Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Notes on Translation from the Guarani

The experience of translating Paraguayan women authors into English for the anthology, First Light, a 3-year project that was finalized in 2000, was illuminating. In translating into English the work of Paraguayan women writing in Guarani, one must be aware of the temptation to fall into translating the work in a way that will lead scholars and popularizers of the discourse to read the work and use it in a facile manner to support notions representing ideological trends. This is not to say that the themes and/or ideas are not present in the work – but that the translator makes certain choices in the translation process that could lend themselves to appropriation.

Feminist / post-feminist gender issues: If one accepts the notion that the cornerstone of feminist theory is a phenomenology of oppression, then the work of Paraguayan poet Susy Delgado could be used in this manner. In Tata-pype (CLOSE TO THE FIRE), she addresses a poem sequence to her older lover, making a great deal of word play about the fact that he considers himself powerful, important, patriarchal, particularly in relation to her, a woman. In the Guarani, the wordplay creates an ironic dualism used to describe the male psyche – one in which a tender interior coexists with a puffed-up bragadoccio exterior. The Spanish version (written by Susy) more straightforwardly makes fun of the machismo of her companion. Over the years Susy and I have had many conversations on the subject – both about how to depict men in poetry, and the behavior exhibited by the typical Paraguayan male (which Susy described as having been warped by three generations of 10 women to every man, and irresponsible paternity, partially condoned by the church in an official attempt to repopulate the country after two almost genocidal wars). This is not to say that authorial intent has determined the final product, or to say that the translator should place much weight on the authors stated intent.

It was tempting to me, as a translator, to go to the extremes with this particular segment, and to translate it with words that would immediately catch the eye of a feminist critic. It was doubly tempting since I was still partially psychologically enmeshed with a lying, cheating dog of a Paraguayan boyfriend, and revenge fantasies were still percolating just beneath the surface. I even toyed with the idea of putting his name in my English version of Susy’s Guarani and Spanish texts, and making specific references to identifying characteristics (home, job, etc.). In the end, I resisted the temptation; probably because it took me so long to do the translation, and it was too much work to maintain rage, pain and indignation.

Environmental or “green” politics: Sadly enough, in the past century, the environment of Paraguay was misused by colonizers, despite the fact that it does not possess the reserves of gold, silver and tin of its neighbor, Bolivia. The delicate ecosystem found in the Chaco was disturbed, first by rapacious hunters who sport-hunt endangered species, and then by huge hydroelectric projects which result in a vast alteration of the ecosystem (Itaipu dam on the Argentina/Paraguay/Brazil border, and the damming of the Pilcomayo River). Luisa Moreno de Gabaglio writes poetry and short fiction in Guarani and Spanish, and much of them have to do with the abuse of the environment by outsiders. For example, in the story “Keter B.”, she speaks of Spanish-speaking outsiders who hunt and capture an indigenous child, considering her to be a “creature.”

In “The Hanneman House,” a German specialist in arachnids lives in a house where the search for treasure buried and lost during the Chaco War drives men into internecinely homicidal greed. In each case, the Guarani speakers are victimized, while the outsiders (speaking Spanish or German) are portrayed as predators and cruelly analytical in their approach. Science without ethics also characterizes the hunters in her collection of stories, “Cuentos.” Zoologists use their understanding of the endangered species they are hunting to first kill the mother, and to take the pelts of rare peccaries, or to kill truckloads of rare caimans, leaving the skinless carcasses to rot in the hot sun. Luisa, who has a doctorate in veterinary science, pays a great deal of attention to animals – and they are the subjects of most of the “Cuentos.” For that reason, her books have been adopted in the Paraguayan school system (the Guarani and the Spanish versions), where they are used in conjunction with biology / Paraguayan heritage classes. It would be tempting to be more direct in the translation, and to make the environmental agenda more direct. Translating Luisa is quite difficult – she often invents words in Spanish which gives, through distortion of the language, the Spanish a grotesque, surreal cast. It makes the Guarani even more warm and maternal, in contrast.

Further, it is clear that her stories can function as allegories of the lingering pre- and post-Nazi influences in Paraguay, where the disappearances and tortures of animals and indigenous peoples mirror what happened to after the Civil War of 1946 and during the dictatorship of General Stroessner, who used Nazis to instruct his secret police in methods of torture. As such, her narratives are deeply antinomian and deeply questioning of authority that comes from outside, or which has been instructed by outside. In this, Luisa demonstrates the tendency of Paraguayans to express xenophobic and/or isolationist perspectives, where isolationism was historically viewed as a shortcut to utopia. Needless to say, it didn’t work. As an translator, it is difficult for me to keep from letting my own opinions and /or perspectives influence my word choices. If I am honest, I will say that I selected works to translate which illustrate my own attitudes and opinions, which are “green” and aggressively anti-fascistic.

Critiques of dictatorships and the phenomenon of self-censorship: Renee Ferrer writes both in Spanish and Guarani. Two of her books, POR EL OJO DE LA CERRADURA and LOS NUDOS DEL SILENCIO, deal specifically with life under dictatorship, and internalized oppression, which manifests as self-censorship. In LOS NUDOS DEL SILENCIO, the protagonist is married to a man she knows to be a part of the Paraguayan secret police, whom she begins to realize is an expert in torture.

In a trip to Paris, the protagonist falls in love (at a distance) with a Vietnamese exotic dancer, whom she imagines has experienced the same sort of self-repression and self-censorship as herself. In a chapter which structurally replicates the improvisations of a jazz saxophone player to whom the Vietnamese dancer dances, Ferrer’s protagonist riffs on the them of “falsifying” or “faking.” This was an extremely difficult chapter to translate because there were so many options for the words, and the rhythm was so crucial to the narrative.

I realized while I was translating it that I could bring in more of the overtly political, but I decided against it. Perhaps that was not a good choice – but I chose to be more strictly “transparent” and “fluent” in the translation – partially because the author wanted to review the translation (and I acquiesced). In POR EL OJO DE LA CERRADURA, Ferrer writes of Faustian bargains made because people had no option, no opportunity for advancement – a man duped into taking the rap for a crime sits in prison realizing he’ll never be paid the money he was promised, and his sacrifice – all so he could build a house for his mother, his family – will be worthless, as he is reviled, and no one believes his innocence.