Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Culture-dependent translation

When I started Reading Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, I was grasped by the opening story, an excellent example of the author’s thesis. The Gift of Fear is about how your intuition, or your fear, can save you from violence.

Considering that Gavin de Becker is a professional security specialist in the US, working for famous figures (political, show business, you name it), and considering the specific characteristics of the US as a country, all of the theory, the data in the book can be redundant unless you’re very interested in the statistics of violence. But the basics, the fact that fear is based on intuition, and the revelation that intuition is not an irrational thing, but an accumulation of experiences that you have gathered along your life that come to you in the form of an instant pointer towards danger when it’s needed, is a valuable concept.

The book shows us how to trust our intuition through the analysis of real cases. The first story is one of a rape that could have ended in murder. When the client tells the story to the specialist, she is not aware of why she took certain steps, but he helps her find her own answers. For instance, why she got up and walked behind her rapist to get out of the apartment, which saved her life. The case reappears several times later in the book: through her account, de Becker points at the signals she noticed that indicated the man meant danger. The “errors” that our civilized mind makes because we don’t want to seem impolite.

A typical example of these errors is when the elevator doors open and the person inside gives you a bad gut feeling, but you dismiss that feeling by labelling it irrational, and because you have been raised to be polite. But letting the doors close and wait for the next elevator can save you from the violence that stranger might inflict you, because the intuition that tells you something is wrong is based on experiences and an unconscious attention to details that we have learned through the years.

When I read the book for the first time, I must admit all the statistics about violence in the US bored me. It could have been cut down. As a translator, I pondered about the translation of the book. I always do this when I like the material. And I remember thinking about the adaptation option, since I thought a straight translation would not work well, for instance, in Spain, where I live.

Years after, I look for the translated work and it does exist. But at that point, the book has been translated, sold (not very successfully) and it is impossible to get. No more editions. It was published by Urano. I whish I could talk to them about the possibilities of negotiating with the author an adaptation instead of a translation. I imagine that must not be easy, since one normally buys translation rights and everything is specified legally. My dream option would imply much more involvement from the author and different work for the translator/adapter, and more coordination on the part of the publishing house. Not very feasible in the current market conditions.

That is probably why in Spain self-improvement books started to get translated in the eighties but now what sells most in this genre is written in the country. Only absolute best sellers are translated into Spanish. Not things that are too culturally-dependent.

In this specific case, a part of the problem is the culture-dependent material and another part, I insist, is the excess of statistical data. I must confess, though, that on my second reading I was keenly interested up to one-third of the book. I intend to finish it but I’m starting to skip chunks that are too statistically or professionally intense. After all I am not a famous person that has to be protected from potential assassins.

Of course, let me clarify that this is not the only example of a book that fails in the Spanish market. There are so many other factors that go into the ecuation, including the fact that there are too many books published, more than there is demand for them. Sometimes the marketing work is pointed at, but basically the exceptional cases are the ones where a book sells really well, making the publishing house able to compensate for the not so successful ones (be them translation or originals). I just talked about this one because the "problem" was in my mind since I started reading it.

Now, I am showing you the cover in the Spanish version and the summary presentation from the publisher, which is perfect from my point of view.


Este libro extraordinario e innovador nos demuestra que todos somos capaces de predecir la conducta violenta. Recurriendo a docenas de casos fascinantes conocidos en el curso de su carrera, De Becker extiende ante el lector las piezas que componen el rompecabezas de la violencia humana y nos enseña la manera de resolverlo, mediante la atención a las sutiles -o a veces obvias- señales de la intuición. Como dice el autor, «puedes negarte a ser una víctima». A partir de singulares y asombrosas revelaciones sobre el comportamiento humano, El valor del miedo nos ayudará a distinguir el peligro real del imaginario, nos hará sentir confianza en un mundo a veces hostil y volverá nuestra vida incomparablemente más segura. Todos sabemos que existen razones válidas para, en ocasiones, sentir miedo. La cuestión es, ¿qué ocasiones son ésas?: - Un desconocido en un aparcamiento se ofrece a llevarle la cesta de la compra a una mujer. ¿Es un buen samaritano o anda en busca de otra cosa? - Un empleado al que acaban de despedir predice: Se arrepentirán. ¿Piensa volver con una pistola? - Tras su primera salida, un hombre le dice a una mujer que es su destino estar juntos. ¿Qué hará cuando ella lo rechace? - Un adolescente está obsesionado con la música death metal y fascinado por las armas de fuego. ¿Va a matar a alguien? - Una madre experimenta cierta sensación de inquietud a propósito de la simpática canguro que acaba de contratar para que cuide a sus hijos. ¿Debería cambiar sus planes y quedarse en casa? - Un hombre es amenazado por el furioso ex marido de su actual compañera. ¿Debe acudir a la policía? Gavin de Becker, el principal experto estadounidense en la predicción de conductas violentas, nos dice que todos estamos capacitados para responder a las preguntas más comprometidas de la vida. El auténtico miedo es un don, asegura, porque es una señal de supervivencia que sólo se activa en presencia del peligro; sin embargo, el miedo injustificado ha adquirido un poder sobre nosotros que no tiene sobre ninguna otra criatura del planeta. Y no tiene por qué ser así.

In view of this, I am probably asking stupid or rhetorical questions here: Could the publishing house have made another choice as far as adaptation in lieu of translation? ¿Or is our only choice to translate or not translate?




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