Friday, June 22, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #6

This one's grammar-heavy. Proceed at your own risk.

It's not as complicated as it might be if it were Arabic, but there is still a gender element in Spanish that doesn't exist in English and that bears on the decisions I am making as a translator.

In addition to the fact that nouns have gender and that adjectives agree with them in gender, there is another problem that, on the face of it is not one of grammatical gender but in effect becomes one: Spanish allows for a lot more uses of the passive than English does in ways that are not explicitly marked with gender but that require either a gender marking or a switch to the plural in English. 

"...escribió que quien penetra en ellas tiene la sensación de internarse en la oscuridad de  una selva sagrada."

"... he wrote that whoever enters has the feeling of interring himself in the dark of a sacred forest."

The issue in this sentence is not that the naves of the cathedral or the forest are marked as feminine; that's a simple issue that need not be blown up into a simplisticdiscussion of whether those things are regarded as more feminine types of spaces. Whatever. The issue is the description of the act of interring oneself in a sacred forest and how to refer back to the actor in the representation of that gesture.

While Spanish marks gender in many more ways than English does, this is a case where a passive action, becoming buried, can just as easily be rendered as an active, reflexive action. The particle se can be used in a whole variety of ways, including as an indirect object pronoun and as a marker of reflexive or passive verbal action. The difference between the passive se and the reflexive se can easily get lost in English translation, not because there is no way to distinguish them — there is, and in a text seminar, one would be expected to do so — but frequently because one of the two ways sounds like English and the other sounds like Spanish with English words. So what I translated in that initial translation in a reflexive way (interring himself) is actually a passive here (becoming interred).

I've noticed a tendency lately, particularly in new media writing but also among my students, that when people want to make their work sound more elevated than it is, they'll completely overuse "one" as a pronoun: "one has the feeling of interring oneself." Shudder. No. The last time I wrote a sentence like that was in the ninth grade. It's probably grammaticality technically correct, but it grates on my ears and sounds like it's been written by someone who hasn't read enough to know that it sounds funny. One has the feeling of interring himself, at a maximum. Or people have the feeling of interring themselves, if you want to leave a gendered pronoun out of it. Suffice it to say "one" is not a solution to this problem.

Although the experience is cast in somewhat more universal terms — the discovery by many people, many different types of people, by the platonic ideal of a person — at the heart if it, the author is a man and he is describing his own experience of the city of Córdoba, extrapolating from his own interaction with the city, so referring to this "one" as "himself" on the second and subsequent references is simply a correspondence with the reality that allowed the text to be written in the first place. Does it make the text less universal? Perhaps, but I don't think that's a change that it's within my purview to make. As much as I am tasked with making this text make sense to Anglophone American readers in a cultural sense as much as a linguistic one, I think that to gender-neutrify the text would be to impose a silliness of American sensibilities on a text that is a description of a very not-American experience and point of view. Even if a reader feels alienated by a narrative of a Spaniard of the male persuasion discovering this city, I don't think I'll have failed in the cultural aspect of my responsibilities.

Another option would be to leave the patient out of it entirely, and leave the passivity inherent in the Spanish in the English translation. And it's funny — it's taken me this much thinking it through and turning it over and over in my head to realize that this isn't one of those cases where the other kind of passivity renders a more idiomatic English; it's actually okay in a very literal way:

"... he wrote that anyone who enters has the sense of being buried in the dark of a sacred forest."

And that's how I've left it for now. Bit of a mountain out of a molehill, this one, in the end.


  1. I'll buy embiggen, but gender-neutrify?

  2. I suppose I could have used neuter. Gender-neutralize sounded way too much like chemical warfare or some kind of detergent ad. Even the really great lexicographers have off days...