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 tú) 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, tú 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.