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.”

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