Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Language and translation

I was fortunate to grow up in Colombia, bilingual and bicultural from birth. My father would remind us that as a matter of courtesy we should speak English softly when in public. I have been aware of the differences and nuances in language since an early age.

Like many readers of this column, I grew up with English as my language for family and school and Spanish for all other settings. Yet at my English-speaking school I spoke Spanish with my Spanish-speaking friends and classmates outside of class. I spoke Spanish at home with the domestic staff.

I later learned that it is common for children living in a bilingual situation to associate people with a language, as I did. It wasn’t until young adulthood that I spoke Spanish with my parents even though all of my nuclear family was fluent in both English and Spanish. And then it was only when in the company of non-English speakers.

Living in a bilingual environment gave me an interest in English-Spanish interpreting. I would test myself by translating what the newscasters were saying on TV, seeing if I could keep up. I’d race against simultaneous interpreters at events.

I frequently find myself interpreting not just language but also explaining and comparing cultural ideas when interpreting for groups or individuals. That’s because language is much more than a means of communication. A recent exhibit in Chapultepec Castle referred to languages as the links that give meaning to all of a culture’s expressions: cuisine, clothing, dances, fiestas, religious ceremonies, and art. It is through language that ideas, objects, and practices take on meaning. Language is the code through which people perceive the world and construct its significance.

Back in the 16th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also known as Charles I of Spain) was familiar with the nuances of languages and spoke at least five. He is credited with saying “When speaking with God, I speak in Spanish. The language itself suggests graveness and majesty. When I’m with my friends I speak Italian. It is the language of familiarity. I use French to caress; no language is more tender than French. When I need to speak harshly or to threaten I use German. It is rough and vehement.”

By the way the above quote was originally written in Latin.

Charles V must have wondered whether cultures develop as a reflection of language or whether language reflects the people who speak it.

Multilingual Pope Francis used Spanish last month in perhaps his most important public speech since the papal election. Pope Francis offered an apology on behalf of the church for sexual misconduct of the clergy when speaking to a French Catholic network that promotes the rights of children.

Is it significant that the pope used Spanish in this difficult subject? Was he, like Charles V, using Spanish because it was a grave issue? Or did he use Spanish because it is his native language and the one in which he is most likely to fully understand nuanced meaning? Only he knows.

But what we do know is that the non-Spanish speaking part of the world heard the pope’s words in translation, spoken in the language and accent of each country. I hope they all chose an elegant speaker to convey the pope’s message.

When the translator doesn’t match the original speaker in formality and tone, nuance is lost. I dislike how on National Public Radio and other progressive news programs in the United States the translator frequently has a heavy Latino accent that conveys little or no elegance and clashes with the other voices being used on the program.

Intentionally or otherwise, NPR implies that Spanish-speakers in the U.S. are uneducated. In fact many migrants are professionally educated but unable to find work in Latin America and are living in the U.S. doing work outside their professions. The voices used as translators give a biased nuance to the translations themselves.

It was gratifying that when translating the pope’s words from Spanish to English the interpreters used a cultured, standard English voice. I think that is a courtesy due to every Spanish speaker interviewed on radio or television for an English-speaking audience. So frequently original Spanish is correct and elegant, and it deserves to be translated as such in English.

This month Pope Francis will be traveling to the Holy Land with a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim sheikh who will accompany him on the entire trip to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. You might wonder what language they will speak. Spanish of course. They are all Argentines and long time friends of the ecumenical pontiff.

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