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On Conquering Translations While Renaming Columbus Day


Translation has mattered throughout the Americas’ history, never more than this very moment.

By Malú Huacuja del Toro

October 12 is known in all the American continent, except the United States, as the “Day of the Race,” meaning an encounter of different races and worlds, not “Columbus Day.” The U.S. is the only country that celebrates the discovery of one continent by people from another one, as if the native peoples didn’t exist before being seen by the people coming inside three ships. It also celebrates the cult of personality. For all these reasons, the diverse people of the United States are considering renaming Columbus Day under different terms and a different understanding of history.

Words have meaning and history, usually from the conquerors’ point of view. Latin American countries speak Spanish because our native peoples were conquered by the Spanish Crown, while native peoples in the North were conquered by the British Crown. Ever since, our languages divide us. We need translations to build bridges between us.

The U.S. is the only country that celebrates the discovery of one continent by people from another one. Click To Tweet

For good or bad, translators can change history. They are the anonymous ghostwriters of it. They can also create myths, or else, destroy them. Mexico City was built on top of, and because of many myths, but also, one translator — Malinche. Four-hundred ninety-eight years before the latest deadly earthquake, when Spaniard Conqueror Hernán Cortés took over the majestic city, Aztec mythology was certainly on his side, but a translator on the other one. Aztecs mistook him indeed for their Serpent God Quetzalcóatl who, according to prophecies, was supposed to return.

As written by the conquerors themselves, King Moctezuma welcomed Cortés most warmly inside the sacred city that was built over another myth (the eagle and serpent’s myth over the lake). He opened the doors of his palace and temple for him. He hosted him. He allowed him to scold the Indigenous people for having such horrible non-Christian gods. He gave Cortés access and time enough to figure out how he was going to steal Axayácatl’s treasure, but one always wonders if all that non-violent first part of the Conquest would have been possible without the Indigenous woman Malinche translating the summit.

When Moctezuma addressed to Cortés, he called him, Hernán Cortés, “Malinche,” because that was the person who spoke on behalf of the Spaniard Crown. She was the voice that the Indigenous invaded people heard in their heads. We will never know if she modified or suppressed some parts of the conversation that made history.

The Other Wall

Before Trump’s wall idea, another kind of wall has already been built between Mexico and the United States — the wall of disinformation. It is the wall that led to NAFTA, signed without the consensus of both U.S. and Mexican ordinary people, compromising our future for generations, and increasing immigration. It is not in the best interest of Mexican oligarchs, Mexican drug lords, U.S. plutocrats and U.S. politicians that a majority of ordinary people start communicating between each other. They would end up making a better deal for both countries. So, this is a wall that was built for a reason.

One would expect that Google translators and communication apps in the digital era can break language barriers among ordinary people, but a closer look to any election campaign in any country, and particularly last year’s presidential election in the U.S., would correct this interpretation. With the help of Facebook and Twitter farms of trolls, more U.S. people ended up insulting more Mexican people than ever, probably, and not wanting to learn any foreign language.

Better communication with the help of automatic translators might be certainly the case in private exchanges, but not in open forums where social and public interest issues are discussed, and definitely not with the interference of paid trolls with political purposes. They are trained to end any conversation before it starts.

It’s a hard wall to break without professional journalism informing the public about real issues across the continent, and the language barrier doesn’t help.

It was not until recently that one U.S. progressive network, Democracy Now!, started considering the need to “go South” and communicate not only to Mexico but also to all of Latin America and immigrants in the U.S., offering not just the leftovers made with “the guy who speaks Spanish at the office” but high quality translation services of their news. Their web page in Spanish made a tremendous difference. Not too long ago, the only TV channels available to Spanish speakers in the U.S. broadcasted old soap operas mostly produced by the Televisa network and talk shows publicizing Televisa stars, hosted by conservative people at an elementary-school level, and no interest in social issues, economy, and politics.

The rest of the press, radio, and TV news in Spanish was mostly a replica of Fox and Friends in English. Strangely enough, progressive media and leftist organizations in the U.S., led by people who acknowledged the existence of a very diverse working class in U.S. America — including immigrant workers as part of that workforce — didn’t think that such a massive attack on the immigrant workers’ mentality needed to be countered by a very professional, objective, smart radio, press or TV.

For years, conservative news shows in Spanish had no other relevant competition but the least qualified hosts who seemed to be picked by the policy of “the guy who speaks Spanish at the office.” No offense to the intern who is in the process of learning Spanish or the “guy next door” whose mother speaks Spanish because she was born in Latin America, but there is a double standard in the progressive U.S. media that needs to be addressed to break that wall.

If you were the CEO of a radio or TV network in English, would you hire a host with no experience and/or no grassroots representation whatsoever in his or her community, no traction, no leadership, not enough vocabulary to speak fluently on the microphone, no information, and no background in communications, not even in theory?

That’s exactly what an iconic progressive radio station in NYC has been doing over the last decades when it comes to most of their shows in Spanish. They apply a double standard to their hiring policies because they are progressive, but only in English. Judging by the results of their productions in the last decades, they don’t think their Spanish audience deserves the same level of information and professionalism, let alone grassroots representation.

With very little audience, in certain cases, their hosts are precisely some of the most isolated persons of their communities, be it because they have no social skills, charisma or any background in communications. You can see them trying to socialize in our public political events. They don’t even introduce themselves as reporters of this station (no one taught them to do so). I know at least one host who believes that the Illuminati are taking over the planet and OVNIS will rapture us. It doesn’t make his radio chain very different than InfoWars.

This two-tier system for English and Spanish media produced so many bad shows that turned to be reason enough for the National Public Radio to eliminate its Spanish Division in the ’90s. Click To Tweet

This two-tier system for English and Spanish media produced so many bad shows that turned to be reason enough for the National Public Radio to eliminate its Spanish Division in the ’90s. The low-quality level was documented.

Such reduction of funding only hurt the smaller, truly grassroots and less-fancy (but with larger audiences) networks directed by and for immigrant workers like Radio Bilingüe, broadcasting in Spanish, Indian Mixteco, and English languages. Founded by Indigenous agricultural worker from the Mixteca Zone in Oaxaca and Harvard-graduate Hugo Morales, this listener-supported network produces the only daily national Spanish-language news and public affairs programs in the U.S. public broadcasting.

Even though most of their audience is made by workers living in low-income communities, Radio Bilingüe doesn’t treat them like second-class citizens who don’t deserve high-quality standards in information, vocabulary and fluency, only because they speak Spanish. Needless to say, they were directly benefited by Democracy Now! being professionally translated into Spanish, which Radio Bilingüe features on its home page as their top recommendation.

Spanish Versions Go South

It is a hard and tall wall to break between North and South, because it is made of several layers of cultural indifference.

Democracy Now! has been really helpful by translating their key article of the week into Spanish and making some interviews to immigrant rights activists, for instance,” Rebelión Collective says.

“[Democracy Now! host] Amy Goodman is an excellent interviewer, allowing her guests to go deeper in their subject. Both her and Juan González and all their team are outstanding, in comparison to the rest of the U.S. media, because they give voice to grassroots, African American, Latin-American organizations, and people from across the world who have been affected by the US government policies. They give perspectives that have been systematically excluded from commercial media.”

With about 10,000 readers every day — half of them living in Latin America — Rebelión is one of the most diverse and professional online publications across Latin America and Spain. It is made by a group of editors, translators and writers from all Latin American countries, covering all the continents. They respond collectively to this interview, explaining that they cannot trust commercial U.S. media because “they don’t give an idea to the rest of the world of what is really happening in the U.S., since they are just broadcasting propaganda in favor of the 1% protected by a police state investing astronomical numbers of money in wars while denying health care and education to their people, in a country with the highest per-capita rate of prisoners in the world.”

“Our main sources of information are independent journalists,” Rebelión Collective continues.

“We voice Hispanic immigrants living in the U.S., including undocumented workers who are suffering in flesh the system’s discrimination and oppression. We publish texts by community groups fighting for a more just society, like Unión del Barrio, as well as thinkers and activists like Noam Chomsky and James Petras. It is basically from all of them, and other alternative media, that we present to our readers another view of reality in the United States.”

Rebelión is one of the few online publications that pays special attention to the work of translation from different languages, with specialized translators for various subjects or sections. “Why are they still interested in using human translators instead of Google robots?” I asked.

“Since its foundation, Rebelión has been lucky enough to count on a translators’ team who are militant and aware of the importance of making accessible into Spanish information that was written in other languages. Information needs to be really understandable so that the reader gets access to it. Automatic translation apps rarely get the context. A writer-author-thinker-human being deserves to be translated by an equally human, thinking translator. A ‘human translator’ will always strive to make an article’s content both most understandable to the reader and accurate to the original version. This is something that members of our team pay special attention to.”

‘U.S. Fights That Are Close to Our Heart’

Ke Huelga Radio in Mexico City reproduces Democracy Now! every day in Spanish. Created during the long but successful 1999 students’ strike opposing the privatization of public college — which gave the people of México two more decades of free public education at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, by its acronym in Spanish) — Ke Huelga Radio has become one of the most trusted alternative radio stations for grassroots movements in Mexico. They respond to my questionnaire for AlterNet after the quake, while running from one “Centro de Acopio Autónomo” (“Autonomous Rescue Collective Center”) to another one. They too don’t want to be quoted individually but as a collective.

Ke Huelga Radio find it “most important” that critical media in the U.S. is heard by Mexican people, and that’s why they broadcast Democracy Now! for the “Ciudad Monstruo” (a city of a monstrous size). “This news show reports about many fights that are close to our collective hearts, like Standing Rock and the fight of immigrant workers against xenophobic measures proposed by president Donald Trump.”

Ke Huelga talks very seriously against disinformation, especially after the earthquake. This collective of reporters and grassroots radio hosts considers that it is the duty of alternative media to keep people well informed about the autonomous rescue teams working right now in Mexico, the police attacks, the government’s hoarding of international donations and, last but not least, sorting out the information on social media to dismiss fake news.

“In contrast, Mexican commercial media has turned the quake into a circus of morbid curiosity, even making up nonexistent victims like Frida Sofía, while portraying the Mexican Army and Marines like heroes,” they say. However, the Army prevented independent organizations of professional rescue workers from doing their work.

Subversiones: Cracking the Media Siege

Founded in 2010, Subversiones is a non-commercial, online publication “seeking to champion the people’s collective memory and critical understanding of the context we live on.” To them, the context is as important as the event itself, so they rely on good translations as well. “We communicate in honesty and earnest from our recognized subjectivities, in order to crack the media siege and create a counterbalance to the commercial media and its massive manipulation.”

During the earthquake, they became a community service to connect people in need of help with people who want to help, not only in Mexico City but Oaxaca and Chiapas. They have been reporting the movement against the Mexican government’s corruption that caused so many new buildings collapsing. Their publication is mostly made by voluntary work and fundraising events, selling photographs and printed publications, as well as readers’ donations.

These are just a few examples of the many bridges that progressive media can build across the United States and Latin America while commercial media keeps echoing president Donald Trump’s tweets. Incidentally, it is the same mainstream media that helped to put him in the White House by publicizing everything he did and said during the primaries, while ignoring the fight for life that was taking place in Standing Rock.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet. Republished here with permission.