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."