trying to shift gears without first going to neutral; perhaps a better analogy is that of an childhood acquaintance of mine who cannot find her way between locations in our relatively small Kansas town without first going back to her house. Debby, our exchange student from Germany, recently asked me to translate a Christmas greeting from her mother to the Colombian child she is sponsoring. The greeting was brief and simple, but upon reading, "Liebe Gabriela", my brain become firmly stuck in German mode and it took me a full thirty seconds to pull up "Querida" as the Spanish word for "Dear". Since I was pressed for time, I gave up and wrote out the translation in English before rendering it into Spanish.

I take comfort in the knowledge that as with any learned skill, these difficulties can be surpassed with practice. Debby herself was impressed by my ability to translate Spanish children's stories to English on sight (which I do frequently as part of my daughter's bedtime routine); she can't do the same for German, even though her English is essentially fluent and she gets far more practice in it than I do in Spanish. I guess the sight translation classes I took as part of my legal interpretation program paid off...whether I'm reading a power of attorney or El ping├╝ino Pedro.

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