Over the years I have learned that translating texts is not just about changing the words of one language to another. As a field, translating requires the empathy and openness to frame two cultures at once: the culture of the writer, and the culture of the reader.
For a year now, Yolanda Fauvet has been Glasstire’s resident translator. She lives and works in Mexico City and seamlessly moves between the two languages because of her own history and interest in the nuances of translating languages. Her specific interest lies in translating texts of contemporary art, and her interest in communicating these texts to a broad audience has lent itself to Yolanda connecting with people with different backgrounds and cultures.
I have known Yolanda for a long time, and have had the pleasure of working closely with her for a number of years. Over the past month we had an extensive conversation about her work, her perspective as a translator, and her process.
Leslie Moody Castro: How do you define translation?
Yolanda Fauvet: Within the context of written texts, I view translation as the process of passing ideas from one language to another, and thus, from one culture to another, and from one perspective to another. While we tend to think of translation as existing in more formal situations, like literature and academia, it happens around us all the time.
LMC: What does that mean for you in terms of communication?
YF: At its very root, I believe translation is the acknowledgement of the Other, an acceptance that people out there are different, come from different regions, have different world views, and different ways of communicating. As I see it, the acts of reading or writing translations symbolize a human effort to establish a connection with people from other backgrounds and cultures.
That said, it’s important to note that the way we use translation goes hand in hand with the way we treat the Other. Do we seek to embrace or to dominate? Do we seek a thoughtful exchange of ideas or simply to impose our own? Do we seek to be challenged by that which we do not know or to shun what we cannot recognize?
When I am working on a translation, I must do my best to keep these kinds of questions in mind. It implies a continual process of personal examination of the factors that influence my decisions, which you can imagine isn’t easy to negotiate. It is my hope to be on the embracing side of the spectrum, and to be conscientious of both the source culture and the receiving culture of my translations.
LMC: Can you tell our audience about “the Other”? What does that mean, and what does it mean in the context of communication/translation?
YF: When I say the Other, I’m speaking in a broad philosophical sense of the experience when we become aware of the differences between another person or a group of people and ourselves. If we bring this experience into a literary context, the way we as a society react to those who are different from us directly influences the way we choose to translate their experiences and stories.
For instance, if we would rather recognize ourselves and our customs when we’re reading translated stories from around the world, then we might prefer to replace a metaphor from a certain region with an idiom that we are familiar with. Or, perhaps we’d prefer that the names of local dishes be replaced by food we grew up eating or could easily identify. For example, a corunda would simply become a “tamale.” On the other hand, if we are reading the translated stories from other cultures because we want to be exposed to new perspectives, then we probably want to learn new metaphors that bring us the imagery and wisdom of another culture. Or, when we come across a dish we don’t recognize, we eagerly look it up to figure out what it is they’re eating.
When deciding what words to use, the translator must consider whether they’re bringing the source culture into the translation or adapting it to fit the receiving culture’s identity. When a translator is consciously trying to maintain aspects of the story that are characteristic to a certain culture or region, they are also actively trying to find a balance between giving the reader enough to grasp onto while also bringing them the experience of being faced with a different way of life than what they typically identify with. The second part of the balancing act is trying to maintain enough difference in the translation while being careful not over-exoticize the cultural aspects.
There isn’t one specific formula when it comes to how we treat the Other in translation, and each project comes with its own set of challenges. Theorists like Susan Bassnett, Antoine Berman, and Lawrence Venuti have helped me begin to see all that goes on behind the scenes, so to speak, when translating. Luckily, I also have colleagues who are open to discussing these issues and working through them together.
LMC: What is your approach and methodology?
YF: Like any creative endeavor, each translation project takes me on a different journey every time, depending on the particular needs or challenges that present themselves in the process. So far, I haven’t found one particular method for producing a final translated text, and I think I’ll be experimenting with different approaches for years to come.
That said, I would like to share one of my favorite approaches, which I learned from translator and theorist Susan Bassnett. In her article entitled Gained in Translation, she describes the process of writing a basic version by hand as fast as she can go without stopping to look anything up. I’ve come to really appreciate this “crude draft,” as Bassnett calls it, because it allows you to tap into your own personal harvest of words and phrases that may not have come to you if you had been distracted by the stop and go nature of looking things up.
I would say my methodology is less about having defined steps and more about defining the intention behind each translation task I am given. To return to the idea about embracing the Other that I mentioned above, I feel privileged to have grown up speaking both Spanish and English at home, and I believe that experience positioned me to be a cultural mediator between the distinct Mexican and American communities I’m a part of. Right now, I am learning how to better understand the needs of future readers of the translated versions of text I write, as well as how to better evaluate aspects of the original source texts that are most relevant to those readers.
Another crucial aspect of my methodology is cultivating the collaborative nature of translation. In just about all my translations, I have worked with at least one other person in one way or another. Asking a colleague to proofread a final draft, discussing particular idiomatic phrases with friends, or contacting the author about the meaning of a certain term or phrase exemplify some of the ways in which my translation process depends on communicating with others. After having had the experience of presenting my literary translations in a workshop with other translators and writers, there’s no going back to working alone. Having the input of other professionals is absolutely invaluable and brings a richness to the work that could only have come about in a collaborative setting. Now I seek out those opportunities as often as I can.
LMC: You recently formed a translation collective which I find really interesting! Can you tell me more about that?
YF: Thank you for asking! I’m very excited about it. We’re a literary translation collective based in Mexico City called Falsos Amigos, which is a play on the linguistic term “false friends.” We are very much real translators and we’re active in a variety of disciplines, including Spanish literature, classical philology, performing arts, film production, contemporary art, and social sciences. The collective is made of eight members*, including myself, and we all met in a literary translation program at ENALLT-UNAM, an affiliate department of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
We all come from different backgrounds and have varied perspectives regarding translation. At some point in the program we realized we worked really well together and formed the collective to keep that energy going after our program ended. Studying translation has widened our understanding on the impact translation can have on society. It has also equipped us with several methodologies and theories that we are now eager to work through in real-life and everyday situations. The ability to have a continuing dialogue about translation issues is very important to us, and our hope is to be able to open these conversations up to a wider audience through a variety of projects.
In addition to the support we give each other in our personal endeavors, we are interested in working collaboratively on translation projects as well. Currently, we offer translation services for literary, cultural, and humanities-based texts from Spanish to English, English to Spanish, French to Spanish, Russian to Spanish, Italian to Spanish, and Latin to Spanish. If you’d like to see what we’re up to, we’re active on Instagram @falsosamigoscolectivo.
LMC: I think many people think of translating as a straightforward, language-to-language situation. You, however, have recognized that translating is also as complex as the fields you are working within. Tell me why you decided to focus on art specifically?
YF: It was actually art that lead me to translation. On par with studying sculpture in college, I was being asked by my peers or professors for translation help, whether it be to interpret studio critiques with a Spanish-speaking visiting artist or to help translate text to disseminate information about a socially-oriented art project to Spanish-speaking communities. After college I moved to Denver and began working in art museums. I took on requests to help give guided tours in Spanish or even translate gallery text. At the time, the city was making a push to be immigrant friendly, and as a result there was a push to create content for Spanish speakers.
I remember before giving my first museum tour in Spanish, I had prepared notes of detailed facts. As the tour began, I realized that most of the families in my group had never been to an art museum before. I put my notes away because, at that point, the most important thing was to help them feel comfortable in this unfamiliar institution. So I needed to talk about the art in the context of also showing them how to navigate the space. I think that’s when the seed was planted in my mind that translating art text was a political act, and that by being a friendly face that spoke Spanish I was inviting people into an art space where they had not felt welcomed to enter before.
Situations like the one I mention show that being a translator also means acting as a cultural mediator. So beyond the true pleasure I take in writing and playing with words and meanings, my background in art has also brought me to try to open those doors to Spanish-speaking communities who want to be a part of the conversation.
On that note, I would also like to combat something I once heard, and that still irks me, which is the notion that contemporary art only exists in English. English-speaking art communities still have a lot to learn about existing realities in other parts of the world, including the art theories that can develop out of international communities and their distinct circumstances. Simply because something is “cultural” doesn’t exclude it from the lexicon of contemporary art. Whether translating literature or art, it’s just as important to bring Spanish texts into the English language and contexts as well.
LMC: You focus on translating text specifically focused on Contemporary Art. Can you tell us why you have chosen such a specific focus?
YF: Translation and art are becoming more and more intertwined for me, and this includes a theoretical sense as well. One of the early translation theorists, Roman Jakobson, explains that the human ability for translation is hardwired in our brains. No matter how many languages we speak, we are constantly translating what we experience in the world into the thoughts in our heads. And whenever we speak, no matter what language, we are translating our thoughts and feelings into words with the hope that others will hear and understand us.
And I think you can view artmaking as being an extension of that cognitive process. When we make art, we are also translating our thoughts, sensations, and emotions into the language of objects, materials, structures, performances, and so on. I think it’s a beautiful correlation. In both cases — either art or translation — the makers are deeply invested in the experience of the viewer or reader. I believe both art and translation involve an intentionality to stimulate people’s minds by providing them with just enough context for them to then want to continue filling in the blanks and interacting with the work.
* The members of Falsos Amigos are: Diana Barberena Jonas, Gloria Ramos Mendoza, Viera Khovliáguina, Victoria Pérez Meraz, Paulina H. Marroquín, Diana Rebeca Pérez Enciso, Andrew Adair, and Yolanda Fauvet.
Yolanda Fauvet is a visual artist and a translator. Yolanda was born in Colorado, where she received her bachelor of arts in religious studies and bachelor of fine arts in sculpture, and is now based in Mexico City, where she recently formalized her translation experience through the literary translation program at ENALLT-UNAM. She works with the English and Spanish languages and is currently a member of Falsos Amigos, a literary translation collective interested in exploring collaborative processes and having thoughtful discussions about translation. Her recent projects include translations of poetry, microfiction, gallery texts, and essays about contemporary art.