The Politics of Spanish

I. Variety is the Spice of Life

It is a harsh reality of the localization industry that quality translation and language correctness are not always first and foremost in the minds of all the actors involved. As in politics, where the path that most benefits the majority of the people governed is hardly ever the one that benefits the people in power, throughout the life of a translation project decisions are made based on reasons other than language correctness and accuracy of the translation.

The matter is further complicated with a language as high-profile and varied as Spanish is, by virtue of being the official language of 21 countries and the second most widely spoken language after English in the United States. Even though Spanish is a difficult beast to tame when it comes to dialectal neutrality, developing the skills and knowledge to deal with issues of neutrality is one of the essential tasks of the professional Spanish translator. The differences between dialects, after all, are mostly lexical in nature, with few structural or grammatical variations, such as the pronoun “vos” and its respective verb tenses, which is used in the South Cone and certain parts of Central America. Another example would be the differences in the use of pronominal verbs, which abound in Spain but become less frequent the further down the Equator you go. The use of “vosotros” is also uniquely Peninsular. (Fortunately for translators, hardly any project will call for unification of target locales Spanish and Latin America, which are mostly kept separate, thanks to clear demarcations in terms of market economy and demand.) Apart from these very marked structural and grammatical variations, differences will arise mostly in terms of vocabulary.

What does this mean for translators, battling in isolation mystifying client requests for “neutral Spanish” and “localization for Latin America”? It means that a profound knowledge of dialectal variation, or at the least awareness of it, is required of the Spanish translator, especially those working outside the European Spanish market. It also means that the translator needs to be ready and willing to negotiate alternative solutions, to adapt her vocabulary to the target audience’s preferences, and to keep an open mind about varieties of Spanish.

It must be noted -lest I be immolated by translation theory pundits- that literary and academic translation are generally excluded from this discussion. This is because the processes involved in its production differ vastly from those of general or technical translation, as well as because literary and academic translation still remain outside of the translation agency model and access to it is more much more limited -that is, it is far harder to actually publish a translation of a literary work or magazine article than it is to end up translating a code of conduct for employees. There is, however, one more essential reason, namely, that in literary and academic translation register tends to be higher, and the higher the register the less pronounced the dialectal differences. That is, the less educated the speaker, the more localized his or her manner of speaking. Thus, any concern with foreignizing or domesticating strategies does not apply, as the purpose of the type of translation I am alluding to here is to eliminate all barriers to communication, and thus transparency is of the essence.

II. Bilinguism and the Quest for U.S. Spanish

The first time a client returned a translation to me calling for revisions, I was appalled and frustrated when I saw what they demanded: changing a much cherished turn of phrase for something vapid and even nonsensical, switching a previously correct translation for a mistranslation, replacing a widely accepted term with a known anglicism (I offer, as an example, “en el largo plazo” instead of “a largo plazo”). In one particular case, a very commonly used phrase in Spanish was flagged because “we don’t say it like that”.

In the case of translators working within the North American translation market, one of the main reasons for this is a phenomenon born purely of the situation of so-called heritage speakers in that region. A heritage-speaker is someone whose mother tongue is a language other than English, but whose command of English may be considered to be broader than that of his or her mother tongue. This is the case usually because heritage speakers do not generally receive schooling in their mother tongue, while they do receive schooling in English. Their Spanish is limited and heavily influenced by English, and so anything that sounds foreign, strange or mysterious to them is lumped under the category “not in my dialect”.

The issue of bilinguism among heritage speakers in the U.S. is extremely delicate, incredibly complex and not at all tolerant of sweeping generalizations. Among second and third generation Latinos in the U.S., the Spanish language is very much a cherished heritage from their ancestors, and the country their parents or grandparents left behind, a land held in admiration and respect, but ultimately a place that they can never really go back to because it is not exactly their home. Their home is in whatever U.S. city or town they were born in, a city or town that on the other hand never truly feels like theirs. This is the disjointed, alienated space in which many second and third generation Latinos in the U.S. live.

For many of these bilinguals, Spanish is a matter of both individual and cultural pride, something that sets them apart from the mass of American citizens, a deep and essential part of their identity. They have probably spent their entire lives being relied on for communication by family members not proficient in English and coworkers not proficient in Spanish. Translation and interpretation are already part of their world, from the time they are able to speak on to their adult lives. I imagine many even become the Spanish experts in their workplace, setting them apart from monolingual coworkers who rely on them to navigate an increasingly Hispanicized world. This does not mean, however, that they have the necessary knowledge or training to become professional translators and interpreters.

Add to this the fact that for most of us, language is a touchy subject. Most people I know cannot stand to be corrected when they make a language mistake, and when they are they will immediately launch into a defensive tactic of the “you understood what I meant” variety. People assume that because they speak a language that automatically makes them an expert in it.

III. Trust No One… Especially Not the Translator

One might think that the increased sensitivity of localization agencies and end clients to the variations of Spanish is a good thing, but this can also be a double-edged sword. Many clients, in their zeal to produce “neutral” or localized Spanish texts that will appeal to their target population often enter the conversation with a mechanical, almost surgical mindset. Localization thus becomes a switchboard game, wherein a text is “adapted” to a locale simply by replacing certain words and phrases with others. Thus, clients may focus more on finding particular words in translations that they feel signify adaptation, which blinds them to stylistic concerns that may be just as important as specific words. When they come across a phrase that seems unfamiliar to them -not because it would be unfamiliar to someone from their country of origin, but because they simply don’t know it- the default stance is to mistrust the translator. “The translator FAILED to adapt the text to the target locale.” The translator may not have failed at all, but the individual doing the editing cannot be aware of it because of his or her limited knowledge of Spanish and superficial understanding of cultural adaptation.

How can we tell, though, when that is the case? Research -the second most important skill a translator must master (second only to actually knowing the languages she works with). Some things are indeed regionalisms, others are simply not. A well-read translator who keeps her eyes and ears open should be able to spot most lexical and structural anglicisms in the alternative translation offered by the client.  It is in this alternative translation that we can witness the client’s true knowledge of Spanish. Sometimes the market or target audience does demand what the client has suggested. But when that is not the case, it is our responsibility to try to educate the client, politely explaining to them why our option is best and backing it with sources.

The importance of doing this lies not only in our professional reputation, but also in our responsibility as communicators and educators. Maintaining a certain level of semantic, lexical and grammatical correctness is also a demonstration of respect: I respect my reader, therefore I do not patronize him with highly colloquial expressions because I don’t think he has the ability to understand my supposedly high-brow words or learn new ways of referring to the world around him. Many of the widely circulated anglicisms nowadays started with a bad translation by someone who did not do their work properly, anglicisms that may have replaced another word or phrase that most speakers are or were acquainted with. This is the unfortunate case of “soporte” versus “asistencia”. The latter word makes much more sense to a native Spanish speaker, as the meaning of the former depends to an extent on one’s knowledge of the source language (“soporte” is in many cases a false cognate of “support”). Ironically, this effects a reversal of the same critique with which supposed defenders of popular language (“this is the way people speak”) undermine the prescriptions of language “elitists”, as they subject Spanish to an English-speaking “elite” that has been raised within the conceptual context of English and U.S. culture.

IV. No Purists Here

This discussion has nothing to do with language purity. Languages evolve. The very existence of Spanish is due to the phenomenon known in linguistics as languages in contact. This is when languages influence one another due to contact between different peoples through trade or conquest. I truly believe we might be witnessing the birth of a brand new language, born of the contact between English and Spanish in the United States, much like Latin began to diversify into all the romance languages once it was adopted by the populations conquered by the Roman Empire.

Regional dialects do indeed exist. Growing up in a country with hardly any exportable national cultural production (outside of music), I was treated from an early age to the varieties of Spanish across the American continent. My favorite cartoons and shows were made or dubbed elsewhere, in Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia. My environment was in part one of Spanish-speaking foreigners: the Argentinian couple that owned the restaurant my mother worked for while I was growing up, the Catalonian schoolfriend, the Cuban origins of my best friend, my Dominican half of the family, my father’s Colombian acquaintance. And my own dialect, wrongfully considered low-brow and unclean by all, including its own speakers, taught me much about how the quest for one standard, perfect variant of Spanish was nothing but a foolish and worthless pursuit.

What I do believe in is eloquence. A translator is first and foremost a writer, someone who uses the tools of language to convey a message in the manner that will most resonate with the intended reader. People who don’t understand what translation is all about think that knowing a language is all there is to it. Interestingly, most people would recognize that just because they can speak a language doesn’t mean that they can write well in it or give a successful speech. Why should translation and interpretation be any different from writing or public speaking? This has nothing to do with restricting the language; on the contrary, it has to do with reveling in its lexical possibilities, in the flexibility of its syntax, in its phonetic forcefulness.

There has been much celebration of Spanish as a second language in the United States. It is indeed something to rejoice at, something to celebrate, when our language travels as widely as ours has and still survives in one piece. Let this celebration come with the appropriate attention to its development, to educating our speakers in its form so that we can better celebrate its beauty.

One thought on “The Politics of Spanish

  1. Pingback: the creation of “reality” « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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