A TRANSLATOR'S STORY - EPISODE #1
“Come on in, Eugenia,” the librarian ushered me in. “Come, come,” she tried again—she must have noticed my look of awe as I gazed at the kid playing Imagine. At that moment I was so transfixed by the scene that I didn't even care about the librarian calling me Eugenia. I like Eugenia, after all. It reminds me of Balzac's Eugenie Grandet, and of course, of Kathryn Stockett's Skeeter, who was a budding journalist like me, or sort of.
“Eugenia, remember I told—?”
“Delfina,” said I, smiling gently at her.
Come on, not even epiphanies can last for ever.
“Right. Remember I told you there was a little boy who comes to play regularly as well? Well, here he is! This is Uriel. Uriel, this is—.”
“Delfina,” I hurried on to say. It’s all right to have one person change your name for a while, especially if that’s the librarian, because let's face it, who would ever want to quarrel with the librarian? But I was hoping at least the boy would get it right from the word go.
Uriel, who must have been 14 at most, turned from the keyboard to smile shyly back at me, still sitting as he was on the stool. He looked like a mighty promise as I gazed at him from below the stage—the promise of a better future, better than whatever future one may actually come to imagine in a world so full of war and terrorism and violence and lack of safety.
“Hola, Uriel,” I greeted him in Spanish, and then switching to English, “Nice to meet you”.
“Nice to meet you, too,” he replied, still using a low, shy tone.
Soon after the introductions were made, the librarian went on to explain that I’d have to wait to use the piano, because at the moment, it was Uriel's turn to “delight us with his talent”. On hearing this, Uriel sprang to his feet and asked me, quite gallantly, I should say,
“Do you want to play?”. His offer was made in perfect British English.
“Oh, no, please. You go ahead. Thank you, but I’d love to listen this time,” I beamed, but he didn’t look more convinced after that. “Besides, weren’t you about to play Here Comes the Sun?” (This I knew it because I’d heard him announce so to the librarian when I set foot in the library.)
“Yes, but I have plenty of time. Will you play?”
“All right,” I said, fascinated by his well-mannered perseverance.
When I climbed up the stage to join his area, he started asking me all sorts of questions that prevented me from doing much at the piano. The librarian had gone back to her tasks, and I guess he meant to seize the opportunity to start a conversation in English, the language he's currently learning as a second to his mother tongue. “Where have you studied music?” and “Who was your teacher?” and “How long have you been playing” were some of the inquiries Uriel uttered, all of which I made an effort to satisfy with as comprehensive a response as I could. As he told me a bit about himself, it turned out that we had studied Music at the same Music School—correction, he is still studying there, and he’s into Suzuki Method. We also found that we were both into classical music and, of course, The Beatles, and that we certainly enjoyed reading a book, any book, far more than playing video-games or dancing to, say, Lady Gaga. (Not that I’ve never ever danced to Lady Gaga, but I just didn’t have the courage to tell him.)
There came a point in our conversation when he noticed that I wasn’t his age (an awful moment of self-realisation, as far as I can recollect) and asked me whether I was a teacher of English, or otherwise, what I did for a living.
“Nope, I’m not a teacher, though sometimes, I do teach. I’m a freelance translator,” I said, as if it sounded as self-evident a métière as, say, “I’m a doctor” or “I sell pop-corn for a living, want some?”
His eyes widened. This wasn’t a good sign, I could tell.
“So… Any idea of what a translator does?” I queried, pretending to give him my nonchalant look.
“Hm…” he thought hard. “Oh, yes! Actually, I do,” he answered all of a sudden, and I was full of great expectations. Maybe he’d come up with something like, “So, you work at the Oscars!” or “ The UN?” or “Have you translated Harry Potter, then?”. I mean, not that it wouldn’t hurt to explain that I haven’t worked for the Royal Academy Awards or with Nicole Kidman’s colleagues or on J. K.’s all-time favourite, Harry Potter, yet. But at least that would have met my expectations and given me room to explain what a freelance translator does for a living, or rather, what I do as a freelance translator for a living, since we freelancers do pretty much different things, as far as I see it.
Yet, instead of conjuring up any verbal answers or questions, Uriel started making all sorts of bizarre gestures with his arms and hands. After a couple of seconds of his gesturing in front of me, I thought I'd guessed it! He was driving a car—no, no, wait... That looked more like a... truck? Anyway, he was turning some vehicle's wheel left, then right, then left... Oh, I know I know this one, I remember thinking.
“You think I’m a… taxi driver? Like in… Taxi Driver?”
“Or… Maybe… I know, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock! Is it Speed?”
He laughed. “What’s that?”. Of course, he's too young to know, I thought.
“All right, so… I drive something, right?”
“Wait, you think I’m a driver, like for a living?”
He nodded again. I stopped to think. So far our conversation had been going on in English, but this was getting a little bit confusing.
“So if you had to name my profession in Spanish, what would you say is the term for “translator”?” I challenged him.
“That’s easy,” he smirked. “Transportista,” and he resumed all the gesturing, as if to reinforce his certainty and my surprise.
“Oh, no!” I giggled. “That’s got nothing to do with being a translator! In fact, the English term for that is ‘carrier’, an entirely different root, you know.”
He chuckled. I guess he didn’t have a clue about what the words “carrier” or “root” meant, at least not in this context.
About half an hour later, as I exited the library and waved good-bye to the librarian, who wished me a “Nice day, Eugenia”, I still found it funny that Uriel should have mistaken me for a carrier when I said I was a translator. It wasn't until a few minutes later, as I was riding my bike back home, that a thought-provoking theory struck me: the term “translator” in English resembles “transportista” in Spanish, in that both seem to have the same root, that is, “trans-”. Yet while translator defines someone whose job is to rephrase content in one language into another, a “transportista”’s or carrier’s job is to deliver shipments. The misunderstanding had taken place as from Uriel’s instant association of the translator's task with that of a carrier. The influence of his mother tongue in understanding a new term, i. e., one he hadn’t heard of before (“translator”) became now apparent to me as I realised how both terms in question, “translator” and “transportista” had in common. Uriel, in his effort to make sense out of the term “translator”, had paired the two “trans-” beginning and believed that he'd found an equivalent of “translator” in “transportista”. His mind was only being strategic, and I was so fool as to deny him that strategy and telling him, though in other words, that he was wrong.
But apart from that, there was another thing quite noteworthy about Uriel’s instant free association: his mind hadn’t matched two entirely different signs after all, whose one point in common was merely their root, for what is translation if not conscientiously carrying meaning from one language into another? In a way, and to put it in a very light and simple manner, translators need to ensure ideas are “delivered”; they are entrusted with the huge responsibility of making someone else's text get to the hands of a certain number of receivers safe and sound; they are masters of linguistic routes and consistent drivers of cultural bridges. They carry heavy-duty loads, which they are committed to delivering seamlessly, though they may, as well, bump into a wide variety of obstacles, just as carriers and drivers in general, such as peak hours (or when every client you have wants everything NOW), lack of fuel (or when you haven’t had enough sleep, or a good breakfast), or even general distractions (your dog, your cat, those cupcakes, your neighbour, fine weather with cupcakes = sweet afternoon pic-nic—oh, just anything, literally!).
Yes, one could say that we drive meaning across mysterious ways. I know, I know, it may take a couple of new dictionary entries and very willing speakers to make all that sound like natural instead of metaphorical English, but I guess one could say translators are language transportistas or carriers. ◘ ◘ ◘