Lost in Translation

Daniel Alarcón

On the night of the election, my cousin Mario was sitting in a New York City sound booth watching the crowd gather in Chicago’s Grant Park. He and his fellow translator, a Spaniard named Tony, were working for NY1, a local cable news channel that broadcasts in Spanish to the entire Tri-State area.

In 2003, Mario began working in New Jersey’s state courts, and in 2006 moved to the US Federal Court in Lower Manhattan, a sordid and depressing world far removed from the glitz of national politics. Mario’s daily tasks include being the English voice of record for accused drug kingpins, small-time traffickers, undocumented immigrants facing deportation, frightened witnesses and distressed family members, as well as court officials, lawyers and judges. The work is intellectually and emotionally draining: a single witness might remain on the stand for days or even weeks. Dense legalese must be rendered word for word into its Spanish equivalent, while the similarly impenetrable idioms of a Latino criminal class must be somehow transformed into English. Real lives are in play each time the court meets, and the fate of a defendant can hang on a poorly translated line of testimony.

Recently Mario began translating for local Spanish-language television stations for extra money: an occasional boxing match (for which, he says slyly, he’s had to learn to sing), voice-overs for English-language interviews, that sort of thing. Television, Mario told me when we spoke just before the New Year, requires an entirely different approach. In court, a witness’s testimony is translated consecutively – you take notes, you listen carefully, you have time to think. Your legal obligation is to the language, not the intention. If, for example, an under-educated defendant says, while pleading clemency before a judge, Yo siempre he vivido al margen de la ley – a commonly-used idiomatic expression meaning, literally, ‘I’ve always lived outside the law’ – you must translate the statement exactly this way, even if it’s clear that the defendant has misunderstood the sense of the phrase they are employing, that they intended to say quite the opposite.

Television is more forgiving, as the spectacle exists outside of the words themselves. Interpretation is generally simultaneous: you listen in one language as you reproduce the words in another, which necessitates a certain flexibility. In any case, interpreting the call of a boxing match is more about creating atmosphere than precisely replicating phrases, which no one listens to anyway. It’s about the music of it. ‘It’s Hollywood,’ Mario said, and assured me the same is true of political speech-making.

NY1 in Spanish is a small station in a big market, and functions on a relatively meagre budget. The studios are comfortable, though hardly luxurious. On the night of the election, Mario simply showed up, made his way directly to the sound booth and waited. No one was there to receive him, but then he’d done this before and knew the procedure. There was a talk show on air called Pura Política, just five men chatting about the election, the same sort of thing you might see on any other news channel, except in Spanish. When the live image broke away to some off-site interview, Tony and Mario had to decide on the spot if the speaker looked Latino. If not, they’d decide whose turn it was and be ready to translate. If the person was a Spanish speaker, they’d relax and turn their attention back to the results coming in over internet radio, chatting as they waited for the important speeches to come. There would be two – McCain and Obama. Mario chose Obama, not because of any particular political affinity but simply as a matter of convenience. ‘He speaks like an academic,’ Mario told me, and that makes him easy to translate.

What did it feel like to translate the most electrifying political speaker of the last forty years? My cousin was, in a word, underwhelmed: neither the historical significance of the outcome, nor the inspirational words, nor the images of weeping Americans of all ages and races braving the frigid Chicago night made much of an impact on him. Though Mario would have voted for Obama (my cousin is a legal resident, though not yet a citizen), his support was tepid at best. He’d followed the election closely and thought of it as an interesting, even picturesque spectacle, and he had been genuinely surprised by the results. ‘If I’d bet money on the outcome,’ Mario said, ‘I would have lost.’ He considers himself politicized insofar as he cares deeply about politics, but insisted that he had no illusions about Obama or anyone else.

Mario’s stance is idiosyncratic and certainly quite personal, but in some respects it is typical of many Peruvians of his generation – people born under dictatorship, whose childhoods were punctuated by car bombs and blackouts and atrocities, who entered adulthood governed by another corrupt syndicate whose leader, Alberto Fujimori, President of Peru from 1990 until 2000, is now on trial. They have never been given a good reason to believe in politics. Campaigns in Peru are furious, absurd affairs whose sinister protagonists sometimes strain credulity. Elections are often decided in the last two weeks, when an outsider appears on the scene, unknown enough to seem tolerable. No one believes anything. Presidents are elected, survive their poor approval ratings, and then go off to live in Europe or Japan or the United States. Bathos abounds. Voting is obligatory, and Mario suspects that if it weren’t no one would bother. After a decade or more in America, this is still the lens through which he sees all struggles for political power, a point of view which the presidency of George W. Bush has further justified. The historical, epochal nature of the moment was something Mario understood rather than felt.

In order to feel it, I wondered, was it necessary to have been raised in the United States? Mario allowed that this might be true. But in any case, he said, ‘I don’t identify with this country. And I’m not the sort to participate in widely-felt, popular emotions.’ He doesn’t trust them. He did note that while he was translating for Barack Obama, unmoved, his wife María, a Uruguayan who emigrated to the United States in her teens (Mario came in his twenties) was at home watching the results on television and crying. I’ve spoken to many friends, Americans born in the most far-flung places – Tehran, Mumbai, Bogotá – but raised here who told me similar stories about that night: they watched, they wept.

But it’s not just a matter of identifying or failing to identify with this country. Even if he believed every word, nothing said in a political speech could rise to the level of emotional involvement Mario feels in a trial. ‘In the court,’ he said, ‘I’ve often wanted to cry. I’ve often felt like praying that the judge will show some mercy on a particular defendant.’

So he did his work, as professionals do.

Barack Obama began speaking that night around midnight eastern time. If you are an interpreter, the words come almost automatically as you slip into an unconscious sort of ventriloquism. You have trained yourself to process language in this way. The simultaneous translation is always approximate, always ad hoc, but political speeches are easy. They are written, after all, to be transparent and accessible to the broadest possible swathe of voters, the exact opposite of legal English or the impenetrable argot of the drug game. Every eight sentences or so, the speaker is interrupted by applause, giving the interpreter an opportunity to catch up, to breathe. Someone like Barack Obama is easy: he speaks in complete sentences and complete ideas. He pauses at the right moments, understands how people listen, and has an intuitive sense of what they want to hear.

I asked Mario if he remembered anything of what Barack Obama said that night.

‘Not a word.’

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