Translating personality

The manuscript of our Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century: Essential Readings is now with Oxford University Press. Now we wait. And while we wait, we reflect on lessons learned in the process. Here’s one I learned: what is ultimately lost in translation is the personality of the original author, and sometimes that’s a good thing. It’s difficult to translate sarcasm, pretentious tones, colloquialisms, etc., that are specific to the person who is attempting to communicate a philosophical idea. Whenever I found myself confronted with a statement of this sort, my first instinct was to stay loyal to the sarcasm, the tone, etc. But then it didn’t translate right. The translation would disrupt the context, the surrounding sentences would suffer, the paragraph would begin to crack. I was trying to force the personality of the author into the translation, and it showed. That was my first instinct. It failed every time. A more reflective instinctual move was to re-place the found personality with my own—this is how I would say so and so. This didn’t work either. The tone would change. My personality would infect the whole damn thing until, in my eyes, the paragraph around the translated sentence looked perverted and weird. The safe bet became to, first, situate the sarcastic statement, tone, or colloquialism within its proper historical context, second, consider not what the author said but what was said by members of that historical community, and, third, re-place the Spanish phrase with another Spanish phrase and translate that one. So while I lost the personality of the original author, I gained the personality of a community of speakers that, ultimately, is what we were trying to get at. –cas

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