Sephardic Mountain Dwellers and Baby Goat Devils: Compensation and Adaption of Cultural Allusion in Mexican Storytelling

In the art of transforming one language into another, a misguided belief persists that translation is mechanical and that perfect equivalence exists between any and all languages.  This is not how it works, much to the chagrin of translation buyers and translators alike. Taking their understanding of each culture, including political implications and intent of the author, and applying it to the target culture in context, a translator, not a machine without the ability to understand nuance of language and even emotions, is the key to providing a culturally accurate translation. In high-stakes situations, a miscommunication could have long-term and far-reaching political consequences such as the We will bury you! incident at a diplomatic reception being held at the Polish embassy in Moscow during the Khrushchev era in 1956 or the Death to America indoctrination that has been referenced ad nauseam since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The remnants of these two mistranslations, perhaps purposefully uttered for political intrigue, are still very much a part of the political-propaganda sphere today. Translators play an important role in that their choices and situational understanding significantly influence perception cross-culturally.

Recently, I was contacted to translate an article from the column Veneno Puro by the Mexican journalist Rafael Loret de Mola, who had some very critical opinions of the intrigue that surrounds the politics, drug trade, and their effect on and interaction with the militia movements of Mexico, both old and new. His opinions are conveyed in a sardonic rant, which outlines the history of the collusion that exists between wealthy elites and crime bosses of Mexico.

Americans and Mexicans have opinions of each other – this is simply fact. As a translator though, it is important to be completely unaffected by such tribally predicated notions, but also to be cognizant of them as they play a role in how the information would be best presented. It is my job to accurately translate Loret de Mola’s work into my native culture, without the interference of American stereotypes (at least, in as much as it is possible to do so). His words are his own, and as a translator I am not allowed to act as a political pundit and spin the article toward any particular narrative that may be informed by personal politics. When it comes to the content of the author’s ideas and words it is not my job as the translator to have an opinion, it is my job to convey intent.

Words have the power to evoke emotion. From the propaganda of media, to utterances of love and hate – the meanings of words in context shape society, and if they don’t shape it, they certainly help to create and give definition to a feeling, narrative, or concept that is of particular importance within its source paradigm. When these words are translated into a target paradigm, there is not always an exact 1:1 equivalence. The most a translator can hope hope to achieve is being as close to the meaning as possible. This is the power that a translator has. If there are two people who communicate with a third who acts as the medium for communication and understanding, much trust is put in this third party. Even so, a translator must make difficult decisions at times.

The first concept that presented some difficulty in Loret de Mola’s article was ladino. This word does exist in English and is most often used to describe the Judeo-Spanish language spoken by Sephardic Jews. However, in the context of the article, it seemed obvious that this was not the intention of the author.

No se olvide que “El Chapo” huyó, sobre el techo de un taxi, del aeropuerto de Guadalajara luego del magnicidio contra el Cardenal Posadas y fue a refugiarse al linde entre México y Guatemala, por las Cañadas, muy cerca de donde pululaban los indígenas con pasamontañas adiestrados por los “ladinos” aposentados de la sierra y con armas compradas, a precios de oferta, en el mercado negro promocionado por mandos medios del ejército. La detención del mismo, el 10 de junio de 1993, apenas dieciocho días después de los sucesos de Jalisco, sitúa la escena narrada entre estos dos hechos de manera muy significativa.1

In the original Spanish, the author describes the ladinos quite artistically; however, it is intended for a Mexican audience. Since he describes this group as “indigenous” and “from the mountains,” in the Spanish, one could not allow the translation to borrow the word directly for use in the English translation. In Central America, Ladino is defined as a group of people who are of mixed ethnic heritage (Spanish and Indigenous) that live in areas of Mexico and Guatemala. In English, we have another word for this group of people – Mestizo. It might, in some cases, be fine to simply swap these two words and assume they have a close enough meaning in each respective culture. However, in the case of Loret de Mola, the term needs adaptation rather than simple translation.

In the article, ladinos is in quotes. This is a literary practice that is often used to indicate a secondary, indirect or dubious connotation. The use of quotation marks to indicate a new word or a direct quote was clearly not what was intended. This can be deduced by the fact that ladino is a word used commonly in Mexican vernacular and throughout Central America. As a result of knowing this, a translator should question why the word is in quotes and whether there is something else the author is trying to convey. Loret de Mola’s writing style indicated that there was some underlying meaning to which he was leading the reader.

In the era of Mexican history (1993), which Loret de Mola references at the beginning of his article, society was tumultuous – the economy was struggling, the drug trade had already been established as a formidable force in politics, and there were militia movements within Mexico that were strongly anti-government and anti-PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had maintained power in Mexico between 1929 and 2000). Against this backdrop of knowledge, what Loret de Mola seems to be alluding to is made clearer he points out the location and actions of the group in his narrative “…adiestrados por los “ladinos” aposentados de la sierra y con armas compradas…” The ladinos were guerrillas and guerrilla trainers.

The question that came to me in this instant was whether it was pertinent to present the idea of ethnicity in the target language. Unlike Mexican society with its very strict class hierarchy, race is the greater focus in United States society with class distinctions playing a comparatively minor role. Mestizo, while a concept in English, is not defined as a racial group in the United States, as such, and holds no positive or negative connotation in the collective mind of society. Additionally, one must consider whether the author is attempting to incite a racial or ethnic bias through this literary allusion. Having read the article, it seemed that the author was, in fact, criticizing the actions of the Mexican government and the effects thereof on the lower castes of his society that drove them to the militia movements. He was not criticizing the ethnic ladinos simply for being ethnic ladinos.

Would the final translation of Loret de Mola’s narrative benefit from this ethnic distinction in English? He was employing allusion after all, and the ethic distinction allowed for easy use of the literary mechanism that worked well for Spanish and for Mexico. However, to maintain Loret de Mola’s ethnic distinction in translation would be of no benefit to his work nor to his message because using “Mestizo” would be understood as a race-based distinction in the United States, whose relationship with race is very different than that of Mexico. Since race tensions are seemingly a never-ending and, at times, insurmountable aspect of American culture, I chose, as the translator, to render ladinos not with the near equivalent English “Mestizos,” but rather with the intended meaning of the author, “guerrillas.” Choosing to translate this as “Mestizo” would not have conveyed allusion of “guerrilla” given that in the United States Mestizos are not commonly associated with guerrilla groups, which, in the American understanding, are exclusively understood to be a Latin American phenomenon. Even the idea of a “militia member” differs enough from that of a “guerrilla” that it would not have been near enough in meaning to use the former in the context of the author’s commentary. As a result, the allusion could not be maintained and adapting for the target audience was the most important action in order to maintain the integrity of the author’s message.

Don’t forget that El Chapo fled the Guadalajara airport on the roof of a taxi after the assassination of Cardinal Posadas and was to take refuge along the border of Mexico and Guatemala, by the Canyons, very near where the indigenous fighters were swarming in ski masks and being trained by the retired guerrillas in the mountains with arms bought at a bargain on the black market and advertised by mid-level commanders in the army.

Of course, there was another instance within this article of a word that is used in both Mexican and American culture. In both cultures the word junior has various uses depending on context; the meanings of which are not always equivalent. Juniors intocables literally translated could be rendered as “untouchable juniors:” however, like with ladino, there are different cultural assumptions and connotations between Mexico and the United States. In the context of the author’s commentary, junior refers to the children of the rich political elite and the crime bosses of Mexico. While the meaning of “child” or “a name used to refer to a descendant, son in singular, or children in plural” does exist in both paradigms, the idea that these decedents being only of the “elite” does not exist on a massive level in the United States.

The Mexican understanding of a junior (taking into account the additional information about the wealthy elite families of Mexico provided in the article itself) could be rendered in English as “rich kid,” and Loret de Mola’s intended meaning would be very clear. However, as the meaning is very clear and unhidden in Mexican Spanish, the translation of this word provided an opportunity to compensate for the loss of the allusion presented with the author’s previous use of ladinos. By translating juniors simply as “kids” there is an underlying allusory meaning in American English.

One meaning of “kid” in English is “baby goat.” Goats are also the animal that is most often associated with the Abrahamic religions’ construct of the devil – a useful bit of information regarding American culture. Having chosen the adjective intocable, it is apparent that the author does not intend to be gentle in delivering his criticism relating to the children of rich elites, who he posits as nefarious characters. Using “kid” to mean “child” instead of the more specific intended meaning of “rich kid,” allows for compensation in that the literary allusion lost in the translation of ladinos can now be re-introduced in another part of the target text. Overall, this is beneficial to maintaining the integrity of the author’s style of writing by allowing the American English reader to consider the underlying meaning, of “kid” just as the Mexican Spanish reader had been able to do with ladinos.

One must always keep in mind that translation is an art, even if a text is non-artistic. Turnaround time is important, accuracy is key, and maintaining the intention of the original source content in the target output cannot be discounted. In the case of Loret de Mola’s article, understanding cultural nuances in the Mexican context played the most important role in the translation of the article. As the translator, I was required to be very focused on the author’s style, intent, and overall goal. Simply, ignoring the strict cultural nuance would not have done the article justice. Adapting fully and thereby erasing the fact the article is about Mexico was not an option either.  The middle ground seems to be unattainable at times, but with the right effort, it is completely feasible to remain faithful to the source text while translating style, nuance, and intent accurately not just from language to language, but from culture to culture.

  1. http://lagazzettadf.com/noticia/2014/02/16/veneno-puro-30/