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

For those who know about translation in its most basic sense, the art of making one language into another through the use of words, there is, very often the misguided belief that translation is mechanical and that there will always be a 100% equivalency between two languages – that a human translator has a computer-like brain that runs algorithms at the speed of light, or has such an impeccable memory that he or she has been able to memorize every aspect and caveat of both languages and is able to expeditiously make one language into another.

This is not how it works, much to the chagrin of translation buyers as well as translators and interpreters themselves. The deeper and more stringent requirement for such professionals is to take their understanding of each culture, including political implications and intent of the author, and apply it to the target culture in context. Interpreters and translators alike have a very important role to play when it comes 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 even today.

Luckily, for me, there is likely no chance that I will ever be at such a level of influence. Translators and interpreters play an important role that can promote rhetoric or at least not intensify tensions related to it. In most translation business dealings, translation will not be so politically charged. However, having an understanding of how a certain culture affects language is of paramount importance, because this influence informs translation and conveying an understanding of concepts 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 the effect and interaction with the militia movements within Mexico. His writing style is entertaining for me as a reader as he provides an opinion on the history of this intrigue, the current outcomes thereof, and he conveys the information in a sardonic rant, which I believe is the best way to discuss the collusion that exists (and not only in Mexico) between wealthy elites and wealthy crime bosses. Whether I enjoyed the article or not is of minor importance, however. The task of the translator is to convey the information in an accessible manner to the target audience and culture. This translation was a test in many ways given the need for it to be accessible to the American English reader, but also to maintain the integrity of the author.

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 a translator is not allowed to act as a political pundit and spin the article toward any particular narrative that may be informed by his or her own personal politics. In fact, any spin on the facts, or the presentation thereof, is at the discretion of the author and those who read his opinions.

The power of words has the potential to be quite immense, especially, when they evoke emotion. From the propaganda of the 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 equivalent. The most a translator can hope hope to achieve is being as close to the meaning as possible. This, you see, is the power that a translator has. If there are two people who must communicate, and a third who is the medium for such communication, much trust must be put in this third person, the translator or interpreter, and s/he should remain ethical and, at times, make difficult decisions in choosing the best possible expression of ideas.

The first of such words that presented some difficulty in Loret de Mola’s article was the word 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 was very 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 described the ladinos quite artistically; however, his description is meant 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 as a direct quote from another person was clearly not the intention of the author. 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 would have to delve deeper and ask why the word is in quotes, and if there is something else the author is trying to convey. The author’s writing style is such that it seemed to me that there was some underlying meaning to which he was trying to lead the reader.

In the era of Mexican history (1993), which Loret de Mola references at the beginning of his article, there was quite a bit to tumult in Mexican society – the economy was struggling, the drug trade had already become a very formidable force in society and politics, and there were militia movements within Mexico that are strongly anti-government and anti-PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party – the political party that had maintained power in Mexico between 1929 and 2000). During this societal distress, the author leads the reader to associate the ladinos with guerrilla trainers of these militias. In fact, the author suggests his intended meaning when 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 question presented to a translator here is whether or not it is pertinent to present the idea of ethnicity in the target language. Unlike Mexican society, which is based heavily on class and ethnicity, American society is based on wealth and race, with class distinctions playing a minor role in comparison to Mexico. Mestizo, while a concept in English, is not defined as a racial group in the United States and it holds no connotation, positive or negative. 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 Mexican society that drove them to the militia movements as opposed to criticizing the ethnic ladinos simply for being ethnic ladinos.

I had to make a decision as to whether the final translation of Loret de Mola’s narrative would benefit from this ethnic distinction. He was employing allusion after all, and the ethic distinction allowed for easy use of the literary mechanism. To maintain Loret de Mola’s ethnic distinction would be of no benefit to his work nor to his message because of the fact that in the United States using “Mestizo” would be understood as a race-based distinction as opposed to an ethnic one. 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 of “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 the text in the target language was the most appropriate course of action 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 descendent, son in singular, or children in plural” does exist in both places, 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 supplementary information about the wealthy elite families of Mexico in the article, 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 of the children of rich elites, who he posits as nefarious characters in the article. 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, knowledge of each culture played a more important role in making the information accessible to both Mexican and American readers than the simple act of translating the words at face value. A translator is tasked with a very important charge as their linguistic decisions can have a direct political impact in the target culture, and his or her ethics are always put to the test, because, very often, it is only he or she who has the understanding of the power translation wields.