Sunday, May 02, 2010

In the public square

Despite all the contexts in which I've used my Spanish, and despite my characterization of myself as (mostly) fluent in the language, I'm well aware that I don't have the eloquence and command that a native speaker would possess. That's why I decided some time ago that the goal I once had of being a professional interpreter wasn't realistic. But I've found numerous other ways to fulfill my deep love of practicing foreign languages, particularly as I become more involved in spirituality and justice. The demographic landscape of the United States is changing before our eyes, and we must start becoming not only multicultural but multilingual if we are to keep up.

The golden rule of translation is that one always has one's native language as the target language. I can translate Spanish into English, and German into English, but I really don't have any business translating from English into other languages for anything important. For interpreting (interpreters speak, translators write) in informal contexts, when the goal is to make oneself understood as quickly as possible and nuance is less critical, it's okay for me to go in both directions. But for translation, I simply don't have the intimate knowledge of all the subtle connotations and idiomatic phrases in any other language to do justice to an original text.

Nonetheless, because of the linguistically isolated circles in which I move, I'm occasionally starting to find myself in a position where I'm the go-to person for a Spanish translation. Last Friday evening, I received a call from my minister, who was preparing remarks for an immigrant rights rally we were attending the next day; he wanted to be able to deliver them in both English and Spanish (which he can pronounce but not speak). I warned him that I wouldn't be able to render as elegant a translation as he'd get from a native speaker, but relented when I realized that I was the only person he felt comfortable asking for help on such short notice.

I must have labored for an hour on less than a hundred words of text, trying to capture his tone and spirit and making sure everything was absolutely free of grammatical errors. The next day, right before the rally, my minister showed the translation to a Latino clergyman, who said it had been well done. I felt proud; my minister has given me so much in the way of pastoral care and spiritual nourishment that I was happy to be able to give something back to him in return. And it occurred to me later that it was the first time I've written something in Spanish that was delivered to 3000 people for inspiration. Like all writing, translation is an art, and I think I just had my first major showing.

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