A Portrait of a Translator as a Teenager

Considering the humbling premise that we are all mere atoms released from a dying star, living in this pale blue dot and under a virus attack, it may sound a bit pretentious writing about me, particularly about why I chose the craft of translation. It certainly sounds pretentious to me. You see, the universe doesn’t really care. That’s why I find this disclaimer necessary: any sense of self-importance that may come out of my words, note that this is all about honest self-promotion in the Digital Marketing era, in the context of the so-called online semiosphere, if you prefer. I’m just one of you, fellow wordsmiths, pulsing dimly like a photon among thousands of us.

We are all textual threads, desperate to be translated

This is the story of how I became a translator. As I revisit my 15-year-old self, I realize that I translated my way out of my teenage years. I trust that many of you will relate to it one way or another. But let me start with a confession: to be a professional translator was and still is a means to make my way into literary grounds. To be a linguist – let’s be fair to me and use the correct terminology – was not what I wanted to be in the first place. Very much like Stephan Dedalus, from James Joyce’s “The Portrait of the Artist as a young man”, I used to long for something seemingly forbidden: the life of an artist. But what does it mean ‘to be an artist?’ Well, I soon realized that having a few poems published in a poetry anthology at the age of 15 – written in a second-hand Brother typewriter – didn’t make me a poet. Nor did the deep admiration I felt for the cursed French poets and the American Beat Generation. They were like kindred poetic spirits to me, but I was far from being a daredevil. Maybe a bit of an enfant terrible. Unconventional, yes, but never quite controversial. It was twenty years ago when the ink of my typewriter dried. I never wrote poetry again. Nevertheless, I embraced another dream, not less a cliché: to be a novelist. Naive or not, the fact is that it conditioned many important decisions in my life, very much inspired and validated by Oscar Wilde when he wrote, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”:

“To have ruined one’s self over poetry is an honour.”

Like many of you, I like to indulge in wishful thinking, but I don’t think I’ll ever become a novelist. Indeed a writer of stuff, but not a novelist. I lack the discipline and the focus to create an intricate labyrinth of events. And what about the characters? If I managed to create a new world out of words, it would be most likely populated by characters that would either be a reflection of myself or somebody I know. I always felt like the process of writing a novel is something overwhelming to me – I look up to Cervantes, Faulkner, Saramago, Dostoyevsky, to name a few. Although I’m in love with the romantic idea behind the process, writing a novel is something way out of my league. If only it would be as simple as Susan Sontag puts it:

“A writer, I think, is someone that pays attention to the world.”

I guess this sums up my relationship with writing. I pay attention to the world, and I write stuff. To write a novel, I would oblige myself to master no less than the art of architecture, like Ariadne – the one from “Inception” –, and have the knowledge to unfold the blue thread, like Ariadne, the Cretan princess so that I wouldn’t lose my way out of the maze of my creation. Just imagine the creative process behind an author carefully choosing words – for what they mean, for what they sound like, for how they relate to the terms surrounding them. How fascinating is that? Now imagine the translator’s endeavor to fully understand the meaning and intent the author put in every word to ensure that the words he or she chooses in the target language truly preserve the original message, the author’s style, and the story’s atmosphere. I am dissecting, deconstructing, understanding, connecting, exposing intertextuality. This is what I call the bliss of literary translation.

My Sturm und Drang

I’m already picturing myself. Yes, I can imagine myself as a literary translator. I cannot talk about this out loud without fearing to blush and expose my adolescent enthusiasm and passion for the ritual of interpretation. If you’re an introvert like me, you know you don’t want to do this around the wrong people. That’s why I write about it instead. Luckily, just a few of you will ever read this. So, here I go. All this love for language and its subtleties took root in the early days of my life when I was lucky enough to have been exposed to at least five languages before the age of five. “My mother is Spanish and my father is Portuguese” – a sentence I had to repeat over and over again, not only to explain why my name is “Noélia” – a weird name while living in Portugal – but also to explain why I can speak both Portuguese and Spanish so good and switch from one language to the other in nanoseconds. This is because I’m bilingual. I was born in Spain – Granada – and my mother tongue is Spanish, meaning it was the first language I learned how to speak and kept speaking it to this day. My second language was Portuguese, and soon after, it became my primary language, meaning that it became the language I think in now. My third language was German when I went to live in Switzerland with my parents. I was pretty fluent when I was at kindergarten, at the primary level, of course, but I lost all of it when I went to school in Portugal. There was a fourth language. By the time I could read, I had a fairy tale book in Italian that I would read repeatedly. I also used to watch cartoons in Italian and listen to many Italian songs. While in Switzerland, during Easter and summer vacations, Italian was the closest language to Portuguese and Spanish. Only by the time I was 10 did I start to learn English at school, but at the age of 15, I developed a genuine interest in the English language. To put this into perspective, I barely had access to the internet back in the 90s, but I remember the first thing I “googled”: “the Doors”. Of course, I couldn’t find anything in Portuguese. So, if I wanted to know the meaning of something, I had to grab my Longman’s dictionary and start translating into a piece of paper. It was pure revelation translating The Doors’ lyrics. The next step was to read Jim Morrison’s biography, and I ended up with a list of writers, poets, philosophers I desperately needed to read, and here’s how my journeys to the public library started. Soon after, I was poorly translating Rimbaud from English into Portuguese. What’s important here is that through music and books, my “doors of perception were cleansed”. It was like the world opened up to me.

But contrary to William Blake’s poem, there’s nothing mystical about this. On the contrary, my perception of the world was always filtered by a scientific, somewhat skeptical, and relativist mindset. When I was in high school studying Natural Sciences, I loved Biology and Chemistry, but Philosophy and Literature were my cups of tea. I understand now that I was only searching for lenses that I could use to interpret and make sense of the reality around me. But how could a lyrical mind also be passionate about science and have rationalist thinking? I found the answer to this many years later when I discovered Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”; also when I listened to “Children of the Sun,” written by Brendan Perry from Dead Can Dance and, more recently, when I listened to “Fireflies“, from the last album of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. All these elements have a common thread connecting them. This is how I pursue my sense of wonder. Looking for connections that exist at the border of sensation and thought, aesthetics and science. This restlessness for observation, interpretation, and understanding is my Sturm und Drang. This anxiety of wanting to create art but not being able to also keeps me forever young.

Ariadne Revisited

In a labyrinth forged by memories and narrative, I’m passionate about following threads of intertextuality on others’ works of art. It is what is left for me, and it feels almost like a ritual. Novels, poems, plays, lyrics, paintings bring them to me, and I’ll uncover them, layer by layer, to find the tip of Ariadne’s thread that will lead me to one of the possible exits. This is not an exact science, you see. I could fake my way out of the labyrinth. But here lays the ambiguity I need for my mind to ramble: literary interpretation. You need to have your share of cultural background and books read – or half-read – to be possibly good at it. And that was how, in my teenage years, my love of Literature and interpretation took over my passion for science. Immersing myself in a work of art makes me feel at home. If only I could make a living out of this without bringing ruin and misery to my life. Oh, wait! What if I were to choose my graduation course, back in 2002, based on the one with more Literature related signatures? Yep! That’s how I decided on my graduation course: Portuguese and English Literature, so I could spend five years reading, interpreting, and writing. Isn’t this the fundamentals to become a decent literary translator? But why didn’t I go for a Translation course right away if what I wanted was to be a literary translator? Indeed, being a literary translator would be the closest I could ever get from being a writer. But I had to take the most challenging and longest way. How could I ever become a decent literary translator if I weren’t able to detect all the hidden references, understand all the nuances, word-play, idiomatic expressions, literary movements, social and historical contexts back from the ancient Greeks to the modern days? And suppose you are a rationalist like me. In that case, you’ll only be satisfied if you go back to human prehistory and primordial times by reading Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Yuval Noah Harari. The truth is, I wouldn’t find this rich tapestry of influences in a Translation course in the early 00s.

When I finished my Portuguese and English Literature graduation, almost 13 years ago, I spent some time working in a book publisher, editing and rewriting entire novels in Portuguese so they could be published. It was all about interpretation, reorganizing sentences, and even detecting flaws in the storyline. Despite this promising start in what I thought was “the literary world”, the fun didn’t last long, and I started to resent all the hypocrisy involved in the book publishing industry— paying to have your original work rewritten and call it “proofreading”? I eventually kept on doing this job as a freelancer too. There are plenty of people with incredible imagination and creativity, but they don’t have the writing skills. For a moment, I almost envy them and thought I would instead exchange places. Exchange my writing skills in Portuguese for their imagination to create stories. Eventually, all of this was too extenuating and not rewarding anymore. The book publishing world was quite deceiving and disappointing to me.

This is how I turned to technical translation. I needed the money not to ruin myself over “poetry,” as in Oscar Wilde’s words. I started working as a freelance translator for a while until I realized I needed the validation only proper training can provide to apply for an in-house job as a professional translator. I needed to learn the trade of adulthood at once, so I tried hard to become a more pragmatic person. This was when I invested in a post-graduation in Translation and Multilingual Communication, where I would put my multilingual skills to test in all the possible facets – law, science, advertising, subtitling, literary, technical, among others. After working an extenuating full-time job doing customer support for Spanish markets, I went to classes at night just to find myself doing freelance translations at the weekends. I was miserable, but I had the purpose of developing my skills in mind, which kept me going for a few years.

Tread softly

The workaholic ordeal lasted for a decade, to be precise. Ten years, very much needed for my personal and professional growth. But I also found the best things I could ever ask for in life. I met my life partner, and I had a baby boy – he’s only five months old now, peacefully taking a nap beside me while I’m writing this. I also bought some books, to read only a few of them. And I’m not a literary translator yet. I guess I never really tried that hard to be a literary translator. But, again, I like to indulge in wishful thinking once in a while. There’s a book that I’m currently reading that I’m dreaming about translating into Portuguese. Sentence after sentence, I feel the urge to do so. My constant thought is that I want my son to read it in Portuguese when he becomes a teenager. But how could I risk translating a book without previously knowing a book publisher would be interested in publishing it? Experienced literary translators out there, what would you do? I got this feeling, from my experience, that literary translation is a hermetic niche. Why would it be any different now? Or maybe these are all excuses I come up with because I haven’t tried hard enough to get there. Perhaps something has been holding me back all this time. I’d be honest if I say I sold my “soul” to the corporate world. A comfortable and stable full-time job as a copywriter and translator at a multinational can provide you peace of mind, indeed. A feeling of accomplishment too. I can claim I’m a linguist, a transcreator, a translator, a content writer, all in the same job. But again, I’m not quite there yet.

To cut a long story short, this is how I started taking the first steps to what would be my career as a “translator”, considering the term in its broadest sense. At the very beginning, those were very unintentional and genuine steps. But, despite the hardships of adulthood, the original feeling from my teenage days keeps coming back, reminding me of who I am and where I want to go. I keep treading softly, so I never lose balance in life. I’m slowly collecting threads and weave them consistently into my web. I trust they will serve me well when my opportunity comes to translate a piece of Literature. I don’t think it’s too late for me. I like to imagine that the books I’ll translate are yet to be written. In that case, I tell myself I should be reading more books by young talented authors and let the 20th-century giants rest in peace. This will be a challenge. Another challenge would be to publish more. Not to be obsessed with perfection. Not to be afraid of judgment and criticism. For example, not to be scared of publishing this story, where my flaws are well exposed, starting with the English grammar. I’ve decided to be bold for a change. Write and publish. Write and post again. I promise not to fear the stumbling blocks in my way. I promise not to be embarrassed to stumble on my steps. Slowly but surely, I’ll keep treading towards literary grounds.

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