I recently had a discussion with another translator about the use of the English word “alien”. Those of us who grew up subjected to the cinematic expression of Ridley Scott’s terrifying imagination would probably be surprised to know that most English dictionaries do not list “a creature from another planet” as the first definition of the word “alien”. The Oxford Dictionary, for example, gives the following as the first definition of the noun form: “a foreigner, especially one who is not a naturalized citizen of the country where he or she is living”. The extraterrestrial definition of the noun comes second. Three definitions are provided for the adjective form: (1) “belonging to a foreign country”, (2) “unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful” and, finally, (3) “supposedly from another world”. In any case, whatever the recognized uses of the word “alien” may be, I would argue that for most English speakers it invariably conjures up images of frightening lizard creatures or terrorizing mutants, and that it is therefore no longer appropriate to use the term in reference to fellow human beings.
My colleague fervently disagreed with me, arguing that “alien” is a perfectly legitimate translation of the Spanish word “extranjero” (which would most commonly be translated as “foreigner”, and carries no secondary associations or negative connotations), at least in official contexts related to immigration. His argument was based chiefly on the fact that the term is still widely used by various US government departments, such as the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services or the Department of Homeland Security, to refer to non-US citizens. Underlying our difference of opinion on this question are two very different views of the role of the translator: if we accept that the word “alien” carries a negative connotation, aren’t we, as translators, taking an ideological position to perpetuate what probably reflects a lack of sensitivity to the subtleties of language at official levels, if not a conscious decision to associate foreigners with images of the “unfamiliar, disturbing and distasteful”? Should translators be expected to reinforce lexical choices that hint at intolerance of cultural difference, or do we, as intercultural brokers, have an ethical responsibility to reverse such intolerance?
It might be argued that I am reading too much into a rather minor question of word choice. Yet the words we choose can make a huge difference to the way a message is understood, and when those words are translated, the specific lexical choices made by the translator can have repercussions for intercultural relations. A case in point is an article written by US literary scholar Manuel Hernández-Gutiérrez on literary relations between Mexico and writers of Mexican descent in the United States(1). In this article, Hernández-Gutiérrez is particularly critical of the way the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has represented Mexican-Americans in his novels. A key example he offers of this representation is Fuentes’ only allusion to Mexicans in the US in his novel The Death of Artemio Cruz, in which he refers to them as “wetbacks”. The term “wetback” is of course a disparaging reference to the crossing of the Rio Bravo made by some Mexicans to cross into the United States. However, Hernández-Gutiérrez’s criticism of Fuentes for this word choice elides the fact that it was not Fuentes, but his English translator Sam Hileman who chose the term. In the original novel, Fuentes uses the word “braceros”, a term derived from the Spanish word brazo (arm) that was commonly used to refer to hired labourers. By the 1960s (when Fuentes wrote the novel in question), the term had been adopted by the US government to refer to an official program to bring workers from Mexico to cover labour shortages on US farms. According to the criterion of seeking a semantic equivalent in the target language, Hileman’s choice seems reasonable enough; both bracero and “wetback” refer to Mexican immigrants to the United States. However, while the first associates them with their vital role in supporting the US economy, the second associates them exclusively with the supposed transgression of crossing a border without the permission of those who enforce that border. Hernández-Gutiérrez has quite justifiably interpreted this word choice as a sign of a dismissive attitude towards Mexicans living in the United States. However, he is mistaken in attributing this attitude to Mexican intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes, because the choice was not his. This is a small but clear example of the role the translator can play in contributing to intercultural understanding (or, in this case, intercultural misunderstanding). Given the number of such choices that a translator must make in the translation of a novel, essay or even a political speech, the cumulative effect of translator choices on a text could potentially be dramatic, if not cataclysmic.
The mission of promoting intercultural understanding is complicated even more when the same word assumes different and sometimes opposing meanings in two different languages. One recurring dilemma that translators of Latin American texts often face is the question of what to do about “América”. The problems associated with translating this deceptively simple proper noun into English reflect an ideological chasm between Latin American and Anglo-American views of the world and our respective places in it. For Latin Americans, América is a continent stretching from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to North Pole. But in English, no such continent exists; the land mass denoted by América in Spanish is two continents – North America and South America – and the name America on its own is invariably used to refer to only one nation occupying a relatively small portion of that land mass. We take these denotations for granted, overlooking their inherent absurdity; how is it that a place called “America” is actually a part of a larger region called “North America”, rather than the other way round? Many Latin Americans have taken offence to what they view as an appropriation of the name of their continent, reading into it the suggestion that their region of “América“, as Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano put it, is viewed as a “sub-America, a second class America, of nebulous identification”(2). Such a suggestion has probably never even occurred to most English speakers, as since grade school we have been trained to ignore the illogic implicit in the assertion our language seems to make that America and Latin America are two different places. Translators need to decide how they will cross this ontological divide every time they confront this simple word which in Spanish boldly asserts that all of us living here in “the Americas” actually share a single space.
The point I am groping towards here has already been summed up extremely well by Mona Baker, one of the most prolific authors in the field of translation studies. According to Baker, translators need to “acknowledge the fact that they participate in very decisive ways in promoting and circulating narratives and discourses of various types”(3). There is, then, no such thing as a “neutral translation”, as the choices we make as translators reflect our ideological positions, whether conscious or unconscious.
My own ideological position in relation to translation is based on a belief that it has the potential to dissolve borders. Translations can open us up to different ways of looking at the world, and enrich our understanding of what it means to be human. If, however, we choose to view such differences as “alien”, the borders we have built around us will be as impenetrable as the walls of a fortress… or a prison.
1 Manuel de Jesús Hernández-Gutiérrez, “Mexican and Mexican American Literary Relations” in Mexican Literature: A History, Univ. Of Texas Press, Austin, pp. 385-437.
2 Eduardo Galeano, Las venas abiertas de América Latina, Siglo Veintiuno Editores, Mexico, p. 16.
3 Mona Baker, “Narratives in and of Translation”, SKASE Journal of Translation and Interpretation 1(1): 2005, p. 4.