Translation Process

Translating a gay Argentine writer was unequivocally an ambitious challenge. The process required me to investigate two crucial areas which define Néstor Perlongher’s short story ‘Evita Vive’: namely, the linguistic phenomenon of lunfardo and a second category of speech which Keith Harvey terms ‘camp talk’. Here I will endeavour to discuss the process of translation I undertook and how I dealt with these issues; and the resources upon which I drew to assist my understanding and interpretation, both of gay language and Argentine linguistic phenomena.

I will first address my approach to ‘camp talk’ and how I attempted to carry it over into English. In his chapter ‘Translating Camp Talk’, Harvey (403) identifies a number of cultural and autobiographical issues that a translator of gay writing may encounter. These include the “existence, nature and visibility of identities and communities predicated upon same-sex object choice in the target culture”; the presence or absence of an established gay body of literature in the target culture; the objectives inherent in the undertaking of the translation, and the sexual identity of the translator and his or her relation to a gay subcultural group. As a young heterosexual, anglophone woman, I was confronted with a whole body of gay literature and issues which I had previously never encountered. Because of my own non-pertinence to the ‘gay subcultural group’ which forms the subject of Perlongher’s work, I had a heightened awareness of using terms which are politically and socially correct and acceptable in the English-speaking world today; this necessitated research into gay terminology in English as well as a profound investigation into gay language in Argentina; whether particular words had pejorative or positive connotations and what effect Perlongher intended in his use of them. Even the word ‘gay’ appears in a number of forms throughout the story, including ‘marica’, ‘mariconcito’ and the lunfardo word ‘trolo’. I compiled a list of such terms and aimed to decide on one fitting English equivalent for each in order to ensure consistency.

Within English, however, the proliferation of synonyms for ‘gay’ and distinguishing between them can also be problematic. According to Livia and Hall (23), for example, usage of ‘queer’ is “irredeemable” for many older speakers whilst it is preferred by many younger people to ‘gay’. On the other hand, Hugh (94) states that the term ‘queer’ has, since the 1990s, increasingly been used as a synonym for ‘gay’, and predominantly in connection with male gays rather than lesbians. ‘Gay’ or ‘queer’ in adjectival form appear to be widely accepted, but as nouns less so, the argument being that “the nouns denote an all-embracing, essential property, while the adjectives denote one characteristic among many.” (Ibid.). Nonetheless, I have consciously opted to use ‘queer’ as a noun on several occasions throughout the text, particularly as an English equivalent for ‘maricón’, a word which Foster (El Ambiente Nuestro 45) refers to as “ground zero of homophobic insult in Spanish.” Thus, perhaps a word such as ‘faggot’ in English would be a more fitting translation, but having analysed the instances in which Perlongher uses the word, I do not feel that they are marked by such a strongly disparaging or negative tone.

Sontag (277) conceives of camp talk as “a type of aesthetic sensibility characterised by a delight in failed seriousness and a theatricalisation of experience”. This view is ostensibly consolidated by Harvey (406), who outlines a number of features which typify the genre, including the use of exclamatives and hyperbole, the ‘emphatics’ of camp, and the arbitrary practice of attributing proper names. A number of these characteristics can be identified in Perlongher’s ‘Evita Vive’, with some proving more problematic to translate than others. For example, the use of exclamations seems less natural in English than it perhaps would in Spanish. This problem appears in the first sentence of the text: “[…] ¡hace ya tantos años!” (Perlongher 1). Here, I ultimately decided to retain the exclamation as it gives an insight into the narrator and sets a flamboyant tone for the ensuing work.

A further feature of ‘camp talk’ detailed by Harvey (406) is the inversion of gender-specific terms, highlighting the arbitrariness of attributing proper names and signaling the speaker’s critical distance from the processes that produce and naturalise categories of identity. This can be observed in the first section of ‘Evita Vive’, which is narrated by an apparently female character; she is referred to in the feminine form both by herself and others (‘preciosa’, ‘querida’, ‘puta’), but also calls herself ‘una marica’; thus, Bollig (127) concludes, the speaker is “a homosexual and effeminate man.” Moreover, a “formal subversiveness in certain ungrammaticalities” (ibid.) pervades the text; frequently the reader is left unsure as to who is carrying out what action or who is gaining pleasure (‘gozaba’, Perlongher 2) from the sexual activity. Bollig (128) affirms that, in this particular episode, any one of the three characters involved in the scene of “perverse sexual intercourse” could be the subject of the verb ‘gozaba’. This poses an extreme difficulty in the translation process, but given the preceding pronoun ‘ella’, I took Evita as the continued subject of the verb. Nonetheless, this means that some of the ambiguity surrounding gender and sex, or more concisely, Perlongher’s “deeply confused gender framework” (Bollig 129), that pervades the source text is lost.

One could conclude that the most discernible characteristic of gay writing in Perlongher’s text ‘Evita Vive’ is the preoccupation with sexual activity. This proved a singularly difficult issue for translation as of course toning down the language would not be an acceptable option; this led to the issue of ‘tabooisation’ (Belenguer et als. 153), which “gives rise to a series of linguistic expressions considered as obscene […]. However, the same realities might not be considered as taboo in other cultures, or in any case not at an equal level.” This is largely pertinent to the translation of the word ‘gay’, as discussed above, but also to Perlongher’s recurrent use of the Spanish word ‘negro’ in relation to the black sailor Jimmy in the first section of the story. To constantly reiterate someone’s skin colour would be regarded as superfluous, incongruous and potentially bordering on racist in the majority of the English-speaking word, whereas ‘negro’ is not uncommon in Spanish. Thus, a direct translation of the word in every instance was not suitable and after the word’s first appearance, I replaced it simply with ‘Jimmy’ or ‘the sailor’.

A significant cultural chasm also exists between the Anglosphere and Hispanosphere in the use of obscene language. Vulgarities and swearing tend to be more acceptable and widely used in Spanish, in contrast with the deeper implications which often underline them in English. Rebassa (90) surmises: “Curses are ill-served by close translation. The translation of curses really illustrates the essence of the act: we are really translating the spirit and not the word.” For example, even a phrase which seems to allow for quite a straightforward literal translation, such as “pedazo de animal” (Perlongher 3), seems to be used more flippantly in Spanish; thus, such a term cannot be translated literally, but rather an equivalent ‘sense’ of the word must be found. The word seems to convey the idea of boorishness, loutishness, imbecility; in accordance with Eva’s slightly more elevated, elegant manner of speaking, I ultimately decided upon the word ‘fool’.

The linguistic phenomenon of lunfardo constitutes a further aspect which is intrinsic to Perlongher’s writing. Originally having emerged in Buenos Aires as a “dockside, underworld slang” (Wilson 41) influenced heavily by Italian, it is full of neologisms comprised of words with extra syllables and ‘vesre’, or the practice or inverting the syllables of a word (for example, ‘mujer’ becomes ‘jermu’). ‘Evita Vive’ is brimming with uniquely porteño slang, such as ‘laburo’, ‘yirar’ and ‘hacerse el cheto’, to name but a few examples. Such terms do not appear in standard Spanish dictionaries, or at least not in their intended meaning, so this proved an interesting translation challenge. Words which appeared Castilian often had a completely alternative meaning in lunfardo, such as ‘esquina’ being ‘experiencia’ ( Moreover, lunfardo words often seem to have a more profound, implicit definition; ‘yirar’, for example (Perlongher 1), pertains to the Rioplatense dialect and refers specifically to the way in which one wanders aimlessly through a city’s maze of streets, but with an erotic undertone being created by the impersonal nature of human existence and mass of people (Sebreli). A number of lunfardo dictionaries exist; some were of invaluable assistance in my translation, but many were unfortunately inaccessible. Fortunately, I was able to consult a young native of Buenos Aires on several terms that appear in ‘Evita Vive’, but he was in fact unfamiliar with some: for example, ‘blues’ as a slang word for ‘police’ was unknown to him. As lunfardo is a regional form of argot, we can assume that it has greatly transformed since the time of Perlongher’s writing, but this served to complicate my translation process and precise conveyance of the original meaning.

Ultimately, I am aware that my translation is at times deficient, largely due to the difficulty of translating the uniquely Argentine phenomenon of lunfardo and the lack of resources available to me in ensuring accuracy of meaning. It was also difficult to achieve the right tone and identify significant contrasts between Evita and the narrators’ respective manners of speaking. There are few clear linguistic instances of this in the text, such as the use of the phrase ‘hacerse el cheto’ (to pretend to be of a higher class) in the second segment of the story; this is portrayed in a negative light, suggesting that the narrators are likely to be of a lower class and use corresponding language. Nonetheless, translating this important voice in Argentine literature was a fascinating, if challenging, undertaking and I hope I have done at least some justice to the revolutionary work that is ‘Evita Vive’.

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