To the moon and back

By Gabrielle Dahms

A journey of 10000 miles

Navigating the genre of environmental nonfiction is a daunting task for the translator! Ana Salotti took us on her journey.


Note from the editors: You may notice that this article appears in a different form in the print version of Translorial. In editing the article, we added extra details from the presentation based on discussions with the presenter, but we neglected to notify the original author about these additions before the article went to print. In fairness to Ms. Dahms, we are printing her article here as originally submitted.

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Who knew a journey of 10,000 miles leads to gems about translating nonfiction and even about translating in general?

At NCTA’s last general meeting of 2018, Ana Salotti presented about the niche of translating environmental nonfiction, its challenges, tricky words and scenarios, and her solutions. The fascinating and complex story of the Red Knot ties right into the multi-layered translation challenges.

The almost 10,000-mile journey the Red Knot, a migratory bird, which is the subject of a nonfiction book originally published by Deborah Cramer and translated into Spanish by Ana Salotti, lends itself well to learning about translating scientific-based nonfiction.
The bird flies from Tierra del Fuego to Hudson Bay, an epic journey which – over a period of twenty years – covers the distance of flying to the moon and back!

On the way to Hudson Bay, Red Knot flocks stop over on Delaware Bay beaches to feed on the nutritious horseshoe crab, an ancient animal that comes ashore only once a year. Now the context unfolds: the ocean has been warming and humans considered horseshoe crabs pests until they discovered their ability to safeguard human health.

Ana’s translation, Volando a orillas del mar, will be distributed in the US by Buteo Books:

The Red Knot is in fact endangered and its population has declined by almost 75% since the year 2000. These environmental changes have implications for humans also. The bird and its story become a warning and a symbol for the fragility of the earth and its inhabitants. The lives of the birds, the horseshoe crab, humans and the natural environment are intertwined.

Given this story, Ana faced staying true to its literary, emotional, and poetic undertones while rendering a scientifically accurate translation. For example, the book mentions 207 birds but translating the bird names became a large task because many of the birds have different names in different locales. Her problem as a translator was to find consistent names to eliminate confusion. In her words, she aimed at closing the gaps between scientific and common names.

While this sounds easy, Ana stated that in the specialized environmental nonfiction vocabulary direct translations for species’ names, for instance, don’t work. Instead, she delved deep into specialized glossaries, consulted experts, addressed socio-political connotations, considered historical technical terms, and made choices about educational and cultural differences. Consider the following examples:

The Red Knot has numerous different names in Chile and Argentina. It also changes colors and does not follow seasons. Ana’s meticulous research led her to resolve these issues by calling the bird by its local name, then adding a multi-lingual glossary and explaining in the introduction that the bird has many names. As regards the season dilemma, Ana explained that the bird has a breeding and a non-breeding season versus following seasonal patterns as we understand them.

We heard about various other problems and their solutions, including references to Darwin’s writings which she incorporated into the translation. All facets of Ana’s presentation fascinated. Meticulous research, understanding the subject, discerning just the right word and conveying the author’s meaning in translation apply to all great translations.

Ana’s translation helped shape the story and its impact. And the subject offers valuable insights and guidelines to all translators, even those who translate other genres, because it ultimately attests to the power of language. That’s worth a journey to the moon and back.

Gabrielle Dahms

Gabrielle Dahms has been a freelance German into English and English into German translator for more than 20 years. Her translations include medical, public health, marketing, and corporate texts and documents. She recently published her first nonfiction book, serves as a volunteer for Friends of the Urban Forest, and improves her Spanish every opportunity she gets. In late 2018, she trekked the W in Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia.