Translation as an Arithmetic of Loss


Arts & Culture

More than half of my life has been lived in translation. I moved to America when I was eighteen, and although my mother tongue is Spanish, I am so fluent in English that I talk like a native speaker. When you live between languages, the conversion of meaning is an arithmetic in loss. The transference of what I want to say pours from one container into an incompatible receptacle. Inevitably, something is lost. I am used to thinking of something in Spanish, for example, which then comes out strangely in English, or cannot be said in English at all, not in the same way. I am used to being understood sufficiently, rather than fully.

I wrote my first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, while I was working as a freelance translator and interpreter. I translated articles, wrote captions for documentaries, but the work I liked doing the most was simultaneous interpretation. That’s when two people (or one person and a roomful of people) who don’t speak the same language want to communicate and an interpreter does a real-time, live, continuous translation of what is being said without interrupting. There was a sparkling brain feeling that came with the labor of listening to someone speak in Spanish, then having my mouth open and speak English—like I was a spirit medium at the crossroads of language. I was always impressed that my brain could perform such a task, that I could listen and immediately translate, and then, while still speaking, tune out my own voice and listen again, translate again, continue to speak, following the speaker’s thoughts.

Simultaneous interpretation was just work to me—it didn’t have a role in my creative writing—until my sister got very sick.

Hers is not my story to tell, not really, so I will just say that at the time, we didn’t know if she would live. She was at an inpatient program for women with eating disorders. I slept on the floor of her apartment, which had been empty for many months, and Mami and Papi slept in her bed. The center provided an interpreter for Mami. There were speeches about girls who had survived that needed to be translated, there were meetings with doctors and nurses and psychiatrists. But everything was getting lost in translation.

My sister was sick because of PTSD and trauma, but these words did not mean anything to my mother, who believed her daughter was sick because of witchcraft. Mami was a seer from a line of faith healers. In this ancestry, physical ailments were tied to spiritual, psychic, and emotional ailments. PTSD, trauma, eating disorders—those were white people words. Our people did not get sick in this way, or if they did, we had never needed another word for what was wrong other than “suffering.” We had our own solutions. We dealt with suffering by making offerings, relying on our community. We defied suffering with joy. My sister was not interested in those cures. I did not blame her. No matter how much we danced, what we offered, how passionately we insisted on celebration, suffering always returned.

So even though the interpreter spoke with speed and diligence to Mami, telling her what was being said, it didn’t matter. As my mother tried to engage with an unfamiliar system of medicine in a language she couldn’t understand, I became acutely aware of translation’s failures.

Eventually, because the kind of translation Mami needed required an unearthing of cultural context, colonialism, and history, we decided that I would interpret for Mami.

I translated for five, sometimes eight hours a day. It was emotionally draining, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I wanted Mami to hear it in her own tongue, from a familiar voice, all the ways in which we had made my older sister sick, all the ways in which she might not survive.

As with any other devastating time in my life, writing became my life raft. I sat before my desk and worked and worked. Since I spent so many hours thinking and engaging in translation, since I was living daily with lost meaning, it infected my voice as I wrote. I did the only thing that made emotional sense. I became my own interpreter. I imagined the world of the novel—the dialogue, the feelings, the landscape, even the silences—in Spanish, but by the time the meaning reached my fingertips, I typed it in English. The novel, told in two points of view, tells the story of two girls, one who is able to escape a desperate situation and immigrate, and one who is not.

Why didn’t you write the novel in Spanish? This is a question I get all the time. Language is one of the things you sacrifice when you migrate. I wanted to be true to the toll of that sacrifice by making visible what exactly was being lost.

As a writer, I did things I would never do as an interpreter. In a simultaneous translation, when idioms, humor, or puns come up, you’re supposed to steer clear of them and translate for the general meaning. You’re supposed to let the color, the humor, the warmth of a language die because more often than not, what is funny in Spanish will not be funny in English, what is a pun in one language will never find an equivalent in another, and what is culturally rich cannot be transferred easily into another culture. The structure of humor in language arises from the historical victories and trauma of its people. To try to carry that meaning over to a people with a different set of historical particulars is nearly impossible. There were sentences that I failed to translate and did not include in the book.

For example, how to translate a joke that is said in passing about corpses?

A Colombian audience would laugh, a Western audience would cringe. In order to translate the joke to a Western audience, an additional sentence might be needed to explain why there are so many corpses in Colombian humor. But you can’t explain a joke. People living in a war-torn place understand implicitly. It’s because there are so many corpses in our daily lives.

How many sentences were lost? It’s hard to tell. But I lived for the moments when I was able to stretch the language and make it strange. More than providing an expeditious and accurate translation, I became interested in doing what might be considered a bad translation, a clumsy transference of meaning where the journey from one language to another was manifest.

The title of the novel is a transliteration. There is a tree in Colombia known colloquially as the borrachero, literally, that which gets you drunk. From this tree comes a drug used since indigenous times known as burundanga. The tree is full of scopolamine, which is used in the date-rape drug. Burundanga is a kind of mind-control drug, inhibiting your ability to make decisions on your own. With all this history, I could not translate borrachero to datura or nightshade. I wanted the language to be Spanish, dressed in English, which as it happens, is the language that is the most beautiful to me. So borrachero became drunken tree. It makes no sense in English, but what was important to me was to incite the reader to feel that something was getting lost in translation.

My sister found CNN calming, I don’t know why. That’s what we watched. Because she might die, because there was nothing in the world I could do about it, I gave all of myself to those moments sitting next to her as week by week her skin went through the process of shrink-wrapping against her bones. The television flared with an alert ribbon that alerted us only to what we already knew. The news was never new on CNN. But it made her calm. It made her life bearable. That’s all I needed to know. My sister and I did not know what to say to each other. Girls died at the center. They became sitting skeletons and one day they were gone. I rested my head on her shoulder.

There were simultaneous interpreters on CNN. I watched them closely. They interpreted whenever there was a United Nations address. I tried to keep up, interpreting in my head. I paused at times to admire the word choice of the CNN interpreter. Sometimes I stuttered, forgot a word, but the CNN interpreters never did. They translated with enviable accuracy and calm. Sitting next to my sister, between the things we could and could not say to each other, neither in English nor in Spanish, I thought about the middle space between languages.

There were things I didn’t interpret for my mother. I wanted to protect her. I didn’t translate when the doctors announced there had been a death, for example. I didn’t want her to know. But my sister did. She filled in the gaps where I wanted there to be silence. She translated each thing I wanted to have gone unsaid, unknown to my mother forever. She wanted Mami to know it all.

Simultaneous translation is not primarily made possible by the regions of the brain that control articulation and comprehension of language, as you might think, but by the regions of the brain known to facilitate memory, listening, decision making, and trust. It is not a purely language-based task. The brain handles the process of interpretation by coordinating between areas that might be used for other things, such as moving your body through space.

The Brain and Language Lab in Geneva studies how the brain acts at different levels of language processing. In a 2014 Time magazine article, the Group Leader of the lab, Narly Golestani, said, “[In interpretation] two languages are active simultaneously. And not just in one modality, because you have perception and production at the same time. So the brain regions involved go to an extremely high level, beyond language.”

Although counterintuitive, this makes sense to me. There’s a quiet space between languages. There’s a lag between interpretation, a no-place where, as the mind conjures meaning in one tongue and finds the equivalent in a second tongue, a portal opens. There is no language here, only guttural emotion. Everything feels unnamed, and, therefore, a bit eternal. Meaning cannot be lost here, because it is all there is. I love language, but this is my favorite experience of meaning: where language is doubled, and also erased.

At the center, in between interpreting for Mami, I watched my sister sleep. She was too tired. She had no energy. Her collarbones protruded, and the top of her ribs appeared and disappeared beneath her T-shirt as she breathed. She looked like a child. Her eyes seemed bigger. The lids didn’t close completely and the slit of white at the bottom was tressed over by the black of her lashes. Not knowing what else to do, I drew her as I watched her sleep. I filled in her clothes with appropriate colors.

From time to time, Mami and I joined my sister’s therapy sessions. I went from interpreting, to participating in the conversation, to translating my own contributions after I was done speaking. Francis and Mami cried. I did not cry. I let their words travel through my brain across languages, and then I talked about horizons.

Transliterations became my favorite thing in my own book. I liked that they dropped English speakers in the middle of a foreign experience, and that for bilingual speakers, they provided tunnels that could connect languages. I wanted us, the displaced, the migratory, to have a preferred experience. And I wanted Colombians who could read the book in English to have the most meaningful experience of all. Some sentences in the novel are just for them. These sentences are the ones that most often get mistaken for poetry. There is one sentence in particular, in the opening chapter, when instead of simply saying that a character was raped and became pregnant, I wrote the savagery of what we say in Colombia when a woman is impregnated against her will: “Her belly was filled with bones.”

When there is a sentence for this, Le llenaron la barriga de huesos, it becomes criminal to say instead, “She was raped. She got pregnant.” I didn’t want an equivalent of how savage our language could be. I wanted the language to be exactly as savage. When Colombians living overseas encounter this sentence in English, I know that two things happen: recognition, followed by heartbreak at having to hear the very heart of our language bastardized in another tongue. But that’s the cost of translation and migration. And that’s the point.

Now that the book is out, I notice that it’s bilingual readers who understand this best. They bring it up on their own, they ask me if I wrote while thinking in Spanish. They recognize the cadence in some sentences, the rhythm, the strange wording.

At the end of my month-long stay, I went to the center and waited for my sister in the lobby so that I could say goodbye to her. I was lost in worry over how my mother and sister would fare without me. That’s always been my problem—I help too much, then mistake myself for indispensable. In reality, neither of them needed me. Mami didn’t need me as interpreter. My sister didn’t need me as a go-between. I did those things for myself. I wanted to spare Mami’s feelings (which I could not), and I wanted to protect my sister (which I could not).

Suddenly, in the lobby, a bony hand wrapped around my stomach and a hard, firm, chin dug into my shoulder. It was an eerie sensation, but when I turned it was only my sister.

“You scared me,” I told her, my hands shaking, my heart beating quickly. “I thought you were a stranger­.”

“That’s funny,” she said. “Who do you think you are that a stranger would just hug you?”

I smiled, but my heart sank. For the millisecond before turning around, when I had felt the bony hand on my stomach and the firm chin on my shoulder, I had actually expected to see Death, robed in black and with a scythe, standing before me. My heart still beat furiously as I wrapped my arms around my sister, and instead of telling her what I had thought, I said, “I am here for you. You can do this. I am here for you.”

Over the years I spent writing my book, my sister got better. She had children. She learned how to live with her disorder. Every day, I am proud of her. She was the first person in my family to read the novel. From time to time I called her to ask her opinion on a particular translation.

Before the book came out, the Spanish language rights were sold to Vintage Español in the U.S. The book was published simultaneously in English and Spanish (for Spanish-speakers in U.S. territories). The gift of the book coming out in my two tongues made me violently joyful. But having the book told in Spanish meant that the heartbreak of hearing the transliterated language in English vanished.

The Spanish version is the only one my parents can read. Nothing in the book is new to them. I had told them about it over the years, and the novel is based on the turbulent years before we finally left Colombia.

Even still, my mother will probably never read it. This is as it should be. She knows what the book might bring up. She chooses to let those things lie in wait, unexpressed, unformed. I understand. Sometimes the cost of migration is not just what gets lost in translation, but all the things we wish to leave unsaid, the stories we wish never to find us again, lost in the valley that lies beyond language.


Ingrid Rojas Contreras is the author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Guernica, and Huffington Post, among others.