Aqueduct Press recently released Everything Is Made of Letters, a collection of short stories by Sofia Rhei. She’s an accomplished author with an engaging personality, and we became friends while I was living in Spain.
I originally translated her short story “Techt” for the anthology Spanish Women of Wonder. Sofía tells a thoughtful, touching account of an old man living in poverty in a hostile future. Language has become debased as well — or perhaps as a consequence — and can no longer express complexities. He strives to maintain what literature and “long” language have to offer humanity: sophisticated ideas, beauty, and a life of richer meaning.
Aqueduct Press put up a sample of its book, and it includes the full text of “Techt.” You can read it here.
Overall, I’m satisfied with my translation. I think I handled one tricky little detail effectively. A chart on Page 17 of the book shows “Alphabet 100,” a simplified form of communication using symbols, and the text explains what some of the most frequently used symbols mean. In the original Spanish:
@ – a, K – que, Ð – de, & – además
Literally translated, it says:
@ – at, K – that, Ð – of, & – also
I saw that the meaning of @ and & are the same in English, so I didn’t need to change them for the translation. K presented a problem that was easy to solve: K is used in English as an abbreviation for OK, and I could substitute that meaning without doing violence to the original text.
Ð in Spanish has been used, especially in old documents, as an abbreviation of DE (of), but the symbol has no common use in English. I could have asked for the symbol to be substituted for something else in the original chart in the text, but I knew it would be so much easier to find some sort of adaptation. I researched until I discovered one.
It turns out that Ð is a letter in Old and Middle English, and it represents the sound of “th” in “the.” That substitution would work. Problem solved!
I couldn’t figure out how to solve anothe problem, and I feel bad because I failed. The original text features debased oral language: “Ké zer nau?” “Yob’m film!” “Nvío urgent. Krtera decir tú sign.”
My translation: “Wat du nao?” “Job’n film!” “Erjnt mes. Caryer say yu ident.” (They make more sense in context, don’t worry.) I think that’s a reasonable translation except for one thing. The original, you might notice, is Spanish heavily influenced by English.
English. It has a growing hegemony in the world, imposing itself on other languages, and its presence in debased discourse in the story implies something significant to Spanish-language readers. English is cool, thus Spanish is not as cool, so English is used needlessly in Spain these days in a way that doesn’t always advance or enrich communication, which breeds resentment among some Spanish-speakers. This article published by an important watchdog of the Spanish language, Fundéu BBVA, tries to refute the idea that English is the “enemy” of Spanish. The fact that the idea needs refuting tells us it exists.
I could not figure out how to express the subtext in the story that English has helped deteriorate Spanish, since English is the culprit here. Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. The story “Techt” stands strong even without that missing detail, but my instinct as a translator is to bring you everything a reader in the original language would have understood and everything the author was trying to say. I failed, and it bothers me.