A Necessary Evil: My Love-Hate Relationship with Translation


149th Street–Grand Concourse Subway Station, the Bronx, New York City. Photo: Michal Balog, Unsplash.

My career in translation began on February 28, 1970 in New York, in the Bronx to be exact. I can be this precise about the date because that's the day I arrived in the United States, landed at Kennedy International Airport, was greeted by relatives I had never seen before and driven to the Bronx. My mother and father were my first clients. They demanded I translate for them constantly. From New York to Los Angeles to Chicago, where we finally settled nine months later, every time we were out shopping for groceries, any time we needed directions to get somewhere on the bus, whenever the phone rang in the house, I had to translate, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, from English to Greek and back to English. It didn't matter that I could barely pronounce this new language, much less understand the "Americans" who spoke fast, often mumbling their words, occasionally swallowing them. According to my father, I had studied English for ten years in Argentina before arriving in the United States and should be able to speak it fluently, understand it perfectly, be useful for once in your life. Since that first day, I have had to translate for friends, relatives, and strangers; for employers and teachers and students, mostly from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English , with the occasional English-Greek combination.

Born in Buenos Aires and raised in a home where as a child I heard four different languages spoken daily all around me, I was accustomed to a “Tower of Babel” surroundings. In our home, we spoke Greek to each other but otherwise mostly Spanish. My parents and I lived above a large house where an Armenian couple had lived since the 1920s. The couple spoke Armenian, Turkish, and Spanish. My father spoke Armenian, Turkish, Greek, and eventually learned Spanish. My mother spoke Greek and eventually learned Turkish and Spanish. As a child, I was able to communicate in all four, but, once I reached my adolescence, I forgot most of my Armenian and Turkish. I can still understand some, especially after spending a long period of time in an environment where one of them is spoken constantly. This happened, for a brief period, during our stay in Los Angeles where we lived with an Armenian family who had also emigrated from Argentina. During the summer of 1970 I attended an Armenian high-school and my speaking fluency returned, attempting as well to learn to write and read in Armenian. I have since forgotten most of that. To my young mind, the daily life of our household seemed natural. Obviously, translations were not necessary at that point. Everyone understood each other because there was always, at least, one language in common. In recent years I have read numerous accounts and studies about children of immigrants who had to grow up quickly and serve as interpreters for their parents, often having to make adult decisions at the age of eight or nine or ten. And, although I was already nineteen when I had to perform these duties, I felt embarrassed and frustrated at the smallest difficulty when speaking and translating for my parents. I wonder if my mixed feelings about translation stem from that time in my life, when I was forced to translate, a modern-day Malintzin (la Malinche), forced to be Hernan Cortes's translator when he invaded Mexico.

The words of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari resonate within me:

How many people today live in a language that is not their own? Or no longer, or not yet, even know their own and know poorly the major language that they are forced to serve? This is the problem of immigrants, and especially of their children, the problem of minorities, the problem of a minor literature, but also a problem for all of us: how to tear a minor literature away from its own language, allowing it to challenge the language and making it follow a sober revolutionary path? How to become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one's own language?

"Nomad," "immigrant," "gypsy," words I have used so often to define myself, to title poems and essays, to check boxes in government forms. Deleuze and Guattari's questions take me back to the beginning of my meditation. My parents were forced to leave their own language, the language they grew up with—Greek—and live in another, a foreign one. In Argentina, as immigrants after the Second World War, they had to learn a new language—Spanish—in order to survive. Twenty-one years later, as mature adults, they came to the United States. Once more, they had to leave a language they had finally felt at home with and had to learn yet another—English. Never really learning it very well, my role of spokesperson, of translator, became crucially important. The more necessary my work of translation became for our daily survival, the more I grew to hate it. I dreaded the mental energy I was required to expend every time we were faced with clerks in department stores, receptionists in doctors' offices, drivers in buses. "Forced to serve" two, and sometimes three languages simultaneously, I would return home exhausted, wishing my parents would learn English once and for all, wishing we had stayed in Argentina.

Lawrence Venuti employs the term "foreign" to refer to an original text, obviously speaking from the standpoint of English as the "norm," the "original.” Immediately I scribble down on the margins of my book: foreign text? which one is it for me? I was born in the middle of a translated household. There was no hierarchy that I can remember among the four languages that circulated within our walls. Clearly, Spanish was privileged outside those walls, for "practical" reasons. But inside, we traded words back and forth, making convenience or facility our only requisite for the choices made. Since those days, however, I have become aware of the power of language to create and articulate reality, as well as the power of translation to define and articulate otherness. The language I choose to speak, or write in, or translate to and from, defines me. The choices I make in this country, as a Third World woman, must be examined carefully, their consequences considered thoughtfully. Often faced with the decision of whether to translate my own poetry or ask someone else to do it, I refuse to do it. I began writing poetry in Buenos Aires, in Spanish. I now write poetry mostly in English and have been doing it for approximately twenty-five years. Soon after my arrival in the United States, I realized the need to write in the language of the majority if I were going to be read and published in this country. However, some of my work still does "come out" in Spanish, and it is this work, as well as older work, that I must decide whether to translate or not. The impulse to write is monolingual: either I compose in English or in Spanish. The impulse to translate, however, is not an impulse at all but a forced decision, a practical need that requires a practical solution. And so, the quandary continues: should I or shouldn't I? My impulse answer is: if I am going to translate my own poem I might as well write another one. Because every language is distinctive; because every language works in very different ways for very different purposes, another question arises: as the original author of the translation -- am I writing or translating? For "practical" reasons I had to translate the Spanish poems included in my dissertation. The committee members neither spoke nor read Spanish, except for one. For "practical" reasons I translate the Spanish poems when I perform public readings to an English-speaking audience. Yet, the words stumble on my tongue, scratch the surface of the paper. By translating my own work I have reached people who otherwise would not have known my thoughts or ideas, would not have glimpsed my images or metaphors, would have missed the entire work. At least now, I tell myself, they may be able to understand who I am, what I believe in, but—I continue to wonder—at what price?

This need to be read and appreciated broadly is best exemplified by the choice the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore made in translating his own work. Believing that his Bengali poetry was too different to be tolerated by the British public, he "simplified and edulcorated" it, creating an aura of mysticism around his work "which he did not care to erase," and which earned him the 1913 Nobel Prize in literature. Paradoxically, however, "'his own efforts [to translate himself] continue to be the greatest impediment to enjoyment and appreciation of modern India's greatest poet for those who have no choice but to read him in English'" (Simon 150). Tagore himself summarized it best when he confessed to Edward Thompson, a specialist on Tagore's work, "that he had engaged in a career of 'falsifying [his] own coins'." As a writer and a translator Tagore found himself caught between two very different worlds, with "two contradictory sets of norms."Did he pay a price for this dichotomy? In effect, what he did was orientalize himself, becoming a representative of that exotic other the West found so alluring, especially in those years. He contributed to, as Gayatri Spivak would say, the "pervasive Orientalism" that rules the cultural relations with the Third World (Simon 151).

As a matter of fact, Spivak is one of the few cultural theorists to speak about translations from a practical as well as a theoretical point of view. I am pleased to read that she too believes that "[t]ranslation is a practical necessity" because it is crucial that texts written by Arab or Vietnamese, for example, writers be made available to English-readers (Simon 145). Yet, Simon asks, "is translation a form of hospitality or rather an expression of the law of the strongest?" This echoes "Spivak's concern with the consequences of a generalized movement of translation of Third World literature into English." Simon discusses the possibility that translation may create an "assimilationist literary universe carried by a single language" and questions the "practical and ideological effects of large scale transfer of works toward English" (Simon 145). Spivak's and Simon's concerns reach to the heart of my dilemma, the paradox of my position vis-a-vis translations.

For over a decade I earned a living as a professional translator. From engineering specifications to medical instructions to poems and short stories, for large, multinational corporations to small, privately financed literary publications, I read and translated. Nothing, however, made me as uncomfortable as working for a translation agency. Clients of the firm —lawyers to be exact— would hire me through the agency to interpret orally from Spanish to English and back into Spanish, taking depositions from battered wives, during welfare hearings or unemployment benefits appeals. Besides these depositions, I was sent several times to translate for a lie detecting agency, called, ironically no doubt, "Psychological Services, Inc." This proved, by far, the strangest experience in my translation career. The scenario was as follows: a very small, windowless room with the equipment on a table, and two chairs, one for the client, one for me. The technician would stand while he worked, asking questions, watching the needle scratch lines on long pieces of paper. The clients were always Spanish-speaking men and women who were either suspected of stealing from their employers or were applying for a job where they had to handle large sums of money or other valuable merchandise, such as jewelry. The technician would ask the client a question in English. I would translate the question into Spanish and, after the client had answered, would translate the reply back to the technician in English. I had strict instructions to translate faithfully and objectively, and to that effect, I had to sign an affidavit before every session.

What made these assignments strange and uncomfortable was the fact that, almost invariably, the clients of the agency would look to me as some kind of advocate, would try to elicit my sympathy and cooperation. They would usually greet me in Spanish when I entered the room where they sat, already strapped to the equipment. They would introduce themselves and make small talk. Just as invariably, the technician would become agitated and demand that I translate every word the client had uttered, regardless of its content or significance to the procedure. According to my instructions, I was not allowed to talk or relate in any way to the client, save for my interpretation of the questions and answers. He just asked me how I was this morning, I would reply. Or, she said what a nice, sunny day it was. The technician would visibly disapprove and remind me that I was not allowed to speak to the client, unless instructed by him. All the technicians I worked with were male. During my time in the agency, in the early and mid 80s, I never saw a female technician.

The questions asked by the technician were often personal and potentially embarrassing to the client. I felt as if I were eavesdropping on a very private matter. Reading these interactions through the prism of class analysis and ethnicity would allow for a fascinating ethnographic study. Sherry Simon speaks of the increasing plurality of contemporary culture, where diverse languages inhabit the same space, creating texts she defines as " 'border writing,' in those areas Mary Louise Pratt has so aptly called the 'contact zone'." Historically speaking, the relations established in these areas have grown out of colonial domination, characterized by inequality, conflict, and coercion (161). In the "contact zone" of the small room where the tests were conducted, where the clients were Latino/a, where the technicians were white, my role was to mediate between the two groups, a postmodern informer, a cultural intermediary. Inequality, conflict, and coercion were alive and well in that room. Instructed to be objective and literal, and therefore required to be neutral, I was, however, caught between two worlds, my allegiances shifting uncomfortably between two people who represented hundreds of years of domination and oppression.

Returning to the figure of la Malinche, I re-enacted her role of translator, albeit in very different circumstances. Although translators have been historically neglected or ignored, especially women translators, la Malinche stands as a powerful and controversial exception to this trend. Vilified on one hand for delivering the great Aztec empire over to the Spaniards, on the other hand, she has become in the last ten years, "an ambiguous model" for Chicana writers, and women in general, for whom she "has become a symbol of the cross-breeding of cultures, glorifying mixture to the point of impurity, representing the powers and the dangers associated with the role of intermediary.” As a contemporary variation of la Malinche, I was clearly aware of the tensions between unequal partners, "the conflicts" Simon suggests "between loyalty and authority, agency and submission" (Simon 41). Positioned in between the client and the technician, both of whom I was expected to serve while maintaining a neutral stance, my loyalty to the client often angered the authority figure of the technician. I exercised agency with the client, submission with the technician, hence my discomfort.

If Lawrence Venuti is correct when he claims that the aim of translation is to "bring back a cultural other as the same, the recognizable, the familiar," if he is correct when he claims that to translate is to domesticate and this can only be achieved through violence (18), my position as the intermediary, the translator, was to aid in the violence committed to the clients, to the texts. If, on the other hand, Derrida's connection between translation and survival provides a more accurate description (Benjamin 5), my position proved more beneficial, less destructive. Jacques Derrida links survival and translation in the following way:

Ubersetzung and translation overcome, equivocally in the course of an equivocal combat, the loss of an object. A text lives on only if it is at once translatable and untranslatable. . .  Totally translatable, it disappears as text, as writing, as a body of language. Totally untranslatable, even within what is believed to be one language, it dies immediately (qtd. in Benjamin 5)

Whether literary, technical, or simply practical, translations continue to engender heated debates regarding their accuracy and fidelity. From the French rhetorician Menage who, in the seventeenth century, introduced the adage that "like women, translations must be either beautiful or faithful" (Simon 10), to contemporary scholars like George Steiner who describes translation "using [the] aggressively male imagery" (Simon 144) of sexual penetration and control, to Gayatri Spivak's theory of surrender, each theorist presents his or her translation methodology with a passion that betrays personal involvement.

Because today we live more than ever in a deeply hybridized world where cultures meet, overlap, and merge, translations continue to be a necessity (unless everyone learned everyone else's language or a universal language were adopted. I'm thinking here of the campaigns waged by some linguists to establish Esperanto as a universal language. Regardless of the logical sense this idea makes, people have uniformly rejected it, preferring to maintain their individuality and subjectivity through their own language, no matter how difficult or impractical it may prove to be). Keenly aware of this reality, I believe that the answers to the questions of accuracy, fidelity, ethnocentric violence, and surrender lie somewhere in "the passage and conflict between" translatability and untranslatability, echoing Derrida, for whom "a text is at the same time both translatable and untranslatable" (Benjamin 1-5), in the interstitial spaces between a text and its translation.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Andrew. Translation and the Nature of Philosophy: A New Theory of Words. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Kelley, Tina. "It Is for You Defective Day of Hats, No?" New York Times, 30 Apr. 1998, natl. ed.: D1+.

Simon, Sherry. Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission.  London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation.  London and New York: Routledge, 1995.


Mario Bellatin
Number 13

In our thirteenth issue, we feature two innovative, hard-to-define figures of Latin American letters: from the present, Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, and from the past, Chilean writer Juan Emar. Together with these authors, we highlight Latin American theatre for the first time with a script by Ramón Griffero, Nahuatl-language poetry by Martín Tonalmeyotl, plus interviews, book reviews, exclusive previews, and more from writers including Rosario Castellanos, César Aira, and Salgado Maranhão.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Mario Bellatin

Dossier: Juan Emar



Brazilian Literature

Indigenous Literature



Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene