Losing Dignity in Translation



Photo by eldiario.es

These days I don’t do as much translating of articles as before, I’m not sure why. This weekend I was going to write something, maybe translate something, on Saturday’s marches in Spain, which after long treks from the periphery to the centre, finally converged at the Plaza de Colón in Madrid, the presence of some two million people. Two million people according to the organisers, but only 50,000 according to a large section of the Spanish press. There is an article in La Marea today pointing out that on previous occasions when this square was filled, the papers had no trouble putting attendance in the millions. But that was when the square was things like demonstrations against gay marriage, or against abortion.

In this case, the marches, according to their organisers, were for ‘Pan, Techo y Trabajo‘, that is, ‘Bread, Shelter and Work’. Their manifesto expressed the need for a ‘unified, massive and resounding mobilisation against policies that attack human rights and social justice.’ It called for ‘a mobilisation against debt payments, for decent employment, for a basic income, for social rights, for democratic freedoms, against cutbacks, repression and corruption, and for a society of free men and women, a mobilisation against a system, a regime and governments that do us harm and do not represent us.’

The name of this mobilisation was, in Castillian, Marchas de la dignidad. A large banner led the marches bearing the word dignidad alongside its cognate in the other languages of the peoples of the Spanish State: dignidá, dignitat, dignidade, and so on, as well as its Basque translation: duintasuna.

Even if you haven’t a word of Spanish or Catalan or Asturian or Galician, you can probably figure out what the English for dignidad is. But do you know what it means?

I don’t know much about translation theory and don’t have any standard approach to translating things. Most people know that any translation results in losses and gains. What a word means depends on a lot of things: from how it sounds in relation to other words to the cultural and historical experiences of the person who encounters the word. When translating something, you feel a certain ethical obligation to convey the meaning of the word as fully as the original speaker intends it. Sometimes you can achieve this, more or less. Other times you feel like you need pages of footnotes to get this across.

So I could take the word dignidad and translate it as ‘dignity’ and say nothing more about it and no-one would say I was being misleading or inaccurate. But why translate things unless you’re doing it for an imagined target audience or readership? A translator usually already has a good grasp of what the word means in its original language. So she or he does not need to translate it in order to understand it.

That particular scruple meant I didn’t get round to doing any translation. I couldn’t be confident that my imagined target readership knew what dignity means.

Do you know who likes to talk about dignity in English? Enda Kenny. Part of his mantra for enforcing his government’s austerity policies is ‘growing old with dignity’, whatever that means. Do people only need dignity when they’re on the home stretch to the grave? Then there is the associated word ‘dignified’. What do you think whenever you hear people say ‘we’ll be having a dignified protest’? What I hear is: we’ll be having a protest with no shouting or roaring or anything like that. Just stand quietly for a bit and hopefully no-one will take too much notice before we shuffle away. The idea that dignity might involve roaring and shouting and confrontation and open conflict with ruling powers -among other things- seems kind of alien to my imagined audience’s sensibilities.

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