I began working with former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías for one of the required courses in UWM’s Master of Arts in Language, Literature & Translation program. In the course, Comparative Systems, students chose a country in which their source language was spoken to be the focus of their research for that semester. I chose Venezuela, and each week, as a class, we explored the translation challenges posed by the institutional and systemic differences between our respective source and target countries, in such areas as medicine, law, finance and education. To give an example of the kinds of issues we identified and explored, members of Venezuela’s National Assembly are known as diputados, and as a translator, I can render that term in a number of ways. Translations such as “representatives” and “congressmen” convey to an audience that the text refers to members of a legislative body. However, if I translate diputados as either of those terms, my audience may assume from that familiar terminology that Venezuela’s government operates in the same way as its US counterpart, the term referring specifically to members of one of two branches of a bicameral legislature, when Venezuela in fact operates under a unicameral system. Because the Spanish diputados includes both genders, the term “congressmen” presents an additional problem in its exclusion of any female members of the National Assembly. I might instead translate more literally, as something along the lines of “deputies,” although from that translation, a US audience might subconsciously draw upon associations to law enforcement in their formulation of an understanding of the concept to which the source text refers. While the effects of my translation choice for that single term might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, in translation studies, our concern is with the combined impact of the multitude of similar choices a translator makes (either consciously or not) when rendering content from one system and culture into another. Thus, translation is a very political act, most obviously because it allows governments around the world to do politics with one another, but also because different translation strategies allow the translator to achieve different objectives with her text, as Mona Baker points out in Translation and Conflict. More on that in the posts to come.
Returning to the why for this project, I had chosen to research Venezuela based on a curiosity left over from an anti-capitalistic attitude of my early twenties. The lingering belief (and hope) that societal achievements could be calculated by some other measure than the dollar sparked my interest in studying a country in which an alternative economic model seemed to be in place. And as I put together profiles on the country’s health care system, government, economy, etc., I at first found what I was looking for in Venezuela. Among the first programs I researched, Chávez’s Barrio Adentro program, placed Cuban doctors in economically depressed areas, ensuring healthcare access to the poor. (Cuba received a break on Venezuelan oil in exchange for her doctors.) And along with the descriptions of programs like the Robinson Missions, which targeted illiteracy, and Community Councils, which encouraged grassroots participation in the government, came Chávez’s consistent narrative on the origins of the inequalities of the country (the elite) and Venezuela’s path to salvation (Chávez). What was clear from the articles, speeches, pictures and other resources I encountered in my research was the rhetorical prowess of this leader and his controversial character, his words simultaneously eliciting hope and hate. And as the cult of Chávez in Venezuela lauded his socialism, and the anti-Chávez camp decried it, I wondered how words could at the same time inspire such polarized reactions.
At this point, I will clarify that I am not a chavista, although I’ve done enough research to know that given Chávez’s charismatic nature, persuasiveness and intelligence, I just might have become one had I ever met him. In the early years of his presidency, Chávez’s policies seemed to align with his rhetoric on greater inclusion and the redress of inequalities. Still, his politics overall resulted in power ever-increasingly being concentrated in the office of the presidency (he often ruled with decree power), diminishing checks and balances, budgetary secrecy, the disappearance of billions of dollars in oil wealth, governmental corruption, ever-diminishing freedom of the press and freedom of expression, great limitations imposed on due process, and a crumbling infrastructure. Yet, in spite of that reality, Chávez maintained the passionate loyalty of his supporters and his hold over the government, in part through his rhetorical skill and a consistently deployed narrative, which drew upon such ideals as democracia participativa and poder popular (the power of the people).
Of course, many other factors contributed to his ability to consolidate so much power, Venezuelan oil foremost among them. Thanks in part to Chávez’s efforts to recommit OPEC countries to their production quotas (rather than over-producing), oil prices rose from less than fifteen dollars a barrel in 1999 when Chávez took power to just over 100 dollars a barrel in 2010 (Wilpert 94 and “U.S. FOB Costs of Venezuelan Crude Oil”). Later in his presidency, Chávez would use that oil wealth to his advantage, rolling out social programs to benefit the poor right around election time, such as a mission during the 2012 campaign season through which over one million appliances were distributed to the public (Carroll 282-283). Major missteps by the opposition were also a factor. For instance, they boycotted the 2005 elections, believing that the Chávez government would commit voter fraud. This resulted in a National Assembly made up almost completely of Chávez supporters, which would hold office for the next six years (Alvarez and Acosta). Thus, many external factors clearly came together to allow Chávez to cement his role in Venezuelan politics. Still, he will perhaps be best remembered for his rhetoric and narrative. And Chávez’s was a narrative that became so ingrained in the collective psyche of his supporters that after his death in 2013, Vice President Nicolas Madura invoked chavismo in the campaign that led to his own election.
The circumstances described above are nothing new. Disingenuous politicians are found the world over, and politicians regularly manipulate public perception by invoking a select few polarizing values to distract from the real issues at hand. The primary focus of my thesis project was therefore to explore that use of language, its power, how language becomes action, and strategies for conveying these aspects of political discourse (or any text) in translation. Chávez serves as a particularly interesting case study for this kind of exploration, given the vast influence he wielded (and continues to wield posthumously) over the discourse of an entire nation. I now continue my research to transition my thesis project—the translation of four of Chávez’s political speeches and a critical introduction—for publication.
As I carry out the research and drafting necessary to publish this project, this blog will serve primarily as a translator’s journal of sorts, cataloging the processes and strategies necessary for rendering political discourse—and Chávez’s speeches specifically—from Spanish to English. Its purpose, however, is also political in nature. Across the translation community exists a deep understanding of the professional training and experience required to successfully transfer meaning from one language and culture into another, yet in the lay-world misconceptions surrounding the translator’s task abound, among them the belief that bilingualism is the only skill necessary to carry out translation and the idea that a translation is an exact copy of a foreign-language text—only in another language. This translator’s journal/blog will therefore transparently convey the myriad of decisions that go into the act of translation, thus demonstrating the training, preparedness, and cultural awareness necessary to adequately attend to the complexities of translation. It will also demonstrate the political nature of translation: how project goals inform and shape translation strategies, which result in a text that is not simply a neutral copy of the source content, but a dynamic product representing the source through the unique perspective of the individual translator.
I hope readers will find my project to be as interesting as I do, and I am open to any feedback or questions on my work.
Thank you for reading.
 Visit the Works Consulted page for a list of all resources consulted for this project.
Alvarez, Angel E. and Yorelis J. Acosta (2006). “Electoral Competition and Regime Change.” Harvard Review of Latin America. Spring 2006. Web. 28 Apr 2012.
Carroll, Rory. Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. New York: Penguin Books, 2013. Print.
“U.S. FOB Costs of Venezuela Crude Oil.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. Washington, D.C. 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. Verso: London & New York, 2007. Print.
Photo credit: Society6 Hugo Chávez – Trinchera Creative Poster