If This Be Treason

Translation and Its Dyscontents, A Memoir
by Gregory Rabassa

Review by Anne Milano Appel

Gregory Rabassa’s long-awaited memoir takes the form of an inquiry into the varieties of perfidy and treason implied in traduttore/traditore, with Rabassa himself as the (self-)accused as well as judge-and-jury. The hearing is replete with personal confessions, such as how Rabassa “backed into translation,” the fact that he himself has tried to “teach what is unteachable,” and his ultimate dissatisfaction with any translation he has done. Along the way he reprises unanswerables, such as the facelessness imposed on the translator (an invisibility that we have come to cherish as “ideal”), the treachery of words (can a stone ever be a ‘pierre’ or a ‘pierre’ a stone?), and the fact that translation is about value judgment and personal choice with the translator as just one of the many readers of the work. If there is one thing Rabassa declares with utter certainty it is that translation is an art, not a craft, “because you can teach a craft but you cannot teach an art.”

To those in translation circles, Gregory Rabassa needs no introduction. Now in his eighties, he is a giant who translated the masters of Latin American magic realism. Having translated over 50 works by such luminaries as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Mario Vargas Llosa, his accomplishments are uncontested.

The case studies that Rabassa includes are, by his own admission, a kind of “rap sheet” of his experiences with his authors, and will resonate with any translator. His testimony that his relationship with these writers was personal in some cases, while “regretfully only through their work” in others, implies a strong preference for author-translator interaction. I identified with this, as I did with his approach of following the text to see where it leads: an exercise of “controlled schizophrenia” requiring skills at “mutability.”

The verdict (also the title of the book’s final section) in the end is that there are no certain answers and “translation is but another version of the truth.” It is the “Not Proven” verdict of Scots law, consistent with the ambivalencies implicit in translation. And so Rabassa’s translator is left in limbo, where many of us live and work, neither guilty of treason nor free of doubts. Can Rabassa’s experiences be said to reflect a certain universality? Yes, judging by my own encounters with translation. I, too, relish interaction with my authors, and like Rabassa I never read a book in its entirety before translating it, preferring to follow the text to see where it leads. I admit to a certain degree of “controlled schizophrenia” and am not adverse to “mutability.” Am I ever guilty of treason? Am I ever truly satisfied with a translation? The verdict remains “Not Proven.”


If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, A Memoir; by Gregory Rabassa, 189 pages, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2005, ISBN: 0811216195.   



Beginning Translator’s Survival Kit

by Susana Greiss and George Fletcher

Review by Sharlee Merner Bradley

All translators will enjoy and can benefit from this timely contribution to the profession. The 100-plus pages of the Beginning Translator’s Survival Kit are divided into two parts, each written separately by one of the authors, but both in an eminently readable style.

Part One was written by Susana Greiss, M.A., an experienced translator, interpreter, and mentor who was awarded the Gode Medal for her contributions to the profession, and offers recommendations about language combinations, training, mentoring, contacts, job hunting, sources of work, tools, client relations, clients abroad, and more. Part Two was written by George Fletcher, Ed.D., an experienced translator, interpreter, and now translation agency owner, and gives a theoretical overview of types of translation, as well as basics such as time, rates, proofreading, obtaining and maintaining clients, and what not to do. The contrast and balance of the two points of view make for a unique narrative structure and contribute to the benefits of the overall instruction.

Among the more interesting and valuable topics is Fletcher’s advice on translating diplomas and academic transcripts, and Greiss’s recommendations of keeping your old computer as a backup when you buy a new one. It is also handy to have dictionaries and other references open on that computer or a laptop while you are translating on your new one. Other helpful hints include turning on the Verification of Delivery function when you email your invoice, and printing it out for possible future reference; and keeping your cell phone handy when you are away from the office, or calling back frequently for messages so you won’t miss a job offer.

No doubt a second edition is planned, and for that, here are a few suggestions, mainly concerning design and readability. The type on both front and back covers (except for the title) could be made easier to read (and the misspelling of one of the author’s names corrected!); at least one reader has apparently offered to donate a design for a second edition. The cover is nicely scored to open easily, but it would be helpful if the inside pages were made to lie flat; pages in the second half should have the same margins as those in the first half.

The bottom line: If you are an experienced translator, you will enjoy the anecdotes in this extended FAQ. If you are a beginning translator, this handbook will give you essential advice.

Beginning Translator’s Survival Kit by Susana Greiss and George Fletcher.
Globe Language Services, Inc. 2005.
ISBN 0-9631999-3-5.
Available from www.globelanguage.com for $15, postage included.
Net proceeds go to the New York Circle of Translators (NYCT).

Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication

by Claudia V. Angelelli

Review by Miriam Hebé López-Argüello

Interested in exploring the role of the interpreter in a medical setting, researcher Claudia Angelelli conducted an ethnographic research study in a bilingual Northern California hospital between 1999-2001, shadowing and working with a team of medical interpreters. Her research was recently published in her new book Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication, Cambridge University Press.

Bringing together theories of sociology, social psychology, and linguistic anthropology, the author joins other researchers in challenging the established notion that the interpreter should be invisible, and in asserting that such invisibility, as portrayed in the literature at large and prescribed by professional associations, is a myth. (The citations provided in the referenced fields are particularly extensive, and a great help for researchers).

The concept of visibility that Ms. Angelelli proposes as an alternative to the current model considers interpreters as “ … powerful parties who are capable of altering the outcome of the interaction, for example, by channeling opportunities or facilitating access to information. They are visible co-participants who possess agency.”

To arrive at her conclusions, Ms. Angelelli analyzed typical scenarios of cross-cultural communication mediated by an interpreter. Although the cases she cites offer a good starting point to describe the visible role of the interpreter, she does not address any truly complex scenarios where such visibility might be questionable on ethical grounds (i.e., dilemmas posed by taboos, cultural idiosyncrasies, or other peculiarities within a context exacerbated by extreme pressure). As a medical interpreter myself, I am interested in the question of where one draws this linea question to which Ms. Angelelli offers no insights.

Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication makes a valuable contribution to the task of defining the appropriate role for a medical interpreter, a task that behooves all professional interpreters, professional associations, medical institutions, and the government to undertake. In Ms. Angelelli’s own words: “Addressing the visibility of the interpreter is an ideological imperative for the field. Breaking through the ideology of invisibility becomes a political imperative for all.”

The Genius of Language ed. by Wendy Lesser

By Shayesteh Zarrabi

Being bilingual and living in two cultures shapes the identity of many people in today’s world of easy relocation and communications. The Genius of Language, edited by the Bay Area’s own Wendy Lesser, is a wonderful collection of articles by 15 contemporary bilingual writers, reflecting on their journeys of learning and writing in a second language or culture, or of being born bilingual and bicultural.

The Genius of Language goes far beyond simple comparisons between two languages or cultural mindsets, however. It is a treasure of human feelings and cognitive capacities. The writers share stories of their childhoods and the memories that construct the genius of their literary works, both in English and their other language; in other words, their “Language,” as a faculty of expressions. As Ms. Lesser says in her introduction, “What mattered most to me … was to uncover the sources of writing … behind the acquired layers and get at the inherent nature … the genius of work.”

There are many factors involved as to why a bilingual feels a certain way about the two languages he or she speaks. The essays in The Genius of Language offer a rich account of the events that make a language memorable or a challenge to explore. Certain authors related the biographies of their parents as immigrants, and the impressions they handed down of the languages and cultures in which they spoke and lived. Other early influences—school, books, community, traveling, and settling down in the new environment—are the recurring elements that have combined to cultivate a sense of identity in the writers, and to suggest the subjects of the literary works that eventually followed. In the end, it is revealing to see how the authors “feel” in their different languages, and which language they choose to write in to express those feelings.

As a translator, one finds much to recommend in The Genius of Language. During the course of reading through the stories, a translator will keep asking how the worlds of two languages and cultures are bridged in translation. Am I, as the translator, standing in the middle of the bridge or am I pulling or pushing the other world into or away from the one I am standing on? And really, are they two different worlds or just universal human feelings better expressed in one of the two languages? Isn’t it wonderful to know that bilingual writers wonder the same thing? Wendy Lesser has given us a thought-provoking start in undertaking this exploration.