By Carol Shaw, Editor
It had been nearly 30 years since I last visited the tribe where I grew up. As my brother and I, with assorted grown children and in-laws, pulled into the dirt patch that served as a parking lot near the church, I wondered if anyone would even recognize me. It was a short-lived worry. My mother’s old friend Carán immediately hurried over, calling my name. Other than white hair and a host of wrinkles, she hadn’t changed much. She was still reed-thin and spry, and (I found out later) still an ace with a machete.
She hugged me tight, then began a careful inspection. “Mulún,” she muttered. “Carola mulún…” as she walked around me two or three times.
“What does ‘mulún’ mean?” someone asked. “Fat,” I answered. “She’s telling me I’m fat.”
I was about to explain that it was not an insult, or body shaming, or even an old woman being indiscreet. But before I could do that, Carán burst out, “How can I get fat too?”
In the native culture of my childhood, comments on a person’s body or appearance are never intended to demean. Like nicknames, they are merely descriptive – almost a way of saying, “I see you”. There was my friend Bedbug, who tended to cling to his mother when we were toddlers. Gringo, across the river, had green eyes and light brown hair. Monkey was wiry, with spindly arms and legs. (This cultural acknowledgement is present throughout the language. Hello is “I have come”, and when the visit is over, one doesn’t say goodbye but rather, “I’m leaving now”.)
This difference in how nicknames and personal comments are used and perceived is not limited to the indigenous people of my childhood. Other languages have their own cultural rules that come into play. And handling those nicknames and comments can pose a challenge for interpreters and translators. We must be careful to avoid introducing a nuance, either positive or negative, that is not present in the original.
I once filled in for a colleague during a trial in which the prosecution was ordered by the judge to apologize to the jury for wasting their time the previous day.
Apparently, the afternoon before, the attorney had asked the Spanish-speaking witness, “who was driving the car [that nearly hit you]?” The witness answered, “Pues, Güero.”
Güero: a word for someone with blond hair. The tired interpreter had rendered the interpretation as “Well, the white guy”. Despite subsequent attempts to correct the record, the prosecutor had seized on the misinterpretation and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to prove that the witness had a racial bias against Caucasians. Ergo, the apology.
Nicknames are a cultural matter more than a linguistic one. So are the rules that govern what is socially acceptable to say to or about another person. These rules reflect how we interact and relate to each other and are deeply entrenched. They inform our visceral response to someone else’s words, and they vary from one culture to another.
It is essential that interpreters and translators immerse themselves not only in the vocabulary of their language pairs, but also in the cultural worldview and context attached to that vocabulary. Our own cultural filters must not interfere with our understanding of a speaker’s words.
Had my tired colleague been a little less fatigued, they might have translated “Pues, Güero” as “Well, Güero”, and simply allowed the attorney to question further.
Had I been less familiar with the culture, my friend Carán’s words might have stung and caused distance, the very opposite of their intent. “I see you”, she was saying, and I am the better for it.