The Weight of Meaning

The Weight of Meaning: Reflections on the Challenges of the Translation Process

by Whitni Battle

Translation shifts and breaks ground to forge its own distinct spaces.

This essay was written while translating Kelly Martínez-Grandal’s “Just Like a Nativity Scene” about a street thug in Caracas who steals a copy of The Metamorphosis and begins to reflect on his choices, but is still unable to escape the destiny that has been carved out by his past. An excerpt from the translation and the original is included at the end for context.

Words, by their very nature, are cages for abstract concepts. Sometimes the ideas they express fit comfortably inside, even with room to grow. Other times they fit awkwardly and incompletely and seem to be trying to seep through the gaps between the bars. Written words go even further to demarcate ideas, trapping them in space and time. Writing occupies and creates multiple dimensions of space. There is the physical space of the paper, or its digital proxy, the screen. There are also the spaces that show through between the words. In order to convey meaning, each word must be its own separate entity, excised from the rest of existence, only to be strategically recombined with other groupings of letters which we’ve collectively tasked with representing discrete fragments of reality. Only by limiting and defining the borders of each word can we use them as vehicles for transporting images from one mind to another.

There are other, more geographical spaces, such as the spaces that give birth to the messages carried along by the words: the historical context and setting. There is also the space of the author: her place in the world and the way it shapes and influences what she expresses and how she expresses it. This space is often taken for granted or assumed to be of little consequence, but it is only the fullness of this place-and-time-bound human experience that lends depth and substance to the words. It is a space teeming with history, family dynamics, cultural and generational contexts, biases, voices, filters, intersectionality, preferences, fears, secrets, dreams, and identity. Without this space, the words would hardly be worth committing to paper. It is the heartbeat that drives the plot forward and breathes life into the characters. Anything a person can create will reflect that person, as an individual, and in turn as a reflection of the earth that supports her feet and also the marks left on that earth by the footprints of her ancestors. All of them are present in the words we chose to immortalize and a good translation must be careful to invite them all into the new space that it creates.

Translation shifts and breaks ground to forge its own distinct spaces. They are the spaces of the translator, and all the individual and collective complexities that ebb and flow through a human life and are brought to the writing desk and infused into the pages whether we like it or not, the space of the target culture, and all of its willingness or unwillingness to be transported, and the path of least resistance along which the translator edges the target closer to the source. Words, and the feelings they have the power to invoke, often do not have an equivalent when you take them out of their culture of origin. They are like fish trying to survive outside of the stream that carries them and if a translator is not careful, their corpses will begin to litter the floor around her desk.

Language allows us to express a wealth of ideas that would seem to approach infinity, but once we commit to a word we reject all others and limit ourselves in the hopes of being understood. It is because of our separateness as people that we have so much to tell each other. Some richness will always be lost, sometimes it has a long journey and the road is treacherous and plagued with the pitfalls of meaning shifts, the bandits of cultural differences, and the perils of omission. Single words with the power to kindle to life the comfort of grandmother’s kitchen, the mouthwatering smells of spices blooming in hot oil, the bubbling excitement of celebrations, the warm embrace of terms of endearment, all wither and become tasteless and impalpable when taken out of their context. The translator has the option to localize them, but domestication often results in sterilization and strips away the identity of the original, replacing it with something arbitrary and lacking. If you take a story that uses croquetas to conjure the nostalgia that a Cuban woman in exile feels for a culture that she fears no longer belongs to her and make it about hush puppies, you’ve written the author out of her own story, or worse, you’ve plagiarized her to write your own story. We are inseverable from our places and times. Our identities sprout forth from the ground we walk on and who is buried underneath it, and we are defined by what we eat and how we say I love you and what makes us cry and what we call our mothers. These are words that go beyond what they objectively represent, and it is often worth maintaining them in their original form to keep their power intact.

Spanish is a language held together by relationships, which are constantly being reaffirmed by words like amiga, abuelito, comadre, mi cielo. We define ourselves based on our relationships to others, and those relationships are defined by what we call each other. A Venezuelan street thug (already a more culturally charged word in English than the original “malandro”) referring to his neighbor using the term “el micri”, which was born out of the Tuki subculture of the slums and dance clubs of Caracas in the 1990’s, and therefore contains all of the cultural milieu of that space and time, is doing more than just voicing a greeting. He’s telling us who he is, who his neighbor is, where they were born and grew up, what music they listen to, how they dress, what they value, what their struggles are, how they like to have fun, and more. There is no way to bring all of this imagery to an English-speaking reader with one word, and I fully acknowledge that putting the word ‘homie’ in the character’s mouth instead eradicates that identity and replaces it with something completely different and foreign in every sense, though it’s a domestication from the perspective of the reader. Perspective is all that separates the exotic from the mundane.

In our imaginations, the characters of the books we read tend to look like us. Whose grandmother did you imagine a couple paragraphs ago? What celebrations? What spices were filling the house with their fragrance? Or was the idea of spices itself too foreign to generate a vivid image? We all have our culturally-programmed default settings. In the United States this only too often means that the default image is a white middle-class Christian heterosexual cis male with no disabilities. It doesn’t matter that most of us don’t fit that mold; that is the default setting that has been inculcated into all of us as representing neutral. It has been whispered audibly and inaudibly deep into our ears by the media we consume and the pictures in our textbooks and the biases we inherit from our parents and grandparents that this is what the baseline of human existence looks like. When we are reminded that we’re reading a translation, either by an unfamiliar word or place name or piece of cultural information, it shakes loose our cultural and personal biases and brings us back to the reality of the tangible and spectacular diversity that exists in this world, and the multitudes contained in the perspectives that are not our own, which are truly the ones that have the most to teach us. It would be a shame if a reader got through an entire book set in Cuba or Venezuela without learning something about what life is like in those countries, or even a new word or two. Writing, and by extension translation, is an art, and art is not meant to take us by the hand and make us feel comfortable and unchallenged. Its purpose is to change the way we see the world, and ultimately the way we see ourselves.

The work of the translator is not to do a magic trick and disappear. Of course it would be an impossible feat, because we all carry our own immutable frameworks for compartmentalizing reality, so any attempt to do so only leaves the ways in which our cultural lens affects the text unexamined, and therefore unchecked. Just like in quantum physics, we cannot be passive observers. Our very presence sends the sparks of small and large changes cascading outward through our orbits. Translation is not a passive act. It is a dynamic process that is intrinsically shaped by many different forces, not the least of which is time. Just as no one else would translate a text exactly the same way I would, I wouldn’t translate the same text in the same way a year, a month, or even a day from now. Filling a story about Venezuela in the early 2000s with contemporary American slang pulls the ground out from underneath it and leaves it unsteady and faltering in the non-space of limbo. Someone reading that translation in a few years will already find the slang terms of today jarringly outdated, and they will only be further distanced from the essence and truth of the original text. Trying to force a text to straddle two very different cultures leaves it stretched too thin to support the weight of meaning. Juxtaposing target cultural elements with source cultural markers glosses over the real world historical antagonisms and complex relations these cultures have with each other and serves as a new type of colonialism.

Retranslation allows for a continual process of evolution, where biases from one time period can be pruned away or, more likely, replaced with biases from a different time. Sometimes a new translation can drastically alter or revitalize a classic work, thawing out words frozen in one space and time to bring them into another. Translators are still arguing about what exactly Gregor Samsa metamorphosed into. How different would our understanding of that text be if the image we had of him was of a monster or a beast instead of a cockroach? According to the original German text, none of these translations would be any more correct or incorrect than any other. When no single option fully does justice to the original, we’re left to choose between half-truths. Frequently as translators we are faced with the bifurcating paths of vastly different possibilities for a solution, and the choices we make for one instead of another say more about us than they do about the text itself. Translators have an immense power, and if this power is denied or unacknowledged, it is more likely to be abused.

But what would happen if we could delete all of the files of our default settings, cultural baggage, filters, and biases? Would it make us better translators, or are humanity and empathy necessary for the faithful stewardship of words that are not our own, but must nonetheless pass through us? If we had no rough edges of individualism, would that allow the words to slide through freely and unhindered to arrive at their target destination fully intact and unaltered? Artificial intelligence is still a far cry from producing literary translation that sounds anything other than robotic, but at some point in the future it seems certain that computers will be tasked with translating the great written works of all the ages and locations of humanity. For that matter, there may come a time when computers can craft better literature than humans. Will they surpass Joyce’s flowery prose, Vonnegut’s world building, or Garcia Márquez’s ability to embroider surreal wonder onto the fabric of reality? Will computers be pure vessels, able to use words as objective tools without leaving their marks on them? Or will we imbue our machines with our own biases and filters as we create them in our own image? Perhaps no two computer programs would translate the same text in the same way. Perhaps there are no perfect solutions, but instead just a series of difficult decisions that must be made and compelling arguments for every possible option. It may be true that the insight necessary to handle these decisions comes from nowhere else but our humanity and that the only way to endow computers with the information necessary to make complex decisions would be to program them with all of the cultural baggage that has ever existed. Would that make them more or less neutral? Maybe they could exist in a world where there is only one language, made up of every surviving human language. There would be no need to italicize or otherize. Would there be room for all of them in the hard drive, or would it be like the real world where they fight each other for dominance and whole histories and ways of seeing the world are continuously being pushed out into oblivion?

The sociopolitical systems based in colonialism and commodification that frame our world sink their hooks deep into us, the products of their all-consuming dominion. They limit and shape our ways of thinking and speaking and writing, but their problematic and unjust existence also gives us a reason to speak up and put our thoughts and feelings into written words. Their hegemony makes it all the more important to hold space for different voices and perspectives. Our world is becoming more and more multilingual. Even as our political borders become increasingly militarized, our linguistic borders are beginning to blur and soften. Languages are not static like statues of men on horseback, they are in constant flux like the sea and revolutions, and human migrations are intensifying this perpetual motion. English, even from its origin, is a language cobbled together by borrowed words. Just as words have the power to reinforce oppressive systems, they also have the power to subvert them. Challenging the tyranny of these systems in the world is of vital importance, but it starts with challenging their tyranny inside ourselves, otherwise we perpetuate them and we become the tyrants.

Excerpt from “Parece un Nacimiento”
from Muerte con campanas by Kelly Martínez-Grandal

Cuando volvió a casa, se puso a leer el cuento de su tocayo. Le costaba entender. ¿Por qué a todo el mundo le parecía normal que Gregorio se “fuera transformao” en insecto? El espejito sobre el lavamanos, con su marco de plástico rosado, le devolvió su imagen: el ceño fruncido, la boca apretada. Entre página y página, la imagen de una vida distinta lo perseguía. En el fondo, estaba cansado de aquello, pero aquello era una rueda: cuanto más robas, más quieres robar. Cuanto más matas, más quieres matar. Asunto de poder y costumbre. A veces, pensaba en largarse lejos, donde nadie lo conociera. Tal vez a Mérida o a Margarita, un terreno donde pudiera sembrar, recomenzar. Ahí estaba Deylcin para probar que nunca es tarde. De todas formas, el barrio ya no era el mismo. Se había llenado de puros chamitos que no respetaban, que andaban metiendo psico-terror, cagando en su propio patio. ¿Y si terminaba bachillerato? ¿Y si estudiaba?

Había ido varias veces a la Central, a vender o comprar yerba. Le gustaba mucho la universidad, con sus jardines enormes y aquel ambiente pausado que dejaba atrás la esquizofrenia caraqueña. Todo tipo de estudiantes hacían vida en los pasillos: rastas, punks, sifrinas entaconadas, viejos de traje y corbata. Se sentaba en Tierra de Nadie con unos hippies chavistas que hablaban sobre clases oprimidas, capitalismo y Marx. Él se reía y callaba, hasta que un día se enculebró.

—¡Mira, panita, yo te voy a decir una vaina! Chávez se llena la boca hablando de los del barrio, pero ahí todos seguimos jodidos. Tú fuiste a Petare dos veces, a batirte un champú socialista, y ya hablas como si supieras y te importara. ¡Me suda el güevo la lucha de clases!

Los hippies lo llamaron desclasado y no le hablaron más. Sí, definitivamente se estaba poniendo viejo. Definitivamente estaba cansado.

Excerpt from “Just Like a Nativity Scene”
tr. Whitni Battle

When he got home, he set about reading the story of the man with his same name. It was hard for him to understand. Why did it seem normal to everybody that Gregor got turned into an insect? The little mirror over the sink, with its pink, plastic frame threw back his image: the furrowed brow, the pursed lips. The image of a different life chased him from page to page. Deep down, he was tired of all that, but all that was a cycle: the more you steal, the more you want to steal. The more you kill, the more you want to kill. It’s about power and habit. Sometimes he thought about going far away, where no one would know him. Maybe to Mérida or Margarita, where he could work the land, start over. There was Deylcin to prove that it was never too late. Anyway, the neighborhood wasn’t the same anymore. It was full of young bloods that didn’t respect anyone, who went around dishing out psycho terror, shitting where they ate. But what if he finished high school? If he went to college?

He’d been to Central University several times, to sell or buy weed. He liked the university a lot, with its huge gardens and that calm atmosphere that left the schizophrenia of Caracas behind. All types of students brought the hallways to life: Rastas, punks, preppy girls in high heels, old men in suits and ties. He’d sit in No Man’s Land with some Chavista hippies who talked about oppressed classes, capitalism, and Marx. He would laugh and keep quiet, until one day he blew a fuse.

“Look, panita, I’m going to tell you a thing or two! Chávez wags his tongue about the people in the rough neighborhoods, but we’re all still fucked there. You went to Petare twice to play socialist dress-up and now you talk like you know and like you care. I don’t give a shit about the class struggle!

The hippies called him declassed and didn’t speak to him again. Yeah, he was definitely getting old. He was definitely tired.

Whitni Battle is a recent graduate from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies where she did a master’s thesis in literary translation. She is also a former circus acrobat, traveling jewelry artist, guerilla gardener, and animal rescue technician. She’s always looking for points of intersection between her passions, which include languages, art, and conservation. Additionally, she can juggle with her feet.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, September 13, 2022

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