Lost in Translation
When I first set foot in Ireland, a revelation began to dawn upon me – that my "potaje" conceptually equated to a simple soup, and that "trapo" denoted nothing more than any piece of fabric, unbound by the sole purpose of cleaning. I finally comprehended, through personal experience, the essence of the so-called cultural shock. More profoundly, I discerned that culture is intangibly woven into the words we articulate. Upon my second descent into the land of the green shamrock and the Celtic harp, I came to realise that my thoughts were crafted in one language and unveiled to the world in another. I still recall the moment when my high school English teacher congratulated me for successfully transitioning to English thinking. However, she neglected to mention that, from that juncture onward, a part of me would dim each time I spoke either language, dissipating amidst native nuances exclusive to each.
Indeed, everyone acknowledges that, in one way or another, something is lost in translation. Nevertheless, it appears as though that elusive "something" should remain in the realm of vagueness, almost as if no one dares venture to name it. Gabriel García Márquez, in his magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude, wrote, "Macondo era entonces una aldea de veinte casas de barro y cañabrava construidas a la orilla de un río de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos prehistóricos." (13). It is said that the English translation of this novel is better than the original, a sentiment even expressed by García Márquez himself (Lind). It reads, "At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs." (3). In the English version, the houses are made solely of clay, not reed; the water is merely clear, not ornamentally diaphanous; and the categorisation of the stones as polished surpasses that of being white and enormous, which are both relegated to subordination. My aim is not to denounce Gregory Rabassa's translation, by any means; rather, my interest lies in the observation that something is both added and lost in translations, as if an alternate reality opens up—fascinatingly similar to the original, yet never identical.
There was a period in my life when the stars aligned, and I found myself in translation classes studying a book penned by a girl from the Canaries, which I also used to sell at the bookstore where I was doing my internship. During those months, where I dedicated at least one daily thought to Panza de burro, I once again became acutely aware of that elusive "something" that magically dissipates at the border between two languages. Despite its words being intricately intertwined with the specific culture of the Canary Islands in every word, this book was translated into English. Beyond the technical quality of the translation itself, the result is a complete cultural dislocation for any reader not acquainted with the rural culture of the islands. Even the title, Dogs of Summer, falls light-years away from the original title, which alludes to the term used in the Canary Islands to describe an atmospheric phenomenon occurring in the northern regions when a sea of clouds accumulates between the mountain slopes due to the trade winds that batter them. Evidently, such a title is impossible to translate, leaving cultural equivalence as the only alternative. The rest of the book presents even more specific and insurmountable cases, from the very colloquial and Canarian expression "jalaba del agua" (23) reduced to a mere "she'd flush," (10) to grammatical modifications characteristic of spoken language, such as "salidos pafuera" (27) (instead of the grammatically correct "para fuera"), replaced by the very neutral "stuck out." (15). Once again, the intangibility of the original narrative essence lies beyond the reader's grasp in the translated version, and one can only hope that what remains and what is added proves sufficient to captivate them.
Now, in my journey towards becoming an editor, two languages vie for supremacy in my mind, each aspiring to be the one I ultimately choose for my profession. Opting for translation might have been the simpler route, yet something within me whispered that in doing so, I would be betraying the two tongues that encode my thoughts, never quite capturing every nuance and subtlety in their entirety. On one hand, one tastes like universality, projection, and success, lingering on the palate, while the other carries the flavour of familiarity, depth, and home. Regardless of what the future holds for me, and with no intention to draw a conclusion to this verbose contemplation, the undeniable truth remains that each word, irrespective of its reference, harbours a certain magic within. It is a magic that refuses to be isolated, reproduced, or ignored, for it is an intrinsic part of the very essence that witnessed their birth. This magic, ineffable and ethereal, weaves itself into the fabric of language, making each word a vessel of enchantment that transcends mere lexical meaning.
Yaiza Llamas Ramos
Abreu, Andrea. Dogs of Summer. Translated by Julia Sanches, Astra House, 2022.
---. Panza de burro. Editorial Barrett, 2020.
García Márquez, Gabriel. Cien años de soledad. Diana, 2017.
---. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated by Gregory Rabassa, Avon Books, 1971.
Lind, Dara. ‘"You're Shakespeare, but you're playing Hamlet as well": Gregory Rabassa on translation.’ Vox, 14 June 2016, https://www.vox.com/2014/4/20/5628860/hes-universal-a-eulogy-for-gabriel-garcia-marquez-from-his-translator.