As readers of my Translating Chávez: Telling Stories of the Storyteller thesis and blog will learn, I began my work translating Hugo Chávez’s political speeches after taking a course on Comparative Systems while completing my master’s degree in translation at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee in the spring of 2012. In that course, I chose Venezuela as the country of research for my semester project based on anti-capitalistic views leftover from my undergraduate education. I wanted to research a country with an alternative economic model, and Venezuela’s socialist model peeked my interest.
During the first weeks of the course, I defended Venezuela’s socialism in discussion posts and assignments. I appreciated Hugo Chávez’s messaging on the importance of collective participation in governance and the collective benefiting equally from the economy. As I dug more deeply into Venezuela’s politics and economy and learned of the contradiction between how Chávez presented his Bolivarian vision and the realities of corruption in the country, I felt duped. How had I, as a relatively well-educated individual, fallen prey to Chávez’s deception? As I now know, the answer is quite simply: based on sound bytes and a narrative that touted democratic ideals designed to evoke my emotional response as tied to my identity as a human being.
As a researcher, I wasn’t satisfied with such an easy answer. I elected to research the topic as part of my optional thesis for my degree. My interest lied in whether the influence that Chávez had wielded through language could be recreated in translation. When I could find no translations of Chávez’s speeches, I decided I’d have to translate his speeches myself. Looking back, I can’t believe my audacity as a graduate student in deciding that I would translate a president.
I translated four of Chávez’s speeches and wrote a critical introduction about political discourse in translation. The translations are literal and half-a-decade has passed since I wrote my critical introduction. As I’ve received a request for access, and given our current political strongman environment in the United States, I now publicly publish my thesis with all its imperfections.
Looking back at the two years I spent researching and translating Hugo Chávez, what I remember most clearly is the realization that despite the hundreds of hours of research and draft-after-draft of translated speeches I do not understand the mentality of Hugo Chávez. My knowledge of Chávez is characterized with the two types of knowing that a Spanish speaker can express. How I know Hugo Chávez is in the sense of saber – knowing information. I will never know Chávez in the sense of conocer – the personal knowing of another individual.
Two years of research, and I will never really know Chávez. I have not experienced Chávez in the way that Venezuelans have or did. I’ll be surprised if I ever even get to visit Venezuela. What I have gained from this project is a certain understanding of the mechanics behind using language to influence…. That and a very intimate knowledge of the mentality behind por qué no te callas. That thought ran through my brain over and over and over again in the later stages of my reading about, and listening to, and drafting translations of Hugo Chávez’s speeches.
-Alaina Brandt, 2019 November 25
Translating Hugo Chávez: Telling Stories of the Storyteller
- Chávez’s February 2, 1999 inauguration address
- Chávez’s December 15, 1999 address announcing his new Venezuelan constitution
- Chávez’s April 14, 2002 speech after a coup attempt on his presidency
- Chávez’s February 25, 2005 speech in which he first used the phrase twenty-first century socialism