Translating Culture – Pigs’ Head Stew, La Chingada and Mexican Chavs Abroad
Sally Bavage writes:
The subtitle to this excellent discussion enjoyed by an audience of thirty in a welcoming corner of Headingley Library was 'the importance of culture in literary translation'. Too true! What would we call someone who drives behind ambulances so they can speed, wears a polyester blouse with a Lacoste logo, claps when a ‘plane lands, uses a clothes hanger for a TV aerial or steals souvenirs from hotels? – it’s ‘naco’ in Mexico, and ‘chav’ in her English translation. Every nationality has a cultural context which influences content and description in creative writing, allowing the intelligent reader to draw their own images from the words.
She considered carefully which words would not need translation, leaving many items of food in the original Spanish, reasoning that enough readers would not need an alternative to taco or enchilada. Posoli, on the other hand – the pig’s head stew of our discussion title – does appear in the glossary she included. Her description of a whole pig’s head cooked with maize, chilli and floating lettuce left the young boy who is the narrator of her book as disgusted as we were. It also served as a metaphor for the trend in Mexico of body parts turning up in unlikely places - 'a good head' IN a barrel of beer was one recent example.
And now we come to the matter of ‘la chingada’. It’s rude. Very rude. But it is in ubiquitous use and culturally far less offensive to Mexican ears than an effing prostitute is to more sensitive English ones. How to translate the culturally offensive without compromising the meaning within the story is a balancing act without a safety net, it seems.
Rosalind Harvey has worked with Anne McLean, the doyenne of Spanish to English translations and has now branched out on her own. Rosalind’s first solo work, translating the work of author Juan Pablo Villalobos is titled Down the Rabbit Hole and was published in September 2011 by And Other Stories, a new small publishing house. Choosing a title to convey the slightly surreal meaning of the Mexican hideout which features in the story, with its hint for readers of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is, again, a translator’s high wire act.
We are indebted to Mike of the Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, who kindly supported the event with books for sale.
Two of many positive audience comments sum up the evening very well: “Very interesting and enlightening explanation of translating literature from one language to another and the cultural and contemporary choices that have to be made.”
And, very succinctly, “Muy bien!”