Photography, Reading, & Writing Project | Brazil

Meet Isadora and Leóncio (the enormous cat):

Isadora is from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil and is one of ten young kids who would informally gather in the story-telling circles that I ran while living in the capital city. The circles involved reading, creating oral narratives of our own, and writing the stories. At times, the kids wanted to work with images, so they would take my digital camera and go around their neighborhood, capturing the image of the concept they wanted to share. We would create slideshows together.

What convinced me even more that the kids were deeply enjoying and learning from the project was that images moved from favorite stuffed animals, to the neighborhood, to each other, and the story-telling workshop itself: Isadora’s story was about our group. Her vision of what it means to grow up in the neighborhood is seen in the images and her oral and written narratives.

Here is Isadora’s reflection on “o dia a dia” (day to day life) in the neighborhood. Her word-iamge stories reflect constant movement: kids from the neighborhood, the changing rules of games they create, the ocean that surrounds the neighborhood, pounding the rocks below.

The kids in the word-image story-telling group loved taking photographs of each other and they included each other in their stories:


The word-image-story project gets a group of kids together and is a safe space in a difficult neighborhood to share, explore, and have a structure to create in. I want to get cameras in their hands and I want to run these story-telling workshops using a reading, telling, writing method that I developed in Salvador. I want to merge the story-telling with image story-telling, with digital cameras.

What does this have to do with translation? Well, the stories would be translated by students in translation workshops in the U.S. (students who don’t really know that they are translators but are experimenting with translation). Through their translation, they will establish a relationship with the younger kids from the neighborhoods in Salvador. I hope to raise funds so that the U.S. based students can travel to Salvador. And, when the younger kids are older, hopefully they will be able to come to the U.S. As students in the U.S. translate these stories, they are working under a concept of translation that positions the translator as an intermediary and facilitator, an active shaper of meaning. It is a chance to explore as translators.

But this story-telling project is translative, also, in that stories are translations of experience. Image can be a translation of spoken/written word. And image and word transform each other–that itself is a reflection on how the translation can alter the source “text.”

Photography is also a translation of light, space, and perception into another image. The old process of exposure and preparing negatives–the dark room–is that translator’s space as well. So many models to explore, all telling stories of fragments of the translator’s experience!

If you would like to help make this project happen, please send a line:

Anyone can help by sending this link to organizations/individuals that might like to donate equipment.


Questions from the Field: The Ideal Translator

In North America, the “ideal” translator for any contract is usually a “native” speaker of the target language (the language that the translator translates into). The idea is that the “native” speaker will be able to produce a more fluid translation when translating into his or her own language. This makes sense but there are multiple assumptions that need some interrogating and multiple questions to be explored.

Some of these questions include:

What about translators who grow up speaking multiple languages as “native” tongues? What does it actually mean to be fluent in ones “native” tongue? Can someone be more “fluent” in a language/culture that they learned or lived in later on in life? How does class identity fit into fluency? How do colonial attitudes regarding language use and language registers fit into definitions or attitudes regarding fluency? Here are some notes from the field, based on a contract I picked up a few years ago.

My contract is to translate from English into Portuguese, and from Portuguese into English. There are phone call responsibilities in both languages, interpreting via phone, and interpreting at international trainings that are mainly related to data collection and a database that has a language variety that borders on the technical. I am the only Portuguese translator in a busy, fast-paced office that only operates in English – directions are given quickly, there is no time to explore intricacies and double-entendres, picking up tonal and emotive meaning in these English-language exchanges is crucial to “getting the job done.” The groups that I translate and interpret for are almost all NGOs and they are working in “vulnerable” communities to help “at-risk” kids go to school, have access to clothes, food, and mentoring and learning support services. We work with NGOs and field workers who live/work in these communities (in Mozambique, Angola, São Tomé and Principe).

The present translation norm in the U.S. is that translators should translate into their “native” language, and I am clearly deviating from that construct.

But who would be the “ideal” translator for this contract (one that isn’t that uncommon, I would imagine)? A “Native” Portuguese-speaker would be the first response, I’m quite sure. But which Portuguese? From Mozambique? Angola? Sao Tome? How familiar must they be with the database language and the ways in which those keywords function in the Anglophone context? How adaptable must that person be to an Anglophone, U.S. NGO office atmosphere that is working with people from all over the African continent? What is the translator’s class identity? Will this shape the way he reads the experiences of people working in the field in Mozambique and/or students’ experiences in Mozambique? And then even more questions emerge: Portuguese is an official language in Mozambique and Angola, but there is often another official language and it is only one of hundreds of “native” languages spoken in the country: “interference” at the level of lexicon and phonetics abounds.

How does the “Native” Portuguese speaker view these moments of “interference”: as mere interference, or moments of rich cross-cultural exchange that carries a fascinating history of languages and cultures in contact? How does the translator identify with these languages, how does he understand them, and can the translator open his or her ear/eye to hear/read them and beyond them? Will the presence of “dialects”, regionalisms, languages in crossing arrest this translator’s attention and prevent him from doing his job? Can he hear his own language in the language of the people speaking, or does it become “foreign” to him, no longer his “native tongue”? What becomes the “native tongue” or the “fist language” in this situation? Are we left to think that this translator no longer has a “native” language? Are we left to tell this person that he can now only work with his community from Porto Alegre, Brazil, or Coimbra, Portugal? And what about all of the language varieties in those two cities alone?

Looking deeper into the context of the contract and the nature of the work which the translator engages, we begin to see that his “job performance” will also be determined by  how the translator identifies with Pan-African cultures, his knowledge of the history of Africa, his respect for African religions, cultures; perhaps his knowledge of African diasporic cultures – the Africa of his “native” culture; his hope for a better life for children living in dire circumstances; his faith in the organizations and NGOs themselves. Class identity will take center stage in the translator’s performance during the interpretation and even phone conversation acts – how ready and prepared and fluent will this translating subject be when working in the favelas of Bahia? How will his level of comfort allow him to transfer language and cultural codes? If unable to cross class lines, identity lines, how will this translator’s work register in Portuguese for groups of people who are already translating from hundreds of “other” African languages into Portuguese? What markers and codes are they locking into? Language is performance, and that performance can transmit all kinds of readings that the translator, working in the language he has a “command” over, does not anticipate. The “ideal” translator suddenly becomes much more complex than a simple default term “translate into the native tongue.”

Traveling, Translating Jaleo

Walking through Granada, Málaga, Sevilla, and the streets of other cities, towns, and villages in Andalucía (the southernmost region of Spain), you will most likely see signs that feature phrases like “aqui se habla andaluz.” The phrase — “here we speak Andaluz” or “Andaluz is spoken here” — became the catch slogan of an Andalusia regional political party (el Partido Andalucista).

You may even be lucky enough to see the following sign:

To translate, “speak well, speak Andaluz”: an affirmation of Andalusia’s own language variety, and a jab    at a history of Castillian linguistic imposition. Andaluz is to some a language, to others a dialect, and to others who don’t care much for labels, a fascinating code that holds within in its lexicon and syntax, centuries of history and cultures in contact.

Alé and Olé — words that are used to celebrate splendor, to congratulate, to emphasize grandeur, and to applaud – come out of Andalusia’s Islmic-influenced period (711-forever) in which thirty-plus generations were speaking in numerous varieties of Arabic, Spanish, Hebrew, Calé, and several West African languages. Those words came out of the Arabic and signify praise of Allah – Alé, Olé. Ojalá – “hopefully” — is another example of Arabic influence on Spanish. The term literarlly means, “if Allah wishes,” and it is used as often as “si dios quiere” or “god willing.” Ojalá, a word that conjures up Spain’s eight centuries at the center of the Islamic world, and crossed the Atlantic along with hundreds of thousands of Andalusians after 1492. In the New World, it is a living reminder of cultural crossroads and continues to nourish American Spanish, from Tierra del Fuego to Toronto. Cultural memory is crystalized in lexicon.

Like “Olé” and “Alé”, “Jaleo” is another example of words from the Arabic that have transfored Spanish language and culture, both in Andalusia and beyond. Most linguists argue that “Jaleo” is derived from the Spanish word of praise, “¡Hala!” As seen in the footnote below, “¡Hala!” is used to express splendor or surprise, to encourage (perhaps with the objective of persuading a person to do something). “Hala” is often spelled “Ala” – a denomination that indicates a strong connection to “Allah” (as we saw in the word, “Alé.” Interstingly but not suprisingly, La Real Academia does not even mention the possibility of a connection between “Ala” and “Allah”, between “Hala” and its Arabic history.

“Jaleo” — the action or result of “Jalear”, synonymous with “Alé” and “Olé” in seeral contexts — refers to festivity, the party of all parties, excitement rooted in centruies of celebrations. As an utterance it signifies encouragement, approval, and “recognition of the duende” – the moment at which spiritual and physical realms intersect, opening possibilities, transforming space and time as we know them (see Lorca). That recognition is accompanied, propelled, and animated by palmeadas (“handclapping”), ademánes (a word also from the Arabic aḍḍíman or aḍḍamán that refers to “body movements and gestures” that incite energy), and expressions like “toma que toma, aire, alé, olé, canta bien, toca bien” that bestow praise upon an artist or performer, and encourage him or her to push the limits; to transcend. Loud, transcendental noise – often in the form of shouting — is implied in the term, as is confusion and disorder: lines and boundaries blur and new potentialities arise.

And “Jaleo” also denotes the “ojear de la caza” – to chase away, to make an animal or person flee until they are trapped, or more simply, to force a person or animal to leave. “Ojear” / “Ojeo” does come from the Arabic, “ušš” – and it conjures up images of a powerful chase, followed by the surrounding of a body. The action of surrounding implied in the term “jaleo” may also conjure up the circle formations that are integral to the flow of the spirit in Flamenco as seen in the song, Arrincónamela – “surround her” – in Tony Gatlif’s film Vengo and described in a previous lenguamente artcle, “Following Gatlif’s Sirrocco.”

“Jaleo” is also the name of a style of Flamenco said to have its origins in the Andalusian cities of Jerez de la Frontera and Cádiz. It is considered by Flamenco historians to be an integral part of the Roma (“Gypsy”) musical tradition; in fact, the “complex rhythmic hand-clapping, guitar-slapping, finger-snapping and vocal outbursts” known as “jaleo” is at the center of duende — the point at which the music transcends and can transport the listener to new dimensions (SaudiAramco).  The word itself is featured in the powerful flamenco song, “Anda Jaleo” performed by Carmen Linares and countless others: an homage to a Roma tradition of “jaleo” and “duende” that refers back to itself.

Yo me subí a un pino verde
por ver si la divisaba,
y sólo divisé el polvo
del coche que la llevaba.

Anda jaleo, jaleo;
ya se acabó el alboroto
y ahora empieza el tiroteo.

En la calle de los muros
mataron a una paloma.
Yo cortaré con mis manos
las flores de su corona.

Anda jaleo, jaleo;
ya se acabó el alboroto
y ahora empieza el tiroteo.

No salgas, paloma, al campo,
mira que soy cazador,
y si te tiro y te mato
para mi será el dolor,
para mi será el quebranto.

Anda jaleo, jaleo;
ya se acabó el alboroto
y ahora empieza el tiroteo.

The song comes from Federico García Lorca’s poem, “Anda Jaleo”, and we see in its lyrics the reference to shouting, loud noise, and to the hunter who engages in the pursuit and surrounding of the hunted; a “paloma” or dove laced with refrences to the bible, Spanish Roma philosophy, and multi-layered symbolism that links North Africa, India (the Roma motherlnd), West Africa, Spain, and the Americas. We see a rhythmic pattern that is centered on the repeating utterance of “jaleo”, a word that seems to epitomize seeing from above, perception, perhaps of the crashing/clashing of worlds re-encountering each other that is to come throught the onset of duende. To acheive this duende, sacrifice is necessary: en la calle de los muros (“in the walled street”, a reference to the interior labryinth of the medina in Andalusia’s urban center districts SEE IMAGE) / mataron a una paloma (a dove was killed). How it was killed is steeped in ritual that points to a Sirocco continuum — Yo cortaré con mis manos / las flores de su corona (With my hands I will cut / the flowers of its crown) — that, like the wind patterns, could very well link cultural and religious practices from West and North Africa to Spain an then the New World.

In the Carmen Linares interpreatation, the encouragement aspect of the term “jaleo” is in the form of the song itself. Dualties come from all sides: Anda Jaleo: “anda” being a celebratory exclamation of the power of the word, concept, and the duende that song song reaches, (see “Anda Guiro”, Cuban Rumba’s exclamation, one that comes out of the “Jaleo” form of Flamenco, of the power of the Guiro), a testement of the mysterious opening. Indirectly, “anda jaleo” may also imply how Jaleo moves (jaleo anda / jaleo walks or moves) through cultures, nations, and menaings. And there is no question that “Anda Jaleo” gets deep into the realm of spirit work that is alive and in-tact in Andalusia – one of many reasons why we see New World altars showered with Gitana imagery (see Robert Farris Thompson’s book on African and African American religious altars, Face of the Gods).

Jaleo — word, aesthetic practice and philosphy, music style, and song/poem — crossed the Atlantic to the New World and enlivened aesthettic, philosophical, and cultural practices with a proud spirit of celebration. As a word, “jaleo” found its way into all registers of speech from Montevideo, to Santo Domingo, to New York City. As a musical style, “Jaleo” has deeply influenced Cuban Rumba, Mambo, and later Salsa (among other musical forms). It enters Salvador da Bahia’s Samba de Raiz, the Perico Ripiao of the Dominican Republic, the Milongas of Buenos Aires that inspired writers like Jorge Luís Borges (see Robert Farris Thompson’s book, “Tango: Art History of Love” for more on those endless labryinths of influence), and it is the name of the final part of traditional Dominican Merengue. And the song/poem, “Anda Jaleo”, taps into the realm of spirit work that links and re-links religious and cultural practices in the Roma Iberian Peninsula and the black Atlantic. “Jaleo” illuminates crossroads stacked upon each other; that multi-layered, multi-directional contact becomes part of the “celebration” that the words signifies.

The word “jaleo” is what many linguists call a “regionalism.” The word is an example of lexicon — derived from Arabic — that was once particular to Andalusia, later to other regions of Spain like Extremadura (see “jaleo de extremadura) and to the New World. But “jaleo” quickly moves beyond a “regionalism”: it is one of thousands of words of Arabic origin that have transformed the language of Andalusia and the Spanish-speaking world. So what is implied when one states: “Habla bien, habla Andaluz”? Speak well, speak and know Mozarabe, Andalusi, Arabic. “Here we speak Andaluz”: words rooted in Spain’s most advanced period of enlightenment, its proudest contributions to the world of science, math, astronomy, physics, medicine, water management, architecture: an affirmation of pride.