Growing up in Mexico with a father whose native tongue is Spanish and a mother whose is English meant witnessing cultural gaps firsthand. Their lives together are filled with humorous misunderstandings over things that were said but were not meant.
My little neck was sore from turning from one parent to the other to explain the meaning of words to both sides. It seemed to me each of them had their own language in more than one sense.
Because of my home culture, I often found myself repeating words without knowing their meaning and even getting in trouble for it. For example, it turns out that the "F" word is not something people say when they trip over their shoelaces at school.
Eventually I learned its definition and (generally) accepted usage, and soon enough I would learn that I, too, said things that stretched the literal meaning of words.
"A lot of times people take for granted that it's everywhere," says Ben Van Wyke, an assistant professor of Spanish and Translation Studies at IUPUI in the department of World Languages and Cultures. The "it" of which he speaks being "translation."
He explains that most words we know have origins embedded with translation, everything from religious texts, world history, the words that come out of our mouths and even the philosophies that inform the bigger parts of our lives, such as the names we give people and things or civics and government.
In my adult life I still find myself translating documents, announcements and flyers. When I am not doing it, I notice it -- especially when it's done poorly -- often seeming to have been translated from Morse code instead of English.
Sometimes it's even worse than poor diction or lack of conjunctions. Sometimes the meaning of what is said is completely lost. For example, "éxito" does not mean exit in Spanish, it means success.
For Van Wyke, translation is not as easy as knowing that man and woman translate to mujer y hombre in Spanish. To him it's about the definition of words and how these meanings change the way people assign meaning to other aspects of their lives.
"I could never teach translation without bringing power and culture issues -- the purpose is of big consideration," he says. "The most important books are translated: the Bible, Plato. Even people who don't read these books have their lives impacted by their translation."
There are different approaches to translation studies. There is the linguistic focus, where people are more concerned with the scientific aspect or etymology of words, their origin. And then there are those like Van Wyke who are more interested in the deconstruction aspect of translation, where context and the broader questions that surround it are considered. These issues play a particularly big part when it comes to translating works of literature where meaning and linguistic play are also part of the composition of a text.
Robert Frost famously wrote in The Figure a Poem Makes, Preface to Collected Poems, "I could define poetry this way: It is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation." But if this is true, then what should we make of the endless amount of translated poem tomes that exist in libraries and homes around the world?
"I totally agree and I totally disagree [with Frost], everything is translatable and nothing is translatable," says Van Wyke, the local polyglot scholar. "If you want repetition -- exact repetition -- that is impossible. You can explain it, but is that a poem still?"
A translator's task is to produce a text that people are going to read, changing it and putting meaning into it is inevitable. Gabriel Garcia Marquez notably waited three years until translator Gregory Rabassa was available to translate One Hundred Years of Solitude for this very reason, and later went on to proclaim Rabassa's translation superior to his own Spanish original.
Marquez's example may sound a bit extreme, but the interpretation of text, especially in the case of literature, takes special skill and knowledge, a kind of skill that I suspect most of us do not have in our native languages. As Van Wyke helpfully pointed out to me, our own supreme court exists for the sole purpose of interpreting the meaning of the constitution, because people cannot agree on the meaning of things.
"Language is not stagnant; it's changing all the time against our will and against authors' will," says Van Wyke.
And I agree, as I know it is my fate to exist somewhere between two languages and cultures.
If all these words, their origins and interpretations intrigue you, join me in their celebration. International Translation Day is commemorated around the world on Sept.30. Stay tuned for Van Wyke's celebration of words and their infinite meanings at the Chatterbox. There he'll be reading poetry he has translated from Spanish to English with musician Nick Tucker playing bass backup.