19 April 2012

"Push" by Sapphire

I’m conflicted about the limits of translation as a way to convey culture. When I first saw the Spanish translation of “Push” by Sapphire, having read the original book, I was very annoyed. However, now I believe that the editorial decision made in this case was perhaps the right one to make. To what extent can translation convey cultural references related to the use of language? Can anyone tell me, is there a uniform “official” academic practice in translation in this case?

SPOILER ALERT If you haven’t read “Push” and plan to, continue at your own risk.

I haven’t actually read the whole translation of “Push”, but I did manage to notice that the illiteracy of the main character and first person narrator of the novel, Precious, was lost in the translation into Spanish. In a case similar to “The Artist” (see my earlier post), a significant part of the message conveyed by the words lies in the form, not the content. Yes, the story is important; it’s a novel after all. However, the novel relies heavily on the fact that Precious is, for the most part, illiterate. It is her story of overcoming social and family adversity to forge herself some sort of future. This is reflected in her expression, but most of all in how the words are written. Her writing is full of what should be considered ‘creative spelling’, mostly associated with how words sound, as opposed to ‘misspelling’, which is a convention, after all. Given the context of the book, this makes a lot of sense considering the general difficulty of the written English language.

So, originally I was disturbed by this. I thought the translation would be unable to convey the message. However, now I can understand the publisher’s or translator’s decision not to pursue that path. After all, misspelling the English and Spanish languages are two completely different issues altogether. Although there are exceptions to the following, Spanish misspelling is generally limited to mistaking “b” and “v”, “g” and “j”, “y” and “ll”, doubting whether a word has a silent “h” at the start or somewhere in the middle or leaving out your “tilde” (for an example of an increasingly common orthographical and grammatical horror, take a look here: http://tomasee.blogspot.com.es/2012/02/gramatica-profesional.html ).

However, as any student of the English language will testify, English spelling is, to put it mildly, unconventional. Especially since people aren’t usually interested in the origins of a language when they learn it. To be honest, I’ve never had much of a problem with it; I guess I have a good visual memory. However, I completely sympathise with people who complain about how difficult it is for them to grasp English spelling and pronunciation. For people brought up in a language like Spanish, which is pretty much written the way it’s spoken, with a letter for each phoneme (more or less), English spelling and pronunciation seem mostly unrelated. So, how can we translate misspelling, when misspelling in each language is rooted in a different thing?

Now I wonder, were Precious's social background and educational shortcomings reflected in the book at all? If not in the spelling, perhaps in the vocabulary used?


  1. In Málaga you can see things like "hay caramales" written outside fish restaurants on the beach. Likewise, dropped s's at the end of words, or s's replacing c's or z's also make their way to written expression. maybe that could be the equivalent to the kind of "creative spelling" you mention.

    1. Indeed, that would be a perfect example of "creative spelling". From what I've been able to observe, there is also a lot of creative spelling with regard to "s", "z" and "c" amongst the Latin American population given the same pronunciation of the Spanish /s/ and /z/ phonemes in those countries, like in the south of Spain.

      Thanks for adding to the debate!

  2. No I don't think there's any official or academic norm, and nor should there be. It's up to the creative ability of each translator to find solutions that will satisfy readers. Sometimes cultural 'fossils' are left in the translation to give local colour.

    But the translator must really know the culture in question in order to get it right. I've been dipping into an English translation of a Blasco Ibáñez novel in which the Valencian 'barraca' is consistently translated as 'shack'. It gives quite the wrong impression of what the 'barraca' was like. The translator of another B.I. novel translated it as 'smallholding', which is not technically accurate: it was the house and not the land accompanying it. But 'smallholding' is more creative and truer to the social role of the barraca as well as to the role it plays in the story.

    1. Though with some tardiness on my behalf, welcome to the blog and thanks for your contribution to the debate.

      'Barraca' is indeed a difficult word to translate and a very good example of what we're pointing at. Though I agree that 'shack' has its shortfalls to convey the place held by the 'barraca' in Valencian life, there is a formality to 'smallholding' that misses the mundane role played by 'barracas' in the Valencia region. This is the type of case where I wonder whether it's better to leave the original, adding a footnote with a thorough explanation of the culture and society in which that concept sits in.

      I think I would have similar doubts if I had to translate 'allotment' into Spanish, for instance. Yes, it's a small plot of land to grow one's vegetables in, so we could use 'huerto' I guess, but that wouldn't convey the nature of 'allotments' as plots rented out by the state and as places which at certain moments in time have also played a significant part in social life in certain places... that I know of, no such concept exists in Spain.

      I'm afraid our job is, at times, an impossible feat! :-)

      Again, welcome!