Back then in the backwater

I invite you to listen to this gem, The Continental, featuring the beautiful voice of Maureen McGovern overlaid with images of equally exquisite dancing by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Now, I ask you to imagine, if you possibly can, an overworked translator attempting to imitate all of the above in her slippers, singing the line, It’s continental, oh oh oh, it’s continental.  In the translator’s version, however, the word “continental” is substituted by “confidential”. This has been my standard response, albeit not always in my slippers, when I have been asked what a translation is about by near ones and dear ones. “I cannot tell you. It’s confidential [sound effects included]”.

My first intimation that translation work contained elements of the mysterious and secretive beyond the obvious oddness of the fascination entailed in rendering text from one language to another came from a school friend. She had a translator aunt who worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and had an unlisted telephone number. I never met her, despite expressing a desire to do so, and was never privy to her surname. Yet, I do recall the mixture of irritation and reverence her niece and sister had either for her personally or her profession. Anyone who has ever had to deal with translations of government-to-government correspondence will know what a knife edge one treads when choosing which mot juste to use at every turn.
You see, back then in the backwater (a southern African country in a state of war) there were very few role models for one such as I who dreamed of being a translator one day. Yes, in the hallowed silence of a fusty library we could do private comparative analyses of great authors in the original and translations by crusty academics of a bygone era. Yes, we could pay attention to the faux amis (false cognates) and pitfalls pointed out by teachers. Both activities will be forever linked in my mind to hard wooden chairs. Both served their purpose, I suppose. Somehow these dry disciplines lacked the dynamism I imagined could be derived from having a real live source of inspiration in one’s midst.
What we did learn a lot about back then in the backwater was confidentiality. Echoes of the Second World War were whispered solemnly.  Walls have ears. Be careful what you say and to whom you say it. It could cost someone their life. Freedom of expression and freedom of speech have been denied so many for so long, I am surprised anyone in those conditions can think at all. Ah! But that is a different topic, and a contentious one at that.
Of course, the need for confidentiality is not confined to this nebulous period of history of the backwater I grew up in, nor to that particular place. It has always been with us for as many reasons as there are levels of confidentiality. As in diplomacy, so in business. “Beautiful music, dangerous rhythm”. Indeed.
You will forgive me therefore when I am sometimes silly or vague when you ask what I have been translating recently. I cannot tell you. It’s confidential [sound effects included].
AllisonThe word in bold appeared in the previous post.

2 thoughts on “Back then in the backwater

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  1. Living in the same country at the same time, I remember that "walls have ears" atmosphere and the veiled threats that "loose talk could cost lives". The same breed of slogans used in the WWII (and probably WW! as well). I remember the tension of having a camo-clad husband arrive home for a few hours, unable to talk about what, where, when and how. And all of us translating those tensions and worries into work and frantic social activities. In that country, not much has changed really.


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