Between Languages / In-between Languages

I recently had to write a report on, and translate a sample from, a literary thriller, a high-end page turner. It’s a novel set in Bogotá, written by a Colombian (originally from Cali). There are lots of interesting things about it, not least the fact that it manages to be like a prose version of the movie Y tu mamá también: the narrator digresses, describes things outside the main arc of the plot, gives us apparently unnecessary background detail. And by the end, you realise that, as well as being a thriller, the novel is a very angry description of the corruption and misanthropy and general lack of respect for human life which the author identifies as being a part of Colombian society. It was fun to read: let’s hope they hire me to translate the whole thing.

Or maybe let’s not? Because one of the things it really brought home to me is the astonishingly rapid divergence between Spanishes. The idiom of the novel is one that’s extremely happy with loanwords: one of the protagonists drinks a cup of cocoa with masmelos floating on top, whereas as far as I know Peninsular Spanish still only really recognises nubes. Simple things (food and so on) lead the translator into enjoyable but confusing rabbit-holes: it’s odd to see people eating suero, when that’s a word I only know from a medical context (so ‘serum’ rather than ‘whey’).


And, more general difficulties: as a novel from a much more multicultural and multiethnic society than Spain is, the Colombian book can use without inhibition words, terms of self-definition, that Spanish people are starting to have difficulty with: negroindio and so on. One of the characters is affectionately and non-aggressively referred to as Chinita, because of the shape of her eyes: how to bring that into English without implying things that the original does not imply at all? And then later on, an upper-class character tries to humiliate someone by referring to her as Pocahontas: the same as, but also entirely different from, Trump’s using the same word to attack Elizabeth Warren. Ah well, I think on balance I do hope I get employed to consider these problems, although they are quite clearly going to be problems for whoever translates the book.


2 thoughts on “Between Languages / In-between Languages

  1. Greetings from St.Petersburg, Russia to you!
    I wonder how can a Russian novelist communicate with the NevskyBooks without Tweeter or Facebook.
    Thanks in advance for your reply, if any.

    With best regards,

    Yuri Serbe (George Aleksandrovich Lebedev)


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