Critical Introduction: Translating Chávez

In The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, Lawrence Venuti challenges historically dominant narratives that assume the translator to be a transparent conveyor of source-text meaning and the translation to be a secondary (but semantically equivalent) copy of a source text. Venuti defines translation as “a process by which the chain of signifiers that constitutes the foreign text is replaced by a chain of signifiers in the translating language which the translator provides on the strength of an interpretation” (Venuti, ch. 1.2). Despite the complexities involved in rendering a text from one language into another, Venuti notes that within the United States and the United Kingdom particularly, the authority and originality of the source text author is celebrated by consumers of literature, at the same time that the translated status of a text is often completely overlooked. Thus, where the author is thought to “freely express… his thoughts and feelings in writing” and produce “an original and transparent self-representation,” translation is at once viewed as “derivative, fake, [and] potentially a false copy,” while also being defined by transparency, “producing the illusion of authorial presence whereby the translated text can be taken as the original” (Venuti, ch. 1.1). According to Venuti, these assumptions are problematic in that they not only conceal the authority and creativity of the translator, but also the domestication at play in all translated texts. Venuti presents domestication as an attitude toward the foreign that is manifested both within singular texts and in literature as a whole. At a macro-level, domestication within the context of the US and the UK is evident in the disproportionate export of English-language texts through translation. For example, Venuti notes that while just over forty-three thousand books were translated from English in the year 2000, the next most translated language was French, at 6670 books (ch. 1.1). Further, domestication leads to the selection of foreign texts for translation into English based on their amenability to “fluent translating” (Venuti, ch. 1.1). At a micro-level, domestication is therefore enacted through the “rewriting… [of texts] in the transparent discourse that prevails in English” (Venuti, ch. 1.1). Overall, Venuti points to the danger inherent in the inconspicuous nature of domestication, in that it…

…impos[es]… English-language cultural values on a vast foreign readership, while producing cultures in the United Kingdom and the United States that are aggressively monolingual, unreceptive to foreign literatures, accustomed to fluent translations that invisibly inscribe foreign texts with British and American values and provide readers with the narcissistic experience of recognizing their own culture in a cultural other. (ch. 1.1)

To challenge the domesticating views of translation that would assign all originality and authority over a translated text to the author, Venuti turns to the complexities of language itself. He recalls the work of Jacques Derrida, referencing the deconstructionist concept of différance, what might be understood as the difference and deferment at play in the arrival at meaning in language. In “Semiology and Grammatology: Interview with Julia Kristeva,” Derrida stresses the fact that words mean nothing in a vacuum and are instead understood only in relation to other words (which are in turn only understood in relation to other words). These infinite chains of meaning “forbid at any moment, or in any sense, that a simple element be present in and of itself, referring only to itself” (Derrida 26). Nicholas Royle expands that discussion from singular units of meaning to différance on a much larger scale in Deconstructions: A User’s Guide. He notes that due to the perpetual movement at play in language, “we can never be quite sure that… any text has ever completely, fully, finally arrived” (6-7). Understanding textual authority in terms of différance precludes a text having any sort of a singular, fixed meaning to be captured and conveyed in translation. Indeed, within a deconstructionist framework, the meaning intended by the original author (which itself may shift over time) is just one of infinite possible interpretations of a text. Venuti discusses the significance of this shift in the perception of “originality” and “textual authority” to translation. He notes, “a foreign text is the site of many different semantic possibilities that are fixed only provisionally in any one translation, on the basis of varying cultural assumptions and interpretive choices, in specific social situations, in different historical periods” (ch. 1.2). Further, since “[m]eaning is a plural and contingent relation, not an unchanging unified essence,… a translation cannot be judged according to mathematics-based concepts of semantic equivalence or one-to-one correspondence” (Venuti, ch. 1.2).

                Venuti thus defends the authority of the translator and the originality of her work, he does not take for granted the inevitability of domestication, which is unavoidable given the overarching goal of translation: “to bring back a cultural other as the recognizable, the familiar, even the same” (Venuti, ch. 1.2). In order to achieve that goal, the translator must replace elements of the source text unintelligible to the target reader with the culturally recognizable, a shift that results in “a reduction and exclusion” of the possible differences of the source culture manifested in the text, and “an exorbitant gain” of potential similarities to the target culture (Venuti, ch. 1.2) However, the translator can draw upon what Venuti calls foreignization to mitigate the domestication of foreign texts. While the terms “foreignization” and “domestication” were coined by Venuti, they draw upon a debate that has long been a central theme of translation theory. To define and provide context for those terms, Venuti calls upon an 1813 lecture by Friedrich Schleiermacher in which the latter states, “Either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him” (trnsltn qtd in Venuti, ch. 1.2). Yet despite the previous discussion on domesticating practices that would “leave the reader in peace,” Venuti is careful to note that “the terms ‘domestication’ and ‘foreignization’ do not establish a neat binary opposition that can simply be reduced to the true binaries that have proliferated in the history of translation commentary, such as ‘literal’ vs. ‘free,’ formal’ vs. ‘dynamic,’ and ‘semantic’ vs. ‘communicative’” (ch. 1.2). Further, foreignization should not be understood as “offer[ring] unmediated access to the foreign[, since]… no translation can do that” (ch. 1.2). Still, strategies elected on the basis of foreignization might be said to “challenge… the receiving culture even as [they]… enact… [their] own ethnocentric violence on the foreign text” (ch. 1.2).

                Strategies based on foreignization will still entail a certain domestication of foreign texts, since as with the deconstruction of textual meaning, domestication in translation is not a strategy or a choice—it occurs. Still, Venuti bases his arguments for foreignizing practices in translation on their ability to “construct… a certain image of the foreign that is informed by the receiving situation but… [also] question[s] it by drawing on materials that are not currently dominant, namely the marginal and the nonstandard, the residual and the emergent” (ch. 1.2). As for this project, despite the thousands of hours of public speaking amassed by Chávez during his presidency, to my knowledge, very limited full-text written translations of any of his speeches exist in English.[1] The source documents for this project could therefore be identified as “marginal” and “nonstandard” within the tradition of into English-language translations based on that fact alone. However, political discourse on a whole seems to be an area of inquiry within translation studies not widely explored, despite the impact of translation on global communication. Indeed, in “Political Discourse Analysis from the point of view of Translation Studies,” Christina Schäffner discusses the impact of translation choices on international politics when the translated status of a text is taken for granted (as is usually the case). Take, for example, the treatment of direct quotations by speakers of foreign languages within the mass media. Schäffner notes that these quotations are routinely translated and published in the target language, without ever alerting the audience to the translated status of the text. As Schäffner points out, the subtle shifts in meaning arising out of translation can cause great offense among world leaders when that status is overlooked, as was the case when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s comments on living spaces were translated into German using a term often employed by Adolf Hitler (121-121). Interestingly then that while traditions like critical discourse analysis avoid the analysis of target texts, understanding that these texts are not transparent representations of the source, the target text is routinely presented to be the original within forums, such as the media, upon which world leaders and populations rely to understand current affairs. Both translation studies and critical discourse analysis could therefore benefit from the creation of models for analysis of translated political discourse.

                As stated in the introduction, this project was born from a sense of disappointment at having lost a very idealistic abstraction of Chávez. As such, the early conceptions of this project have been based upon an exploration into the power and influence of Chávez’s narrative, and the desire to demonstrate the discordance between that narrative and his actions. Somewhere along the way, however, the purpose of this project has shifted. In terms of my translations, having extensively explored how Chávez exerted power through narrative, I find myself back where I began this project, and the products of Chávez’s narrative skill—power consolidated in the office of the Venezuelan presidency, a weak economy, a divided country—do not detract from Chávez’s ability to inspire with words. Thus, the central question now becomes how to convey Chávez’s narrative skill in translation. That is a question I have yet to answer, and I take the translations that follow to be quite literally translated drafts of Chávez’s speeches. As such, discussing the translation strategies I employed up to this point is difficult, given the understanding that this is unfinished work. I therefore ask my audience to understand the discussion that follows in terms of what my work aspires to be and the translations that follow as a hint of something yet to come.

Strategies in Translation

The Venezuelan government, or more specifically, the Despacho del Presidente (Office of the Presidency), published a selection of speeches delivered by Chávez for each year from 1999 to 2006.[2] Of the over 250 speeches contained in those eight collections, I chose four speeches for translation based upon the historical import of the event with which they coincided. However straightforward my previous statement may seem, as Baker notes, the assignment of hierarchies of importance to historical events is far from disinterested. Instead, it is comprised of the application of “evaluative criteria” to “selective[ly] appropriat[e]… a set of events… from the vast array of open-ended and overlapping events that constitute experience” (ch. 4.4). Criteria employed in that selection process may include the ranking of events with regards to an overall plot or “thematic thread,” which in turn “allows the narrator to depict individual elements of a story as part of an unfolding narrative” (ch. 4.4). Certainly, terms like narrator, story and plot must be understood metaphorically when applying this line of argumentation to translation. Of primary importance within this metaphor is a conception which understands the translator to be a narrator with her own individually motivated story to tell—one which may not coincide with the message intended by the original author. As for this project specifically, the overall story I have sought to tell deals with Chávez’s narrative skill, or his use of language as a source of power. Thus, part of my overall translation strategy was the selection of speeches based on how well they served as “events” in the unfolding of that plot. The speeches selected certainly corresponded to moments and ideas to which Chávez would assign great value and consistently return to within his subsequent discourse. He returned continuously to the idea of the people’s arrival to the government on February 2, 1999 and to the legitimization of that government on December 15, 1999. He would refer again and again to his own resurrection after returning to power on April 14, 2002, and the phrase twenty-first century socialist project, first used publicly on February 25, 2005, would be employed by Chávez throughout the remaining years of his presidency. These speeches therefore serve as building blocks within Chávez’s evolving narrative brand. The overarching and common narrative themes within these speeches therefore portrays the president’s narrative skill.

As for the speeches themselves, the Despacho did not simply collect and publish texts previously written by (or for) Chávez. Instead, speeches that were extemporaneously produced by Chávez were first transcribed by the Ministerio de Comunicación e Información and then edited and published by the Despacho. Up to this point, the eminent feature of these speeches for me has been their spoken, extemporaneous nature, characteristics emblematic of Chávez’s political discourse overall. Chávez did not stand before an audience and read a script. He did not rely on prompters. Instead, Chávez put himself in front of an audience and he spoke. Indeed, he seems to be one of those rare figures in history, the natural storyteller, and his uncanny ability to capture the attention of his audience and inspire with language—unscripted language—is also essential to Chávez’s narrative skill. With regards to the objective of demonstrating that skill, maintaining and conveying that spoken, extemporaneous element in translation was for me imperative. Among my primary strategies for conveying that register was the use of contractions and the elimination of unnecessary conjunctions (primarily “that”) to mimic the cadence and fluidity of speech produced extemporaneously. I also implemented what would be considered to be ungrammatical sentence structures within the prescriptive realm, when the use of grammatically correct constructs would have marked portions of text as indicative of a more formal, written register. Because I wanted my audience to focus on the extemporaneity of the text, I also removed traces of the additional “layers” of the text, such as textual features resulting from the transcription process.

Traces of the additional “layers” were removed through the elimination of explanatory additions to the text, like acronyms following organization names (i.e. “Organization of American States (OAS)”) and errors resulting from the transcription process. For example, in his twenty-first century socialism speech, Chávez seemingly states, “…aquí hay algunos de ellos que trabajan “N”. Gobierno, en el sector privado…” [roughly, “some of them work “N” government, in the private sector”] (180). An alternative source indicates that the passage reads as follows: “…aquí hay algunos de ellos que trabajan en el Gobierno, en el sector privado” [“some of them work here in the government, some in the private sector”] (“Palabras inaugurales de la IV Cumbre de la Deuda Social…” 34). Eliminations of this kind certainly contributed to the natural flow of the text. However, this strategy contributed to overall project objectives in a more covert manner as well. Multiple versions of the inauguration speech and the twenty-first century socialism speech were available, and comparisons of these texts indicated the highly mediated process of textual production. To the spoken, transcribed and then edited speeches, I added the layer of translation, and by removing the traces of the previous processes, I concealed other participants in the textual production. For example, the spoken production of language does not consist of punctuation, although breaks, interrogatives, etc. are assumed based on pauses and tone. That being said, during the transcription/editing process, an individual other than Chávez (we assume) assigned a syntactical order to the text he produced. The assignment of that order certainly could have produced shifts in meaning. Thus, subsequent versions of this project might explore the mediated status of these texts and the impact of that mediation on meaning.

While I was able to establish fairly concrete rules for the English-language specific strategies discussed above, I was not able to approach textual features unique to the Spanish language with the same consistency. In the first place, the Spanish language is comprised of much longer sentences; whereas the English language typically tolerates up to two independent clauses in a sentence, and run-on sentences are generally associated with uneducated writing. Given my objectives for this project, I therefore modified this feature of the Spanish language to conform to the expectations of US readers, although in subsequent revisions to the translations, dominant ideology on what constituted educated writing and speech may be challenged by not adhering to such prescriptions. Additional features of the Spanish language to be dealt with in translation were the impersonal and passive constructs, realized in Spanish through the use of the impersonal se and through the third person singular conjugation of verbs. We need go no further than the first few paragraphs of Chávez’s inauguration speech for examples of that usage. Consider the passage below.

Ahora ¿Por qué esa frase? ¿De dónde viene esa frase? ¿Por qué Simón Bolívar?, no se trata de una repetición meramente protocolar y rebuscada de cualquier frase de Bolívar… No se trata de eso, de rebuscar frases y traerlas aquí al Congreso de la República para decirlas delante del país y del mundo. Se trata más bien de darle razón a Pablo Neruda, ese grande de nosotros, de los nuestros, cuando cantándole a Bolívar dijo: “Es que despierta cada 100 años, cuando despiertan los pueblos”. Se trata de reconocerle razón al grande de nosotros también que fue Miguel Ángel Asturias cuando dijo cantándole a Bolívar: “Los hombres como tu Libertador no mueren Capitán, sino que cierran los ojos y se quedan velando”… (5-6, emphasis added)

As Giuseppe Palumbo notes in Key Terms in Translation Studies, the terms “theme” and “rheme” refer to “information flow” within a text, or “the way a text develops and conveys information by establishing points of orientation, providing new information and creating internal links between its constituents” (116-117). Generally, “the ‘theme’… establishes what the sentence is about, while the ‘rheme’… says something about the theme” (117). In Part A above, the use of the impersonal se in the “no se trata” and “se trata” constructs sets up an important pattern in the theme/rheme structure. The “it” assumed to be the subject of “(no) se trata” orients readers back to the questions with which Chávez begins the paragraph: ¿Por qué esa frase? ¿De dónde viene esa frase? ¿Por qué Simón Bolívar? [Now, why that phrase? Where does that phrase come from? Why Simón Bolívar?] (5). Through that orientation, an implicit theme is also established in which the audience is directed to understand Chávez’s enunciations in reference to the Bolívar quote with which the Comandante began. And as we learn at the beginning of the speech, his audience would have been anticipating that quote, which he had repeated, “[p]or 1.000 pueblos, por 1.000 caminos, durante miles de días recorriendo el país durante… [los] últimos casi cinco años” [[i]n 1,000 cities, on 1,000 roads, during thousands of days traveling throughout the country during the… last almost five years] (5). This structure therefore takes on special signification in that the repeated emphasis established through the theme structure of this paragraph might be said to be implicitly referential to the discourse and narrative brand that Chávez had begun to build previous to being elected. In the translation, I’ve attempted to maintain the thematic structure and repetition of the passage above through the string of sentence themes italicized in the selection below.

Now, why that phrase? Where does that phrase come from? Why Simón Bolívar? This isn’t about merely following protocol, quoting Bolívar to quote Bolívar… That’s not what this is about, quoting Bolívar for the sake of appearances here at the Congress of the Republic and before the country and the world. Rather, it’s about acknowledging Pablo Neruda, that great man among us, of our great men, who said, in praise of Bolívar, “He awakens every hundred years, when the people wake.” It’s about acknowledging another great among us, Miguel Ángel Asturias, who praised Bolívar, saying, “Men like your Libertador don’t die Captain, but instead close their eyes and continue their vigil.”

Within the selection above, Chávez not only orients readers to his previous discourse, he also establishes a repetition that gives the text a sermon-like quality, a feature that is characteristic of Chávez’s discourse.

                Chávez’s discourse also makes use of repeated references to Bolívar, through terms like Libertador and a variety of variants of the term bolivarianismo. In my translation, or lack thereof, of the term Libertador, I implemented a strategy of borrowing, defined by Palumbo as “the carrying over of a word or expression from the [source]… to the [target]…, either to fill a lexical gap in the [target language]… or to achieve a particular stylistic affect” (14). This strategy was not used only in the treatment of this particular term, and when I utilized this strategy, I relied heavily on the similarities between the source and target languages, along with the assumption a basic understanding of the Spanish language among my audience. In this case, given the similarities in spelling and pronunciation between the terms Libertador and “Liberator,” I was sure that borrowing the Spanish would not in any way impede understanding. And while I was certainly aware that the English “Liberator” within publications on Bolívar, as I had personally never encountered the English term before researching for this project. The term, “Liberator” therefore read very unnaturally to me; it was a term that seemed to mark itself in the translation. Therefore, I elected to leave the term in Spanish.On the other hand, I translated to English neologisms referring to the Cult of Bolívar, such as bolivariano and bolivarianismo. While Bolivarianism referred historically to the dogma specific to Bolívar, a wide variety of sources point to the ambiguity inherent in contemporary usage of the term. However ambiguous, the term has come to be closely associated with Chávez, synonymous with chavismo, and as such, it roughly symbolizes Venezuela’s militaristic and revolutionary shift toward socialism under Chávez. The term is therefore particular to a movement taking place in Venezuela, and therefore, the Spanish did not need to be borrowed in the translation in order to draw attention to that context.

                Indeed, a number of strategies were employed in the translations to both alert the reader to the Venezuelan context of the original to provide more information on that context. The intertextuality of Chávez’s speeches is vast. He quotes writers and poets, like Neruda, Asturias and Whitman. He calls upon historical figures, including Bolívar, Martí, Miranda and Sucre. He references theorists like Marx and draws upon historical (and contemporary) texts as well, such as the Popul Vuh and the Bible—not to mention of the wealth of personal anecdotes Chávez shares in his speeches. For members of a Venezuelan audiences, most of these references would have called upon shared experiences and knowledge, and footnotes were therefore implement to as a supplement to account for the lack of cultural context of the audience. The derivative nature of all texts certainly challenges notions that would assign all authority and originality over a source and its translation to the source text author, since all speakers and writers draw upon “diverse linguistic and cultural materials” (ch. 1.2). As discussed, this is true of Chávez’s discourse, demonstrated not only by the many allusions in his texts, but also by the portions of the speeches originally produced by other speakers. Among the major sources referenced by Chávez is Bolívar, whose quotations are embedded throughout out the speeches. Chávez sometimes credits Bolívar and the other historical figures he quotes, and sometimes he does not, which is as to be expected with extemporaneous speech. Further, distinctions between text originally produced by Bolívar (and others) and text in the process of being produced by Chávez are not always clear. In the translations, I have clarified, where possible, these distinctions. However, I did not translate the Bolívar quotations embedded in Chávez’s speeches, instead calling upon existing translations of those texts. I made this decision due to the research required to produce historically sound translations of Bolívar’s texts, which was in my mind outside of the scope of this project. I primarily called upon the translations produced by Frederick H. Fornoff in El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar. I also referenced Lewis Bertrand’s collection, Selected Writings of Bolívar. Subsequent versions of the translations of these speeches may include my own translations, guided by Bertrand’s and Fornoff’s.

As stated, the translations included in this project are ultimately drafts, and the preceding discussion therefore represents initial inquiries into the strategies I might employ to finally convey Chávez’s narrative skill. And ultimately, that objective requires that I move beyond the initial disappointment with which I undertook this project to a focus on the dynamic factors at play in the texts I am translating. Those dynamics include the mediated status of these texts. Combating the ideologies that contributed to the assignment of a structure to Chávez’s spoken word and the conveyance of that structure in translation necessitates an exploration into sound (or spoken) translation, or the written translation of spoken word (as opposed to sight translation, the spoken translation of written word). Further, cultural phenomena such as machismo and caudillismo greatly inform the context in which Chávez’s discourse was received. The significance of these phenomena therefore requires future versions of this project to grapple with those concepts and how they manifest in the source and target texts. That is not to discount the progress I have made with this project and with these translations. The English-language speeches are in my mind at least historically precise, reflecting the research I have carried out to master the historical content and context of these speeches. For me then, the next step will be to move beyond the production of factually accurate translations to texts that convey the evocative power of Chávez’s discourse, while also taking into account the dynamics discussed above. In lending my translations the emotive and inspirational qualities characteristic of someone else’s words, I hope to finally make Chávez’s narrative skill my own, and in doing so, demonstrate the narrative skill of story teller.

[1] The website for the Venezuela’s Embassy in Lebanon contains a full-text translation of an annual address delivered by Chávez on January 14, 2004. This is the only full-text English-language translation of Chávez’s speeches that I have located. See

[2] The titles given to each year’s collection of speeches seems to be based on what the government perceived to be the defining characteristic of that year, so that each collection title also contributes to Chavez’s overall narrative. For example, the collection of speeches from the year Chavez took office is titled, 1999: “Año de la refundación de la república” (Year of the Re-Foundation of the Republic), and the collection from the year in which an attempted coup was carried out against Chavez is titled, 2002: “Año de la resistencia antiimperialista” (Year of Anti-imperialist Resistance).