What I Learned From Clumsily Translating Classic Literature

From Eduardo Galeano's El Libro De Los Abrazos
From Eduardo Galeano’s El Libro De Los Abrazos

No hablo español muy bien, pero puedo leer un poco.

Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you might be able to guess what that says. Or use Google Translate. … Okay, fine, it says “I don’t speak Spanish very well, but I can read a little.” Happy?

I took a Spanish literature class in college, which I somehow managed to pass, but I didn’t really get what I wanted out of it. Okay, so maybe “complete fluency in a foreign language after four months of little to no effort” is an unrealistic goal, but I was a lazy college student. Now vastly older and wiser, I’ve modified that to “eventual fluency in a foreign language through ongoing daily practice.”

What does that look like?

Uh… you mean aside from Duolingo?

No, I really am doing some more thorough language study than that. Namely, I’m slowly picking up Spanish language literature again—reading the books I want at a pace I’m capable of.

But I’m not just a reader. I’m a writer.

Everyone knows reading and writing are related skills, but what happens when you throw foreign language into the works? Studying a foreign language activates a lot of the same fears as writing in my own—what if I choose the wrong word? What if no one understands what I’m trying to say? What if I’ve misunderstood them? Am I making a complete idiot of myself?

So I decided to embrace those fears at the same time. I decided to translate the Spanish I’m reading into English writing.

I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done so far. It’s been educational. But I have to ask myself: how much is this an exercise to improve my Spanish skills—translating as closely as possible to a word-for-word match—and how much is this an exercise to improve my writing skills—translating the essence of a sentence in a way that sounds beautiful and gets across the heart of the story?

This dilemma is the core of translation. On first thought, a word-for-word translation may seem the best way to stay true to the author’s original intent. But anyone who’s ever put something back and forth through a web translator a couple of times knows how that can completely warp the meaning behind the words. Slaving over the exact translation of each word feels like falling into a trap for inexperienced translators.

The inexact translation that keeps the heart of the story is the most authentic, then, even if not a single word in the translated sentence is what you see when you open a Spanish-English dictionary.

That’s a bold thought. It carries a certain amount of fear with it—healthy fear, I think. As an inexperienced translator, I’m afraid that I can’t do justice to a writer I admire and a language that is not my own. That fear means I respect the author and the work.

But I can’t let that hold me back.

In a world full of Spanish-to-English dictionaries and Google Translate, it’s easy to assume that a good translation is the same as the original work. As long as the translator isn’t an absolute fuck-up, you’ll still get the same story, right? But no matter how skilled the translator, it’s impossible to get quite the same experience.

That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

I think so. It’s the same kind of existential sadness that I feel when I remember that life is finite, that sometimes choosing to open one door means closing another forever. I will never learn every language in the world; I’ll be lucky if I even learn a second one to fluency. That means there are some things that I will never understand fully. Some people I will never understand fully. And that runs counter to everything I believe about the core of humanity being universal….

But it’s not all bad. As the saying goes, something may always be lost in translation. I also believe that we can find something in translation.

Take this example. In Eduardo Galeno’s El Libro De Los Abrazos, which translates to English as The Book of Embraces, I came across the following phrase: “La mar estalló ante sus ojos.” I didn’t know the word estalló, so I had to look it up. It comes from estallar, a verb which means to explode. The phrase translates literally as “The sea exploded before their eyes.”

Now, that’s a metaphor—this wasn’t a story about somebody nuking bodies of water. But what’s more interesting than that is the association my mind first made when I tried to guess the meaning of estalló. It’s similar to estrella, a word I know which means star. None of my resulting guesses—shimmered, glittered, shone—were quite right, but what an image is that? A sea so beautiful that it shines as bright as a star? And knowing now that it means explode, that one little word carries the cosmic gravity of a supernova.

I’m no linguist. I don’t know if there is actually any connection between estallar and estrella, but I don’t really care. It’s still a beautiful image. And it fits perfectly with the story’s theme: that some things fill us with such awe that we need art to help us see them fully.

I’ve read Galeano’s book in English translation, and I loved it. It moved me. It moved me enough to pick up a Spanish language version six years later, despite the fact that I am far from fluent. As a non-native speaker, I may never understand it in quite the same way as someone who grew up on the words and the culture. But I will still understand more than I did before I opened the pages.

Translation is an art. It, too, helps me see. Not fully… but it’s a fresh angle, distinct from reading something in English or reading it in Spanish or even reading it in English and then, again, in Spanish without trying to draw a connection between the two. When we accept that translation is just another form of art, however thinly layered over the author’s work, we can move past that sense of loss we get from being unable to, say, read Tolstoy in the original Russian. We lose one perspective and gain another.

Remember that next time you read something in translation. Even if it’s just a quote in a news article. Remember, embrace variety and imperfection in your understanding, and then?

Keep reading.

One Comment

  • Jeremiah Reply

    Great post. One of my professors at U.C. (funny enough a linguistics Professor) would frequently tell his students that the funniest joke he ever told didn’t translate properly to English. I would agree that it is disappointing to know that some content won’t make sense, whether it is due to a language barrier, cultural differences, or a variety of other reasons but at the same time I think being aware and being willing (and in your case striving) to stop and try and empathize really helps in closing those gaps. Personally it makes sense that given the huge variety of experiences we have as a species that an individual couldn’t fully relate to all of them but I believe that absence gives us different kinds of connections and let us find new and sometimes inventive ways to connect. Getting to learn about pretty much anything not present in my life tends to fascinate me and is subsequently far more likely to get me to ask questions and try to understand (granted that is just me personally).

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