Translation and Human Rights in Troubled Times

Translation and Human Rights in Troubled Times

by: Lauren M. Perez-Bonilla

On February 21, 2017, a day known as the “International Mother Tongue Day,” the Konover Auditorium at the University of Connecticut (UConn) welcomed three key figures in translation: Carles Torner, Edith Grossman, and Esther Allen. This event was held in order to publicly announce the launch of the Literary Translation Program at UConn’s Storrs campus. Students, faculty, and members of the community gathered to consider the role of literary translation in promoting human rights. “How could we understand others without translation?” asked Peter Constantine, the Director of the Literary Translation Program, before handing in the microphone to the guests.

Carles Torner, Catalan writer and director of PEN International, gave a historical background to the importance of languages,   outlining the process which led to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights in 1996. This Declaration aims to protect languages –especially those considered as endangered in former European colonies– and its speakers, since speaking another language has often been regarded as a form of resistance by states. Furthermore, Torner expressed that no peace can be achieved without linguae pacem (linguistic peace). In this sense, translation works as an empowerment tool that mediates between two different (and unequal) parties, giving visibility and inclusion to those being marginalized.

Translation EventNext, Edith Grossman, the translator of Latin American and Spanish literature at the University of Pennsylvania, talked about some of the challenges she faced while translating Spanish medieval poetry and other literary works. She also shared with the audience some of the ways she is able to overcome them. She emphasized the importance of maintaining the meter of the original writing. The other insight she provided was to study the (geographical, political, and social) history of the author. This way, Grossman expressed, she is able to get a deeper understanding of the words that she then tries to confer to the translated version. Hence, the final result is an accurate piece –both in meaning and structure.

Finally, Esther Allen, writer and co-founder of the PEN World Voices Festival, took the audience from the literary world to that of journalism. Her intention was to demonstrate that translation can also be applied on a day-to-day basis, by making news available in different languages to different people. This is important because it breaks the hyper local media hub. The latter is the mechanism by which most circulating newspapers in the United States operate with, by only having one additional language in which their articles get translated into–generally,  English-to-Spanish. Allen also indicated that having news translated in multiple languages makes the reader empathic towards other cultures, since they are able to understand the extent to which particular issues affect everyone.

As their closing remarks, the panelists acknowledged the power of translation. It works as a bridge between languages, places, and times. It also allows us to understand and interact with others in a holistic way, rather than in a passive manner. It also permits us to look into ourselves and develop other parts of ourselves through recognizing differences as an asset that unites people, instead of as a trait that divides us. This is a thought that we must keep in mind today because the United States is more diverse than ever before and, through languages, we will be able to empower ourselves and our community.