“Translation is more than just shifting from one language to another”

To celebrate ‘International Translation Day’, Cultures Connection chatted with Marita Propato, translator and President of the Argentine Association of Translators and Interpreters, about the evolution of translation and interpreting services and, more precisely, indigenous languages and Argentina.

International Translation Day is on 30th September, in commemoration of the death of Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin. The idea occurred in 1991 to the International Federation of Translators (FIT), the worldwide association of translators and interpreters, which saw the need for a project to promote such a crucial profession in a newly globalised world and as a way to bring together translators from all over the globe. In 2017, the date was also acknowledged by the United Nations, which came to be, alongside the need for interpreters, in the era of the Nuremberg trials as a result of the demand to try criminals at an international level after World War II.

On this anniversary, Marita Propato (b. Buenos Aires, 1967), President of the Argentine Association of Translators and Interpreters (AATI), a non-profit organisation that was established in 1982 to promote the profession in the country, celebrates this recognition which she regards highly important due to the publicity it draws for the sector.

The AATI, which is a member of the FIT and has approx. 400 members, will celebrate the day by hosting the Annual Meeting of FIT’s Latin America Regional Centre (FIT LatAm), where elections will take place for the next term (2018-2021) and regional initiatives to benefit the profession will be planned.  This year, FIT has chosen the theme “Translation: promoting cultural heritage in changing times” to structure the celebrations, in line with the UN’s decision to declare 2019 the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”.

– With regard to FIT’s motto, what do you think of the development of the relationship between translation and indigenous languages?

– Translation and interpretation are two of the oldest professions in the world; they have been in existence since people first needed to communicate. They were established trades on the continent before the conquest and there are even historical interpretation records from the conquest itself. There were numerous barriers and misunderstandings, but people also went out of their way to facilitate the communication between the indigenous leaders and the newcomers. For a long time, indigenous languages were not recognised, or at least were considered less important, or perhaps communication was reduced and they were given less and less exposure. Nowadays, if we want to revive them, they need to be treated as they are; as languages in their own right. It is fundamental that indigenous communities are given the opportunity to express themselves as well as the right to quality translations. There are young people who are entirely bilingual in their indigenous and modern languages, and who are able to translate and revise texts to preserve this cultural heritage.

– Do translators criticise themselves for this decline of exposure?

– Language is part of culture. In every case of a dominant culture there is always another which becomes demoted. Now these movements are being reviewed. For some years, the international community of translators has been calling attention to the fact that, on every continent, less and less people are speaking indigenous languages. I think there is a revived desire to enhance these languages and cultures; a desire to prevent them from going extinct.

– What does the AATI do to encourage this attitude?

– We have delivered various presentations about indigenous languages at the Book Fair and in Museums with Mapuche, Quechua and Guarani representatives. It was very interesting for members of the audience who did not know much about these languages, as the representatives did not just talk about their language, but their culture, conceptions and spirituality too. Additionally, we introduced a training program for members of indigenous communities who regularly act as community interpreters in Chaco and have no interpreting skills. Often there are people from indigenous communities who have minimal Spanish and translation abilities and need to communicate in hospitals, schools or courts. If a professional translator in their language is not available, usually a person from the community who is fluent in both languages acts an interpreter, but does not have training as an interpreter or does not know their basic rights. For this reason, the AATI saw the need and a couple of years ago put a training in place in Chaco with minimal tools: people working as interpreters were explained their rights, and some basic interpreting skills, e.g., that they should always use the first person, and that they must never add any more information than that given to them by their ‘client’. All to facilitate communication. We need to see how these initiatives can be sustained over time, as our association has members throughout the country; these are pro-bono activities and we partner with cultural and academic institutions to carry them out.

For some years, the international community of translators has been calling attention to the fact that, on every continent, less and less people are speaking indigenous languages.

– Why is there not a union association for translators and interpreters in Argentina?

– We have associations which do not have exactly the function of a union but do aim to defend the rights of translators and interpreters. Generally, these organisations act independently in their own jurisdictions, and due to how they are configured in our country, there is not one big union association like there is in France. There is no tradition for it here, but that does not mean that there shouldn’t be. To do it, one would have to look into the legal framework and take the initiative.

– Is it true that Argentina has good translation services?

– We produce great quality translation and interpretation services. We have a legacy of literary translation, including authors and translators Borges and Cortázar, important figures in our history who, without being especially trained in translation, created outstanding translations due to their ingenuity, their linguistic knowledge and their interest in literature. Many institutions in the region take Argentine translators as a reference. We have excellent university and college programs in translation training, and a strong involvement with continuing training.

– Argentina has always been particularly renowned for its great literature, how does it fare  in other fields?

– We have plenty of scientific and technical translation. Many of us work for agencies, businesses and international organisations. The Government considers us as part of the ‘knowledge workers’ sector and, within this, as exporters of services. These days there is a lot of interpretation work available because there are so many international meetings related with current events. For example, as Argentina has the G20 presidency, there are meetings of all its affinity groups, like the business owners, the unions, the civil associations, etc. We are living in a very dynamic era for our profession.

The most complicated forms of translation such as marketing slogans or legal texts will always need human translations.

– How have globalisation processes and the development of new technologies changed the profession?

– I believe the profession has changed for the better. We have a wealth of impressive information at our fingertips. Interpreters, for example, can practice with real professionals using free videos on the internet. Another advantage is collaboration; it is much faster and convenient for translators to put corrections in place using a shared query sheet. Nowadays, there are automatic tools which can produce adequate translations. Google Translate has improved, although it continues to produce some crucial errors which only the human eye can amend. The most complicated forms of translation such as marketing slogans or legal texts will always need human translations, however. Of course, there are also some disadvantages. Those of us who work freelance sometimes work round the clock, it’s a worldwide problem of our time! These days, due to globalisation, people and cultures can be brought closer together; the world is getting smaller. However, barriers of communication still exist. In this respect, translation is more than just shifting content from one language and culture to another; we are mediators between languages.

– What do you mean by translation as mediation?

– There are numerous translation processes that only involve what is merely written on a page. On the other hand, there are services which require interaction between the speaker and the recipient of the message. If I am carrying out a literary translation, I cannot always rely on the author of the book, so I am going to have to think about the context in which it was written or their biography to find the sense and the feeling behind the text, not just its exact meaning. The meaning is obviously the foundational aspect of translation, but there are other aspects which go beyond it. Umberto Eco used to say that one has to develop a sense and feeling just as one trains one’s ear. We have to bear in mind that we are part of the act of communication. Proximity with the recipient is paramount as well. If I communicate with a Spanish-speaking child or family that arrived a week ago in the US and don’t know what to do with a medical questionnaire, I am, of course, going to try and simplify the jargon as much as possible.

– How important is it that the UN has acknowledged International Translation Day?

– It is highly important because the UN is an organisation which is in the spotlight on the world stage. I believe that this is one of the best acknowledgements we could possibly receive. There are many other debates, such as the problems when it comes to guaranteeing interpreters’ rights in conflict zones; in many cases, they have been taken hostage or as prisoners. We also have to think about issues to do with accessibility and sign language, asdeaf-mute people speak another language too, and sign language is the not the same in Argentina as it is in Spain, for example. Human-machine interaction and how we use robots to produce better work is another relevant topic. There was already a certain amount of prestige associated with a translator working for the United Nations but now, with the recognition of ‘International Translation Day’, there is simply no doubt in the matter; it gives us great support and visibility.

Translation into English: Madeleine Hancock

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