If you’re a blog skimmer rather than reader, please comment on this one question, would you be willing to occasionally volunteer some time to translate important blog posts from Spanish (or any other language) into English for Global Voices? And if so, how frequently and what types of blog posts?

As I’ve written before and as I’ll continue to write until things change: delightedly surprised am I that the world wide web remains such a text-centric medium. Just when the written word seemed slated for undistinguished extinction in contemporary life, it has mounted – via the internet – a Clintonian sized comeback.

The advantages of text over audio and video are many, but universal communication is not one of them. Text will not give you intonation of voice, no hand gestures, sympathetic smiles, facial expressions, nor awkward laughter. Which is exactly how I managed to communicate with other travelers at Kabul Hostel this morning when we didn’t speak the same language. In short, try going to any country in the world and watching a soap opera in the local language and you’ll realize just how much you’re able to understand without “understanding” anything.

It was the fourth session, The future of the Global Conversation, that I had most been looking forward to in the weeks leading up to the GV Summit. Not because I am a fan of futuristic hypothesizing, but because the issue of translation was promised to play a central part in the conversation. Specifically, I wanted to take a look at the toolset being developed by the Blogamundo guys to help volunteers translate blog posts and web pages from one language to another. Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law would not be overcome and tech problems prevented us from seeing the goods.

Instead, in my opinion, what turned out to be one of the most memorable tangential monologues of the conference (of which there were plenty) came from one very articulate and magnetic Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, who commented on her experience at the International Women’s Forum in Beijing. Sharon, equally fluent in Mandarin and English obviously chose not to wear translator’s headphones at the Forum. But then she heard a speaker use some term like “non-hegemonic reification” and thought to herself, now, how in the hell are they going to translate that. Grasping for the headphones, she said that the translation – by the best in the business – in no way represented what the speaker was trying to get across. It dawned on her that other words besides “non-hegemonic reification” might also present difficulties to translators and so she set out to create an English-Chinese lexicon of global terms which would be understood by speakers of both languages. In the end, UNESCO wound up publishing the list as the “English-Chinese Lexicon of Women and Law.” But you might be surprised by some of the words, which she said were most difficult to find agreement on. Words like family, sexuality, and gender. Her point was as pertinent as it was obvious: the difficulty in translation lies in conveying ideas and concepts, not words and sentences.

Translating such concepts as family, sexuality, and gender seems to be much easier between Spanish and English than Mandarin and English. But that’s not always the case. A translator for Televisa and I were once discussing the Mexican media’s use of the word “embargo” which means “seizure” in Spanish (as in if you don’t pay your credit cards they come and “embargar” your household items). And so when you try and report on the United States’ “embargo on Cuba” it sounds very much like we are planning our takeover any day now. Which could, in fact, account for some Latin American paranoia that we will do just that. But the translator told me that the Mexican media has gone ahead and adopted the American use of the word embargo in political context even if it may confuse some readers.

This is certainly not the first time that American influence has played its part on southernly neighbors’ word meanings. Control, lonche, sándwich, cóctel, ponche, bar, chance, and lobista are all easy examples. Furthermore, like the change in meaning of “embargo,” Latin Americans now uses educación where Spaniards still say pedagogía or eneñanza. Argumento replaces discusión, audiencia for concurrencia, and complexión takes the place of tez. Or there is my favorite, maybellín, which is replacing maquillaje.

The point is, even in the same language, one person’s American persea is another’s Palta and yet another’s testicle, or “aguacate.” And so the difficulties of translating global ideas into local contexts becomes almost as daunting as the reverse: conveying local nuances to a global audience.

I’m about to get kicked out of the brand new library here in Gracia (thank you god for the coquettish girl who let me use her password for wi-fi!) so I’ll have to finish this tomorrow. Please do comment on that first question though even if it’s telling me to fuck off unless Global Voices would be willing to pay you money to do translations. Peas and love to all.

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