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."