Friday, December 31, 2010

On reading Julia Child (preparation is no free lunch)

I have just finished reading Julia Child's My Life in France. It is full of wonderful-sounding food--so much so that, while it's a level of cooking detail I have seldom even approached ("nothing is too much trouble" is a repeated phrase in the memoir), I find myself wanting my very own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In hardcover.

But, cooking aside, one of the things I enjoyed most in the book were the attention to traveling and to cultural adaptation--and to a kind of translation, as Child worked to write up a particular kind of French cooking in terms an American cook (of a particular time) might understand and embrace. I enjoyed the energy with which she threw herself into learning new languages as Foreign Service postings took the Childs to Germany and Norway. France may have been her great love, but there was still a big, wide, varied world to understand. I loved her insistence on learning enough of the local language to go to the market--that is, to talk to the people around her. 

And perhaps my favorite passage, which has nothing to do with cooking: 

"As our ferryboat from Denmark made its way up the winding Oslo Fjord in May 1959, we looked at the granite boulders and high cliffs covered with pine trees, sniffed the cool, salty-piney air, and said to each other: 'Norway is just like Maine!' Which it was, and it wasn't.
You can prepare yourself to enter a new culture, but the reality always takes some getting used to."

Here's to a new year of preparation and getting used to--aprendiendo a enseñarnos en otros lugares, con nuevos sabores. A good 2011 to all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interpretive pleasures of travel

I didn't drop off the face of the earth. I went to New Zealand.
Wellington is about as rainy as Oregon (more so, some days) but the sun peeked out and I didn't catch the fabled wind. The Pohutukawa trees were in bloom, many of them. I left the hotel window cracked (the room was stuffy) and woke to birdsong around 5 a.m. Then came the truck. I had a seventh floor room overlooking the city, with a slice of harbor in the distance. The botanical gardens held plump, busy brown parrots. A sign above the entrance to the hotel gym, located just off the pool, pleaded No wet costumes in gymnasium, please. Of course, I knew what they meant. But I prefer to imagine soggy pandas, witches, superheroes--all the stuff of Halloween--dripping on the free weights and the nonskid floor.
My first stop was a translation conference-- "Talking Past Each Other" -- held at the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation (Victoria University of Wellington). It was a terrific conference, with strong papers and good conversation (and tasty snacks!). Big cheers for Jean Anderson, the center director, and her team. I have another long list of books to seek out.
After the conference, I took the opportunity to do just a little sightseeing. (I'll have to go back, with the full family crew, and do some real hiking.)
One highlight: a tractor-pulled excursion along the beach to the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers. I don't know how many birds there were--thousands--burbling and hooting, dragging seaweed back to the line the nests, preening, stretching, edging restlessly around the fluffy, awkward chick in the nest. They don't hatch all at once, so there were gray, nearly featherless chicks the color of stone next door to bewildered white powder puffs, stretching their necks to look around. The chicks spend four months or so just sitting in the nest; those that roll or stumble out are likely to be pecked and harassed to death by territorial neighbors. At roughly four months of age, the chicks make their first flight--to Australia. Many swim part of the way.
The tractor trip is evidently a traditional family outing for many in the area. Most of the group of 20 or so of us were Kiwis, some local, some from a few hours away. A couple from Christchurch were making their third attempt at seeing the colony with chicks. There were two German families, and families from Singapore and Malaysia.
I was reading Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness at the time, a book (for those who haven't read it) in which gender is distinctly undecidable. So I was struck by the guide's telling us, first, that male and female gannets are indistinguishable: same markings, same size, both sit on the eggs. But, he went on, it's the male who gathers the seaweed for the nest. If we saw one with a beak full of greenery, we'd know what we were seeing. 
Traveling, you want to know what you're looking at. And if we have the categories, it's hard not to use them.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Kirdaglass & Marillín: Still thinking about accents

Here's a fun code. I first read Angélica Gorodischer's Kalpa Imperial this past summer in Ursula K. Le Guin's excellent translation. (For anyone considering study in Rosario, by the way, Gorodischer is a rosarina.) There's a lovely creation story near the end, a kind of mash-up of movie actors, plot points, technologies, and conventions (much more inventive than I make it sound--it offers a lot of room to think about how we take stories in and then remake them, and how our creation stories, as stories, also shape us). But sound--that's a big part of the story. Names shift across borders, pronounced differently by speakers of different languages, stressed on different syllables. There's a code here, derived from mostly U.S. movies--non-Argentine movies, anyway--that, in translation, may yet be less available to the English-language reader. Even though, to a degree, it's been translated "back" into its native cultural milieu. 

I'm no film expert--I'm not even a maven, really--so film allusions aren't what springs most readily to mind for me when I'm reading. Still, the first title in italics charge of the light brigade was a hint, as was  the saloon door and, eventually, the names of the actors. The description of the projector (never named as such) helped, too: "a very thick lens, and it had just one eyelid around it [ . . ]. And out of this eye came a tiny speck of dust that got bigger and bigger, and then the eye saw that pinch of dust turn into a house" (Kalpa Imperial, Trans. Le Guin, p. 230).

Gorodischer adapts iconic actors' names to Spanish pronunciation: Kirdaglass, Marillín, Marlenditrij, Betedeivis, Briyibardó, Jedilamar. Good (if transplanted) Midwesterner that I am, I read KUR-duh-GLASS the first time or two, then had my little ah hah! moment: Kirk Douglass. Remember, I'm reading the English. Le Guin has kept the spelling of Gorodsicher's invented names. That seems appropriate. The names are distorted and re-imagined within the novel; their importance stems, in part, from the distance between the original name and the actors'/characters' form--and function--in Gorodsicher's tale. Still, I wonder about the availability of the code to the monolingual English reader, who might not trace Jedilamar back to Hedy Lamarr.

I haven't done the scene justice, thinking mainly about sound and about cross-language adaptation. There's more here. It's a multi-layered code one that includes the names of the actors, the conventions of cinema, the conventions of story-telling. Check out the novel itself, in either English or Spanish (or both!)

Gorodischer, Angélica. Kalpa Imperial. Various editions, most recently Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2001.
---. Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was. Trans. Ursula K. Le Guin. Northampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2003.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Iguazú words

I'm watching a travel site slideshow of Iguazú Falls (not coincidentally, a frequent excursion destination for the study abroad program in Rosario, Argentina, where I'll be teaching next fall). The images are mesmerizing, so I'll leave aside the absurdity of a natural feature having an "official" site and supply the link just for fun (     
Photo: Alejandro Yacono

Falls have their own language, their own lexicon. Not the noise of the falls, though a sound poet might find much to work with along those lines (deafening roar, silence in sound, a pattern that seems constant yet changes, just as the water pours over in a variable yet endlessly similar stream). But I'm thinking of a typology. My daughter once gave me a hiking guide that pinpoints waterfalls across the Pacific Northwest. Stylized icons flag the Plunge, the Horsetail, the Punchbowl, the Block, the Tier. I don't know whether this is a standard subdivision or the unique invention of the guide's author (Gregory A. Plumb, Waterfall Lover's Guide--Pacific Northwest) but I find the variations intriguing. The falls come rated, too, from the single star ("Uninspiring. Probably not interesting except to waterfall collectors") to the 5-star "awe-inspiring sight."

I won't try to decipher Iguazú's formal structure from a distance. On the rating scale, though, its place is clear: The Guardian's 2010 Travel Awards rank it the number 1 world scenic attraction (

The Diccionario de la Real Academia does not dabble in "cola de caballo" or "cascada abanico," soberly defining cascada as: "Caída desde cierta altura del agua de un río u otra corriente por brusco desnivel del cauce." For a straight translation, the Oxford Spanish Dictionary presents three alternatives: cascada, salto de agua, catarata.  Catarata is designated "large," but beyond that the dictionary offers no way to choose among the three. Salto de agua is intriguing in comparison to the English fall-- my first associations with salto suggest jumping, upward motion; still, one might jump (down) off a cliff as well as up onto a table to dance. The water leaps into space and tumbles down.

I have never met a waterfall collector, though I've taken more than my share of waterfall photographs. And I'm a sucker for specialized word lists--I do collect those. Las Cataratas del Iguazú, at the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, should offer plenty of opportunities to broaden my waterfall vocabulary into Spanish, Portuguese, or Guaraní. So now I'm looking for a list of waterfall forms in Spanish. Suggestions welcome! 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

So what do you call this place, anyway?

The first time we visited the Mezquita in Córdoba, we admired the extraordinary red and white pillars and arches, we examined the detailed stonework and elaborate inscriptions, we noted the chapels, and then we emerged into the front courtyard, visit completed--certain we'd missed something. Was that it? we asked the guards. We took a wrong turn, we skipped part of what we came to see. Can we go back in?

The guards were accommodating. We retraced our steps. But where were the endless, unbroken ranks of columns we had seen in photographs, images carefully framed to block or elide any evidence of the imposition of the Christian cathedral on the prior structure?

English language guidebooks to Spain almost invariably highlight the Mezquita, using the Spanish term. Mosque appears below the heading, in the body of the description, for clarity, and cathedral appears lower still. The fact of the cathedral built within (or on top of) the mosque is explained, often critically, sometimes in considerable detail. Still, before I went there, my impression was of a largely untouched mosque, with some later Christian detail off to one side.

The politics of place names are complicated. So, too, their translation. This past week, I read in the paper that the bishop of Córdoba has proposed changing the signs that appear around the city, directing visitors to the "mosque-cathedral," dropping the mosque reference to reduce confusion. As might be expected, the idea is not universally endorsed. []

I read about the mosque/mezquita/cathedral/catedral signs in a week when I was already thinking about names. Like individual names, place names carry a host of associations. Names of towns or monuments or mountains might derive from historical events, notable inhabitants, conquerors, rebels, accidents, points of national pride or public embarrassment. Character names carry baggage as well, connotations that may be intended or accidental. A writing blog raised the question of how different people name characters--always an entertaining challenge. What's in a (fictional) name? It might be anything. Revenge on the hated sixth-grade art teacher who trashed your favorite painting; homage to the neighbor who always feeds your cat. In fiction there's not the same risk of causing misery--I might saddle a character with a moniker I'd never have left my flesh-and-blood child to struggle under on the playground.

But there is the question of getting it right, of finding the name that adequately evokes the place or person described or invented. I am also reading with great enjoyment (several years now after it first came out) Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. It's a book to dip in and out of, almost trolling for found poems, to enjoy terms like "frost hollow" or "ganderbrush" or "ramadero." These are not just definitions, but short narratives, records of settlement, change, restoration, misperception. Possibilities to savor, opportunities lost.

Somehow, for me, the question of what a place might be called, and how the people who move through that place might be imagined or understood, are connected, and connected as well to an image of arches or columns that recede toward an uninterrupted horizon, but only if the observer stands in the right place.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Accents in Translation

I am working on a paper called "Funny Accents," about translating accents in fiction.  Of course, it's unkind to laugh at someone's accent, but fiction writers, at the behest of their characters (on pretext of their characters?) undertake all kinds of uncool or cruel or misguided acts, and teasing people who talk funny is one of them.  The translator has to carry the jokes, the misperceptions, and the snarky tone into the target language--yet the target language reader may, in many instances, be the butt of the joke. One of the characters in my most recent translation, of Alicia Yánez Cossío's Más allá de las islas [Beyond the Islands] is a naïve, misguided gringo, the embodiment of technological overkill and the unwitting pawn of mysterious foreign powers, who speaks a Spanish that can only be called dreadful. Translating him has me thinking about the various meanings we apply to accents, and how my own accent (in English or Spanish) might translate from place to place.

As a professor of literature and language, I am sympathetic; as a language learner, even more so. It takes guts to put oneself out there, attempting to communicate in a language one does not know well. Still, what comes out of our mouths is often funny. Ecuadorian friends laughed for years at my "no intindir," which was a mispronounced "no entender," which revealed that not only did I not understand, I couldn't conjugate the verb. But more than mockery is at stake when we consider foreign accents. Research by social psychologists suggests we're more apt to disbelieve people who speak with an accent, as if lack of language accuracy signaled lack of information (see Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2010). Accents can also be markers of identity. There are language-learner accents and there are regional accents. Sometimes the two get tangled up, and the learner trips over the regional intonation. When I was in graduate school, one of the other teaching assistants for first year Spanish was from Uruguay, and there were students who complained that his accent was incomprehensible. At the time, I thought, but you don't know any Spanish; how is his accent more incomprehensible than any other? My assumption was that a change of accents might be traumatic, but that one might imprint initially with any version of Spanish with equal ease. I don't know if this is true.

I've also  been reading a lot of travel books, preparing for next year's trip to Argentina. Nearly every guide to Argentina includes a short section on Argentine Spanish, usually set off in a little box and highlighted with an eye-catching background color, the way insider tips on locating authentic tango or finding souvenir bargains are marked. Curiously, these language tips often take the form of a warning: National Geographic Traveler: Argentina (2010) warns "Argentine Spanish, however, may surprise those who have learned the language elsewhere, and novices may acquire habits that are less useful in other countries" (21). Moon Handbooks Argentina (2007), explaining the voseo (2nd person pronoun vos instead of ) cautions that "Alert travelers […] may wish to refrain from using the form, considered substandard in some contexts, unless absolutely certain that it is appropriate. The tuteo is never incorrect, though it may sound quaint in some contexts" (596). Well, is certainly incorrect if the occasion calls for the formal Usted, but that's another issue. The cautious approach seems to go against the grain of an immersion program, where the goal is to spend long enough in another country to adapt to and even adopt the local culture. I wonder, too, which Spanish the travelers are assumed to have encountered: Peninsular? Mexican? Nuyorican? But the invitation to language awareness is welcome, as is the reminder, not always explicit, that in speaking we can choose among words or phrases, and also among tones. Perhaps the alert traveler, aspiring to a chameleon-like adaptation to a new linguistic environment, hopes the voseo will help her blend in.

But what kind of English should that character in Beyond the Islands speak? In a novel written in Spanish, he stands out like a sore thumb. No one else sounds like him. Many of his mistakes will sound familiar to readers who've had some dealings with Anglophone Spanish-learners, but they're exaggerated as well. So his English needs to be funny, it needs to be error-riddled, and it needs to be set off from the rest of the book. I'm essentially translating the character back into his native language, but this is a fictional character, after all, not a human being transported back to his native speech community. There's no off-page norm I can apply. So far, I've opted for a few lines of mangled English, with mistakes that roughly parallel the errors in his Spanish. I don't want the reader to think the novel takes place in an English-speaking country. It doesn't. It takes place in the Galápagos. And the funny accents the foreigners carry along on their vacations are part of the weave of the text, as are the stumbles, the distortions, the words that aren't really words, that will trip the reader up from time to time. And, I hope, get a laugh.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dances with Corn

Language learners, asked point blank what a word means--or worse, challenged, even gently, on a definition--will exhibit a reflexive twitch of doubt. Maybe it doesn't mean what I think it does. Plenty of words have regionally specific connotations. Plenty of definitions become mangled beyond recognition.

My daughter and her friend share a recorder lesson. One of their current pieces is a tango, "El choclo." When I picked them up on Thursday, their teacher asked me what choclo meant. Like any good Spanish-speaker who learned her Spanish in Ecuador, I said, "It means corn on the cob, an ear of corn." Hilarity. Is corn on the cob the stuff of tangos? Of course not. I had to be wrong. Granted, there's plenty of room for double entendre in the title, but the kids are young. We sashayed around the room in a wholly imaginary tango; we chortled about the steamy implications of freshly buttered corn. And like a good translator and professor, I ran home to my dictionaries. Looking things up is one of the pleasures of scholarship and of teaching in general.

Anyone moderately knowledgeable about the tango would have known, as I did not, that "El choclo" is famous. Borges, for instance, mentions it in his "A History of the Tango" (included in On Argentina, edited by Alfred Mac Adam). But I started with the word, rather than the song. My Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado offered the expected "mazorca de maíz no maduro aún" as well as, from Mexico, the idiom meter el choclo, meaning "cometer un desatino"--to blunder or, perhaps more idiomatically, to put one's foot in it. My beloved Collins Spanish Dictionary, bought when I was an undergraduate, lists "ear of (tender) maize," which I find particularly delightful, but precedes that with "clog; sandal; overshoe" and follows with, among other meanings, "(Arg) difficulty, trouble; annoyance; burden, task." That seemed likely enough: the burden of lost love, the annoyance of rivalry--all the anguish and passion customarily associated with the tango.

When I turned to the tango itself, I found plenty of possibilities. Historians, essayists, bloggers--they've all had a go. "El choclo" has inspired multiple lyricists, translators, dancers, even filmmakers. I found several supposed origins for the title, including a reference to a golden haired pimp (hair as yellow as corn) and to the composer's favorite ingredient in a stew. Later lyrics don't seem to mention choclo after the title. But based on this first verse, from the early lyrics by Angel Villoldo, our little corn dance wasn't so far off:

Hay choclos que tienen

las espigas de oro,

que son las que adoro

con tierna pasión.

There are corncobs whose kernels
are perfectly golden
they're the ones I adore
with true tender passion.

Not a great translation, but it's my first attempt. The initial rhythm is good, but then it falls apart, and there's no rhyme anywhere. I wanted to keep tender (tierna), thinking of corn on the cob, but true is in there just to add a beat.

Still, it's a happy ending. I like to get my money's worth from my kids' lessons: I want to learn something, too. And the word means what I thought it did, but now it means something more to me as well.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Reading Aloud

Last night, four of my translator colleagues and friends (Amanda Powell, Ibrahim Muhawi, Karen McPherson, Adrienne Mitchell) read with me on the wonderful Tsunami Books stage. We heard poetry and prose both funny and dark. Work just out (Adrienne's translation of Beautiful and Dark, by Rosa Montero) and work about to appear (Ibrahim's translation of Darwish's Journal of an Ordinary Grief; Karen's translations of Louise Warren's poems). Amanda generously shared work in progress (a novel by Uriel Quesada), as did Karen (Louise Dupré, Louise Warren). I read from Beyond the Islands, by Alicia Yánez Cossío, due out next summer.

I think we should read aloud to each other more often.

First because it's fun. (I love reading aloud to my children; why stop when the kids begin reading to themselves?) But the warm glow of satisfaction I'm feeling bundles the fun with so many other reasons for reading together.

There's the corrective--reading as revision. I heard my own translation differently, reading it aloud (one or two places I might tweak? A question here and there as to whether it was funnier out loud or on the page?). I heard it also in the response of the audience--laughing, shifting, quiet--and the bits people mentioned afterward.

There's revisiting, rereading. I had read Adrienne's translation when it came out. Now it was a pleasure to hear it in her voice, rather than my own reading-in-my-head voice, and to visualize those stark, surprising images out of the near darkness of the bookstore reading room.

There's the shortcut: with so much to read, I could take an evening to pause, to begin to understand writers whose work I had never read, to dip into other traditions, other voices, than those that usually fill my work and reading life. I have never read Darwish, or Warren, or Dupré, and without translation I never could, because I don't read Arabic or French. We often describe our projects to one another; this was a chance to jump in.

There's the company. Reading is solitary--and I love solitude, and quiet--but sometimes it's good to be reminded that others love that solitude, sometimes a shared solitude, as well.

Reading aloud together felt like permission to dabble, to sample, to meet, to enjoy, to worry, to shudder, to acknowledge: it was all there.

Thanks to everyone who read and everyone who listened. Thanks to our generous host. I hope we can do it again soon.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What can you assume the reader/spectator already knows?

This past weekend, I was able to see Throne of Blood at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival--a performance multiply adapted and translated (cross-media, cross-culture, cross-language), being Ping Chong's stage adaptation of Kurosawa's film, itself an adaptation of Macbeth. Interestingly, many of the languages being translated, one to another, were also present together on stage. A screen above the stage carried projected supertitles or filmed images, characters spoke both Japanese and English, and sometimes the English was stylized or accented in a way that emphasized its foreignness.

I have been interested for some time now in plays that mix languages on stage, and on what the effects might be for the audience. Reading bilingual Spanish/English plays (the language pair where I spend most of my time), I've speculated on the effects for a monolingual spectator. What might one fail to understand? What might be more exciting, the surprise richer because more unexpected, if things aren't fully spelled-out? So I was intrigued by the use of Japanese in the staged Throne of Blood. I noticed only two places (there might have been more, of course) when there was no move to gloss the Japanese into English. Often a character would begin in Japanese and then move to English, or a few words of Japanese would open or anchor a scene. But during the banquet scene, Lady Asaji's evident instruction to Washizu to "sit down and shut up" was not translated or glossed--though the actions of both actors made it pretty obvious what she meant. More intriguingly, in the hand washing scene, perhaps the most iconic scene of an iconic play, the lines were spoken only in Japanese (nor was there the frame that appears in Shakespeare's play, when the doctor and gentlewoman discuss Lady Macbeth's apparent hallucinations). Seeing the scene stripped down, so to speak, to the essential, desperate washing, I thought, of course, this is a stage image that requires no further explanation or translation. Everyone in the audience will recognize it.

Well, maybe. As we left the theater, almost losing our footing in the crush of spectators, I heard one of the young women who had been seated behind me talking to one of her classmates. "It's not real blood," she said, "but she feels so guilty, that's why she's washing her hands."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Direct Enrollment

I know a lot about many of our study abroad programs, and I know who to ask about most of the rest. As my advisees start filling my office this week, asking questions about course equivalencies and comparable programs, I'll be able to help them. Programs vary, but there are a few constants. Students want to really be there, to get close to the real action. To be far away from home. I've been there, partly, though my introduction to cross-cultural interpretation took place within a different network of ideas about distance, connectedness, and being away.
I never formally studied abroad. I did spend time at the Escuela Policarpa Salavarietta, in northern Ecuador. (Try saying Policarpa Salavarietta three times fast if you're just starting out.) The arrangement was more informal than what we now call "direct enrollment," but spending half days in the 6th grade was certainly an immersion experience. I came from a public middle school in a Midwestern college town; I found myself in a single-sex public elementary school where the girls wore green smocks and lessons were copied into graph paper notebooks using red and blue ballpoint and following a strict code I never quite understood.
For the first few months, we didn't have electric light. (Now there's free Wi-Fi in the plaza.) With phone service available only from a central office, and occasional postal strikes delaying the news from home, I didn't have to try to cut myself off from the familiar, to deliberately speak only Spanish, to push myself to get out of the comfortable but potentially limiting circle of a foreign student cohort. One of my mother's friends once asked her if we didn't speak Spanish at home, since it was so much easier than English, and I've always enjoyed the notion that we might have spoken English among ourselves only when we left the house, just to keep up appearances.
But, no. Spanish was much harder for me than the English I was used to. I smiled inanely at a lot of missed jokes. I was exotic, befuddled, probably grouchy. Still, people were kind. The other girls didn't understand why I had to concentrate so hard to follow the simplest conversation, but they tried to help me along. The teachers were patient. I never once showed up with the regulation pocket handkerchief, neatly folded, but I never had my hand smacked when we lined up for inspection.
After a while, I stopped going to school. I did lessons at home in the morning. We'd brought math books with us and I was assigned to keep a journal of my daily observations. In the afternoons, I was sent out to play, whether I wanted to go or not. Something about making friends and settling in.
It wasn't until a couple of years ago, when I heard my brother refer to "when we were home-schooled," that I connected those mornings to the idea I'd formed of home-schooling in the U.S. When I was in school, home schooling was still considered fairly "out there;" it wasn't a label I'd thought to apply to my own experience, though it absolutely fit. 
The other kids laughed at my mispronunciations--usually gently, sometimes not so much--and acted as though, peculiar and untrained though I was, I was welcome to be there. They moved over a bit on the bench to make space. I rode on the class float in the town fiestas, playing my flute and wearing a fancy blue dress just like the other girls'. I found my way into a tight group of friends.
For me, "direct enrollment" was being lucky enough to be truly taken in, accommodated. People made adjustments for me. Once I got over the shock of how different it all was, I made adjustments, too. Me enseñé.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I do know my title should have another question mark, but then I would have had to give up at least a letter or two from one of the words. So I start with an initial translation, or maybe distortion. It's like trying to make a paper just a little longer or just a little shorter: what can I afford to give up? what should I add?
In fall 2011, I will be teaching in Rosario, Argentina. I'll teach two courses, one on Argentine theater--studying plays from the early 20th century through the present with, I hope, a good dose of local live performance--and one on translation and cultural interpretation. In heading off to Argentina, I get to be both teacher and student for a while. I've taken groups of students to Spain and I've traveled elsewhere in Latin America (Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala) but I have never been to Argentina. The literary terrain is fairly familiar to me; the geographical terrain is not. It feels like high time that changed. So I'll be translating myself in the spatial sense, taking up residence in Rosario for a few months, and translating Argentine culture with and for self, students, and family.
What does it mean to approach understanding another culture through the lens of translation? Translation affects how we view other cultures and how we are in turn perceived. Right now, I'm tripping over stacks of essays, novels, travel books; I'm clicking through tourism and culture and university websites until my wrist goes numb. Each one offers its own tidbits and possibilities; each reflects a series of choices and assumptions, some acknowledged, others elided. Each offers its interpretation--its translation--of Argentina's culture and landscape, singling out the "must sees," defining regional terms, describing characters that couldn't live anywhere else or speak anything other than Spanish (until, translated, they do).
For someone who enjoys dictionaries, "translate" is a satisfying word to look up. You find lots to mull over. As an example, the fat Random House Dictionary of the English Language that graces my dictionary stand includes 14 meanings for "translate," with another 9 for "translation." Among them:

1. to turn from one language into another or from a foreign language into one's own.
3. to explain in terms that can be more easily understood; interpret.
4. to bear, carry, or move from one place, position, etc., to another; transfer.

To turn from one language into another. It sounds like magic, or alchemy, something I might achieve with a hocus-pocus flourish. But I doubt I'll be able to get away with anything quite so dashing. The words aren't "out there" in a vacuum, waiting. As Edith Grossman writes, in Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, 2010), "Translators translate context" (71). I think that's true of the processes of observation and interpretation associated with travel and study abroad as well.
Translation (and travel) implies accommodation, adjusting to the other, shifting one's expectations, seeing differently what hadn't previously been visible at all. It can be a prickly, unsettling process, with uneven results. Understanding moves by fits and starts, and the word you need most isn't always in the phrase book.
When I was eleven and first living in Ecuador, people asked again and again, ¿Se enseña aquí? They wanted to know, are you getting used to it here, are you settling in, are you doing okay? It's not quite as pointed a question as Do you like it here? There's a little more wiggle room for the visitor, more space to acknowledge ambivalence without outright rejection. Yeah, I could say, I'm coming along. I'm adjusting.
Or I could have said, if I'd understood the question. I don't know if enseñarse is used all over Latin America. The dictionaries I've consulted mark it as South American usage, but the only place I've confronted the phrase is in Ecuador. And it was a confrontation, because for some reason (and it wasn't lack of repetition) the verb wouldn't stick. People would ask, I'd stare at them blankly, there'd be that sharp poke in the ribs or the long-suffering parental sigh. Only months later, when my Spanish was pretty good, did my father admit that when he was first in Ecuador, in the early 1960s, people would ask him, "¿Se enseña aquí?" and he'd reply cheerfully, "No. Yo no soy profesor."
In my case, now, Soy profesora. If you want to know more about the Rosario program, check out UO Study Abroad  or AHA International