Trans-lating: Bridge between Cultures

Sometimes even words from our own mother tongue surprise us when we look at them in a new light. I’m having a hard time with the German word NEUGIER: the greed for something new. In Spanish, I recently had such a surprise effect with the word patience: PACIENCIA. This is the science – CIENCIA – of peace – PAZ. Or in English, the word breakfast: BREAKFAST. It is composed of TO FAST, and TO BREAK. One breaks the nightly fasting with a meal.

Sometimes a translation is so factual, the original text so concrete that there can be no doubt about the possibility of translation. For example, in operating instructions or instructions for use, even Chinese instructions translated by computer programs are halfway understandable in such cases – although not always grammatically correct. The German word PAPER is in Spanish PAPEL and in English PAPER, there is nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to literary translations, the situation is quite different.

The translator builds a bridge from one bank to the other, from one bank to another.

Soledad Marquez

Imagine a German text is about two friends in any German city who get a disposable grill in the supermarket and a few beers to have a barbecue in the park in the evening. First, there is the word EVENING, in English this might be LATE AFTERNOON or DURING SUNSET, in Spanish perhaps ATARDECER or AL PONERSE EL SOL. But the sunset could probably add a romantic connotation to the barbecue evening that the author did not want at all. But then the disposable grill – that is not easy to explain to a North or South American. It’s a grill that only works once and is so small that it can hold a maximum of 2 people, that’s just weird. Americans in the north and south turn their BARBECUE or ASADO into an event, where the family is invited by grandma plus second husband and his siblings to the grandson’s Chihuahua everything that has legs and can eat; and when the neighbor comes along, he sits down with his family. At noon when the fire is lit, the grill which is as big as a German living room table, people eat and celebrate well into the night and still three days later no one has no desire for meat or any other meals. And while North Americans marinate and pickle their meat for hours, sometimes for days, and put sausages and hamburgers on the grill, South Americans hardly ever season their meat with anything other than coarse salt and they like to put half a cow on the grill, but never sausages. A barbecue evening for two with a disposable grill… that just doesn’t happen. And then the friends of the example also drink beer in the park, so in public. One would have to explain that this is not prohibited in Germany and is also quite normal. In the United States it would be tolerated only in very few states, in Chile you risk to get a high penalty if you drink in public, even if it is only a beer. This one sentence shows that translation is not only the reproduction of the corresponding words, but also a realistic approach to the culture in which the text was written. The translator must transport peculiarities of culture into another language and maintain the mood that can be felt in the original text. If with a relatively concrete sentence like the example sentence of the grill evening there is already so much leeway of expression, one can imagine that abstract words and concepts such as affection, anger and time can really cause problems.

A translation is a new text…

A literary translator is therefore first and foremost a reader, and hopefully an enthusiastic one who is prepared to deal intensively with the original text, the author and his culture and time. In linguistics, the translator is a reader as follows:


The author (sender 1) therefore writes his book or poem, the original text (text 1), and this is read and received by the reader (receiver 1), with all the consequences that this entails. The reader interprets, he understands or misunderstands, he associates, he imagines himself, he brings the text to life in his own imagination. The translator then reassembles the text, he writes a new text and translates text 1 from reader to author, from recipient to sender:


… like the original

If we read a translation, then this is a new text that is at best similar to the original, but cannot be the same. Depending on the translator’s imprint, the text 2, the translation, will be cancelled.

Books in themselves are bridges in time.

Soledad Marquez

If we read a text in its translation and are enthusiastic about it, then this is not only due to the inspiration of the author, but also to the meticulous work of the translator in bringing the original text closer to us. Translations are so delicate that there are authors who prefer to do the translations themselves. After all, in the best-case scenario, one should also transfer the style of the author, capture word creations and irony as well as sentence structure and rhetoric. If authors are good friends with the translators of their texts, then this is a sign of quality, as happened with one who has dedicated himself to the translation of South American literature like no other: Curt Meyer-Clason.

The successful attempt to teach a pig to sing

Curt Meyer-Clason (1910-2012) was what I would commonly call a cool dude who had nothing to do with books and literature at first. He came to the world of translation, like a pig to sing. [proving U.S. Writer Robert Heinlein’s “Time enough for Love quote” wrong, when he stated: “Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig” –  The Editor].

The trained businessman worked for a company in Argentina and then in Brazil, more precisely, in São Paulo. He also opened an office there, but then World War II broke out and Brazil was an ally of the Allies. Meyer-Clason was therefore interned for five years as a so-called hostile foreigner and presumed spy on an island near the city of Rio de Janeiro, the Great Island, Ilha Grande, in the prison Cândido Mendes. The prison conditions allowed him to read books and a fellow inmate motivated him to take advantage of this opportunity. And so, Meyer-Clason discovered the world of literature, especially the South American novels. When he returned to Germany in 1955, he worked as an editor in Munich and began translating mainly Latin American, Portuguese and Spanish literature in the 1960s. Of course, there were also political reasons, the Flower Children’s Movement of the 1960s in Europe was interested in the countries of South America and the social circumstances and upheavals. He must have been concerned about bringing the world of workers and peasants with all its needs, hopes and dreams closer to the supporters of this movement for freedom and against authority and dictatorship. Among other things, he translated the poems and short stories, Novels and autobiographies by Ruben Dario, Jorge Luis Borges, Ignacio de Loyola Brandão, Pablo Neruda, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Darcy Ribeiro, Jorge Amado, Antonio Skarmeta and so many other authors. In Brazil he is mainly mentioned in connection with the Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa, with whom he exchanged an intensive correspondence, which was then also published as a book. He is known in the Spanish literary world for his friendship with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels he translated almost all. Meyer-Clason translated more than 150 books, sometimes working with his wife Christiane. Thus, his work is and remains a bridge of paper, text and words between South America and Germany.

Books are in themselves bridges in time: an author who may already have passed away communicates with a reader independently of time. Two people are connected by a text. For them to understand each other, it is sometimes necessary to have a translator who raises what the author has written about time and incomprehension and puts it together anew so that it can be understood and read.

So, if you are about to read a translation and are enthusiastic about the text, don’t just thank the author of the text, think of the translator who made it possible for you to receive it.