The Need For Human Translation

Amidst the Orlando tragedy lies another misfortune that could be prevented: a lack of translators. According to several news sources, many of the victims’ families haven’t been contacted due to the need for translators and interpreters. This is a huge injustice, and no one even knows it’s happening. As we all focus on the gunman and his actions, we forget we have our own action to take within this calamity: informing the families of the updates and developments. In this globally connected world the need for human translators is on the rise.

The role of translation in society has always been crucial: politics, business, literature, religion, technical, etc. When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Greek, or La Malinche helping Hernán Cortés conquest the Aztec Empire, or even Sacagawea helping Lewis and Clark on their expedition, our world progressed not only through the passion of human endeavor but also on the foundation of human translation.

On June 13, 2016 renowned Spanish and Portuguese translator Gregory Rabassa passed away at the age of 94. He was born in New York in 1922 and majored in romance languages. After graduating, he served as a cryptographer during World War II, which he later attributes to his desire to translate. Afterwards, Rabassa studied Spanish and Portuguese at Columbia University as a graduate student. It was from there he began translating novels for Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold), Julio Cortázar (Hopscotch, A Manual for Manuel, 62: A Model Kit), Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, among others. In fact, Rabassa translated over 30 novels, not counting his numerous other works. He spent his career translating and teaching at Queens College and Columbia University.

His philosophy of translation is known as ‘sense for sense’: “So the poor translator must not just go back and forth between two languages, but if he is worthy of his calling he must shift between two selves, with all the perils of this induced schizophrenia,” stated Rabassa in his memoir, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents.

I mention Rabassa’s work, and recent his passing, to show not only the importance of translation, but also the power it has in our lives. The works Rabassa translated are highly regarded in the field of literature and have helped pave way for further translations. Rabassa’s philosophy of translation is prominent and respected. His presence will be missed but the work he leaves behind will continue with all translators who follow in his footsteps. His honors include the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, the Wheatland Prize for Translation, the Alexander Gode Medal from the American Translators Association and the National Medal of Arts.

Translation obtains the power to bridge the gap between lives, between cultures. In the example of the Orlando tragedy, translation brings answers and comfort to those who lost a loved one. Translation helps find the words no one ever thought they would hear. Translation makes the indescribable--effable. So, even among the darkest of times we have a light through translation.

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