*Sorry, but I’m just coming up — I hope — from bronchitis, and I’m so far behind work it’s not even funny. Also, this post has a lot of food for thought and it’s something I often struggle to explain to people- SAH*
Betraying A Little – A Blast From The Past From June 2011
This post will seem to be about translation. It’s not. This is a metaphor. The post is a continuation of yesterday’s on writing minority view points: who should do it, how it should be done, and why the establishment gets it wrong, of course. (Also on whether there is some special virtue in doing it. And on who wants to read this.)
The discussion here and at Mad Genius Club yesterday reminded me of when I was sixteen and embarked on a class called “Techniques of Translation.”
Although I had studied French and English and German, the translations I’d done so far were of the “I took the pen of my neighbor” variety. I thought the class would teach me to smooth out the sentence to “I took my neighbor’s pen” and that would be that.
I was wrong. Oh, it taught that also, but that was a minor portion of it. The class mostly hinged on the moral, ethical and – most of all – professional dilemmas of being a translator. I know any number of you are translators, formal or informal, but any number of you are also not. So, for the ones who are not, let me break the news with my usual gentleness:
There is no such thing as translation.
The French have a proverb “to translate is to betray a little” – or at least that’s the closest meaning in English. It’s fairly close to the true meaning, but slightly askew, of course. Every language is slightly askew to other languages.
The idea that there exists in every language a word that is exactly the equivalent of other languages is sort of like assuming that aliens will – of course – live in houses, go to school, ride buses, understand Rebecca Black’s “Friday”.
Language is how we organize our thoughts, and each word, no matter how simple, carries with it the cultural freight and experience of the specific language. Oh, “mother” will generally mean “the one who gave birth to” – except for some tribal, insular cultures where it might mean “the one who calls me by her name” or “my father’s principal wife” – but the “feel” behind it will be different, depending on the images associated with “mother” in the culture.
So, when you translate, you’re actually performing a function as a bridge. Translation is not the straightforward affair it seems to be but a dialogue between the original language and the language you translate into. If you’re lucky, you meet halfway. Sometimes that’s not possible, and you feel really guilty about “lying” to the people receiving the translation. When on top of language you need to integrate different cultures and living systems (which you do when translating anything even an ad) you feel even more guilty, because you’re going to betray, no matter how much you try. At one point, a while back, I had my dad on one phone, my husband on the other, and I was doing rapid-fire translation about a relatively straight forward matter. And even that caused me pangs in conscience, because my dad simply doesn’t understand how things are done here. I had to approach his experience and explain our experience in a way he wouldn’t think I was insane or explaining badly. That meant a thousand minor lies.
Okay – now, what does that have to do with yesterday’s topic?
I am, as I tried to point out, a woman who grew up in a different culture. I am American – please don’t dispute it – because one of the wonders about America is that it doesn’t matter where you came from, you can be one of us. However, my past is Portuguese.
Portugal is one of those odd countries, about which most people know nothing while thinking they know a lot. Nine out of ten people think it’s in South America. Heck, a Yale liberal arts graduate once ARGUED with me about this. An international operator once informed me that it was a city in Spain.
People tell me we have ancient wisdom; that we’re standard white westerners; that we’re Hispanic (closer, at least when it comes to our experience in America because most of us ON SIGHT look Hispanic); that we’re passionate and hot blooded; that we’re (at least women) repressed and obedient, and a lot of other things I DON’T KNOW. I don’t know because it’s impossible for me to know, because a) everyone seems to have a different stereotype of what “Portuguese” means and b) because people assume I am this, without telling me.
Portugal is, in fact, obscure enough to be used for “hot strange minority” in comedies or “exotic place” in TV dramas. The way it’s used (a “swinger” couple in Friends, really?) usually makes me laugh my head off.
So right now, those of you who think that literature needs more minority view points or whatever are going “but, that’s exactly what we mean. Why don’t you write your amazingly different culture and enlighten us?” Oh, you’re so lucky you’re faraway enough I can’t hit you with a dictionary.
I’ve been taken to task on this blog before for not writing “about Portugal’s 900 years of history” instead of stuff set in Tudor England. (Portugal is very proud of 900 years of history, which reminds me of Heinlein’s dictum on people who are proud of their ancestry. Never mind.)
So, Chilluns, gather around and let me tell you a story. Imagine a Sarah newly deplaned from Portugal. I knew next to nothing about the US. I’d come here to do my 12th grade, so I sort of kind of knew what it was like to be a senior in high school. Sort of and kind of, because of course exchange students are a species apart. Even that was four years in the past, as I left after my exchange student year, went back, finished my degree, then married the nice boy who’d lived down the road from me in Ohio, thereby managing the feat of marrying the boy next door across the ocean, which is par for the course for my weirdness.
I wanted to write, of course. I particularly wanted to write because for the first time in my life I was living with someone – my husband – who not only didn’t disapprove of it, but encouraged it. On novelty alone, I wanted to write.
The problem is you can’t always write aliens. You can’t always write fairies. And I didn’t feel qualified to write Americans. And there’s only so many people without a past you can write. (I was hit over the head, I swear. I remember nothing but two minutes in the past.)
I decided to do the sensible thing and write stories set in Portugal and/or with Portuguese characters. It did not go WELL.
The BEST response I got (it was personal!) was a rejection informing me I was a narrowminded pain, who clearly had never been outside the US (this, btw, for a story I didn’t think was in ANY WAY critical of Portugal. Yeah, there are things that drive me nuts about the place, but I also love many of those things. Kind of like you’ll love the way your kid always looks scruffy. I thought that was clear in the story. The thing this person objected to? The fact that no one refrigerated anything and the fact that TO THEM the place sounded icky.)
It was that rejection that opened my eyes. I realized I was up against the “betraying a little” dilemma again. It wasn’t going to be as easy as writing WELL about Portugal. If I wanted to write about Portugal, I had to choose my lies carefully, but I was going to HAVE to lie. Or write non-fiction, dry as dust and twice as boring.
That is, to write about Portugal, I had to know enough about the US to know at least what was LIKELY to be in the editor’s head when the word Portugal was said. I had to know what they expected. This wasn’t as easy as say your picture of Australia (Crocs and big knives) because Portugal is not that well (mis)known. More importantly, I needed to know what people wanted to get out of reading about Portugal. Did they want to experience the exotic, in which case I should emphasize that? Did they want a sense of history, in which case I should push that? Or did they want the feeling that they were enlightened and kind for reading about this small, barely second world country, in which case I should emphasize the victimhood and struggle? What did they want?
It was a hopeless case. I realized I couldn’t cram the whole organic culture as I’d known it in there. I couldn’t even put in the warts (because Portugal is a small country, even if I come from there, if I put in the warts, publishers will perceive it as bullying and myself as a “narrow minded pain.”) Worse, I didn’t know what they thought were warts (what? Really? Lack of refrigeration? Mankind lived for millennia without it, you know?)
Worse, at best anything I wrote about Portugal to be halfway accurate would need to be between whatever Americans could accept (exotic, Latin, etc.) and the truth and I didn’t know America enough to get there. It was like trying to translate when all you know is classroom language on one side. You can’t do it.
So I gave up on that and wrote historical (mostly Rome and England because there the stereotypes I had weren’t that far off) and eventually became comfortable enough to write American characters.
I think at this point I could write Portuguese set/Portuguese characters. I’m accultured enough to reach Americans I THINK.
The problem is, I don’t really want to. We come up against those moral and ethical dilemmas again and it makes writing SUCH a pain.
First, we come up on the reason I moved here at all: I always felt like a stranger in a strange land. Part of this was me. Part of it, though, is that my family – I’m reminded of this every time I go back – is odd. Oh, not in any bad way, but I continuously meet other Portuguese who assume they know how… my family interacts; what I was taught at home; what we ate; what we believed. They’re wrong on almost every count. And the weird thing is they’d be right for ALMOST every Portuguese of my class, age, and upbringing at least as far as I can tell. I’ve come to the conclusion my family (and to an extent the village I grew up in) is just a bunch of outliers. Which explains why going to friends’ houses for vacation was like being an exchange student. No, I don’t know why or how this happened, but I know if I portray “real Portuguese” it will feel profoundly weird to me.
Second: Most Portuguese in the US – for the few people who actually KNOW Portuguese people – come from the Islands (Azores and Madeira) which makes them about as much like me (from the North of the continent) as a native of NYC is like a native of the deep south. No. Less so. In the states, you’re more likely to have had schooling rituals (prom/homecoming, etc) and chain stores in common.
Third: I have been away from Portugal for twenty five years, save for brief visits. In that time everything has changed, perhaps more so than in most places, due to integration into EEC, huge immigration from Eastern Europe, etc. I SIMPLY don’t know how things work now. Even the schooling system seems to have been reinvented from the ground up. There are a LOT of private universities, for instance, while in my day there were two and they weren’t taken seriously. There are also more grades and arranged differently. People’s shopping has rearranged with the introduction of supermarkets and not always in ways I understand. And NONE of it makes sense to me. For instance, my parents’ house was near a train stop. Not a station. Usually not listed in anything, just a place on the line where the train stopped. You could get in and get your ticket onboard from the conductor. Over the last twenty five years, the “stop” has acquired shelters, clocks and announcements. Also graffiti and loiterers. Okay fine. But this time, when I went back, I found out you now have automated machines where… you get a ticket to get a ticket on the train. Yes, that’s right. You buy a ticket from the machine, which allows you to buy a ticket on the train. Why? I don’t know. My mother couldn’t explain it, and the stuff on the machine made no sense. Even HOW to do it made no sense. My parents have started using the bus, which is more uncomfortable and takes longer, simply because they don’t get HOW to do it. I’m sure there’s a reason for this double-blind ticket purchase other than the Portuguese love for bureaucracy. Or maybe there isn’t. BUT I don’t know. And that’s a minor example.
I realized I knew nothing of Portugal when my husband, my kids and I found ourselves in a sizeable village at lunch time, starving, and I couldn’t figure out WHERE to buy food. (In villages it’s not necessarily marked, and besides you can buy food at any of the following: grocery stores; restaurants; taverns; coffee shops; improvised for-the-season cafes. Or all of those might NOT serve food. The ones I found I couldn’t determine if they did, and had no idea how to ask.)
I know you don’t believe that last, and that’s an example of why it’s hard for me to write about Portugal – because I don’t know what’s in your head and now half the time I don’t know what’s in Portugal, either.
So, to pull it all back – insistence that minorities only must be allowed to write minorities MIGHT seem like it makes sense. Kind of like translating “I got my son’s pen” makes sense. They know how their culture/lifestyle works, so of course they’d write it better.
But it’s NOT like writing it. It’s not an account. Because novels are – at least supposed to be – entertaining, it’s more like translating. What you write must not only be accurate. It must sound accurate to the reader. The two are antithetical. So at best it’s a compromise and a small betrayal.
Are minorities/foreigners/etc. capable of doing this? Of course. As I said, I think at this point I am at least for short stories (not sure about trying a novel.) But can they do it better than a non-native/non minority who studies it really well and writes about it?
Well… yes. No. Maybe. It depends on the individual writing and how willing they are to take out their own experiences, unpack them, and then betray them a little to match what’s in the reader’s head, so they can make sense of it all.
Portugal is hellishly difficult to research from the US – great regional variation, for instance (coming from the fact that it’s only in the last twenty years that they’ve started defeating tribalism, and that not well. Not real tribes, but the different regions ARE different ethnicities.) Also no one has written a “Daily Life In Portugal” – though there is a “Daily Life in Medieval Portugal” which I haven’t read, though I’ve bought it. Portugal is hellishly difficult to research from Portugal, too. I had trouble finding a good, comprehensive history when I visited. And because their distribution of books is insane (the concept of back list was alien when I was growing up at least) and there’s no amazon.pt, it’s very difficult to get history (or other) books on specific narrow topics. You might go to the story looking for an history of Roman Portugal, but what’s on the shelves right then is an history of Port Wine; an history of Celtic Portugal; and an history of shoe laces.
However, I think I’d at least consider reading the book if someone were dedicated enough to wade in and read all the books (many of them in Portuguese) you can read to get the complete-enough picture to write about Portugal and did it without either condescension or too much clean up (Portugal… well, dears, let’s just say when I was growing up there we considered Italians and Greeks organized. And Ireland has almost Germanic precision as far as we were concerned. And we were PROUD of this. We should be. Looking from the outside it’s a minor miracle anything works enough to keep up a technological society to the extent it exists. BUT I understand this – it must be genetic because not only do I fight it every day, but so do my kids. HOWEVER most people would, I think, clean most of it away) and without implying Portuguese are victims because they live in less materially comfortable circumstances (and have a guaranteed month of vacation in Summer, a week at Easter and Christmas, plus the most holidays of any country in Europe.)
Do I hunger for such a book? To be blunt, no. I worry that the betrayals made would spin the book even further away from my admittedly odd experience. I worry I would for the rest of my life be meeting people who go “Oh, you’re Portuguese, so you’re exactly like…” (I wonder if Greeks feel that way about “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”)
I prefer to read about interesting people, no matter where they come from. Oh, I’ll give a try to the exotic, if simply because it’s a change of pace. Stuff set in rural South Africa for instance. And I absolutely ADORED Paul Mann’s Indian mysteries, one of those series I don’t think lasted long enough.
HOWEVER if I start a book set somewhere and it’s all about “victimhood” it goes against the wall so hard it leaves marks. Oh, sure, some people have it really tough (Paul Mann’s description of the underclass in India was responsible for my donating more than I should to various charities) but for books to be entertaining they can’t just be about oppression and misery and taking it. Good authors get over plotting by dropping walls on character. And most readers don’t view fiction reading as an exercise in self flagellation where you must suffer to understand how bad other people’s circumstances are.
And when I say I’d read about exotic locales, those can be in Europe, too. Small town England in the present day would be fascinating. (The latest I’ve read set there was Agatha Christie.) It has nothing to do with stealing victimhood, only with me being an SF geek, forever looking for the alien – even when I’m aware it’s “translated” and “betrayed.”
So, that is the ultimate conclusion: I’d be willing to read anything, written by anyone, as long as it’s interesting. I don’t want to read about people “like me” and I’m not angry there aren’t more of us as characters. (One of my characters has a series about a woman with my background. I don’t want to know. No, seriously. I’d have to kill him in a horrible way. And don’t say “what do you mean one of your characters has…” Any explanation would land one of us in the loony bin.) I don’t object to reading about people like me, though, if done in a way I find entertaining. And I don’t care about the background of the author, provided he/she can write the story convincingly.
Exciting, uh? Aren’t you amazed? I know I am. That this is shocking to the establishment explains why they’re in trouble.