I received a lovely email today in LinkedIn from a freelance translator who also seems to share an interest in intercultural communication and linguistics. It’s always a pleasure connecting with fellow translators in other parts of the planet, but Emerald in particular, inspired me to think about a couple of things. Having had a look at my profile, she saw I could speak Catalan; Catalan is, in fact, my mother tongue. She said she would very much like to learn this language and I told her that I appreciated that interest because in all my years outside Catalonia, not many people I have come across seem to understand what Catalan is, what’s the history of this language and the importance it has for the more than 9 million people who speak it.
But I don’t really want to dedicate this space to provide you with a number of quick facts about Catalán and Catalonia. Wikipedia does it better. No, today, what I want, is to reflect about mother tongue loss for those of us who have been away from our birthplaces for a long time while sharing some selected images about my country and a poem I wrote about the significance this language has for me.
Australia and Maritime Asia (or South East Asia) have been my home for over 24 years now. So, it seems to me that I am what they call, an “Inmigrant translator”, someone who has lived for over 20 years in a country other than his or her country of origin without having been born and grown up in a family of immigrants. While residing in these countries, almost unknowingly, my first (Catalan) and second (Spanish) have been influenced mainly by English but also by other languages that have played an important part of my personal and professional life.
English replaced my first (and second) language and became my daily tool of communication by necessity and by pressure to assimilate (or survive) in my host nation/s. And despite my minimal contact with speakers of Catalan and Spanish, and rarely following the daily broadcasts by Catalan/Spanish means of communication, I can say that the loss of my native language/s through the years, although noticeable to some, it’s not complete. Nor have I lost the capacity to understand the sense of humour that characterises both of these languages, or the nuances that reflect centuries of linguistic and political history.
I believe that is fair to say that, in this day and age when technology facilitates our ability to interact with others who are in other parts of the world and speak other languages, the loss of one’s native tongue in circumstances similar to mine, is a fairly rare phenomenon. There are many cases, of course, which migration of families to new territories seeking for a better life, has resulted in new generations losing their mother tongue, but what I am concerned about today is the conditions by which the “Immigrant translator” loses his or her ability to communicate adequately in the language they were brought up with.
That, I find it a little more difficult, particularly in my case. I’ll explain why.
For good many years, the use of the Catalan language was repressed by the Franco regime that occupied Spain from 1939 to 1975,. Catalan was not allowed to be used in government-run institutions and in public events in Catalonia. But with the death of this dictator in 1975 and thanks to the restoration of a democratic government and a powerful affirmative action and subsidy policies, the use of Catalan became widespread in politics, education and the media. The surge experienced by the Catalan language in the two last decades of the twentieth century resulted in a quickly evolving, rich, new vocabulary that introduced new terms and eliminated old or inadequate ones (particularly those which were simply a catalanised version of Spanish).
So, for those of us who left Catalonia in the 80s, when schooling was still conducted in Spanish and Catalan was taught as a foreign language just like French, the rapid speed of evolution this language experienced from then onwards, put us in a disadvantage position.
But this, is just a matter of willingness to catch up and interest in continuing informed about what will always be a part of you, despite the distance.
Do “Immigrant translators” have an advantage or a disadvantage against local/native translators?
It is common knowledge that translation agencies have an inclination to employ translators who are not only native speakers of the target language but who are also located in the country of this target language.
But, what about immigrant translators? Where do we fit? If we are considered to have lost our mother tongues and not be good enough at our host languages, what are we to do? Perhaps, only perhaps, if we were given the chance to prove that we may have, in fact, a very intimate understanding of both languages, of their nuances, variations, slangs, jargons; not to mention cultural idiosincracies. Perhaps, if we were looked at from a perspective of someone wining a language, rather than losing another, we might be able to prove our worth.
I wrote the following poem a few months ago, thinking about the topic I just mumbled about. I won’t translate it, but I hope Catalan speakers will appreciate it.
Em dius que no oblidi
Que no abandoni els records del meu passat
Que tanqui els ulls I convidi
Els pins, el mar I l’amor que he deixat
Em preguntes com he pogut
Com he pogut desfer-me del meu bagatge
Jo no podría, em dius dolgut
Catalunya es el meu país, el catala el meu llenguatge
Com es que no et dol pensar
Pensar en tots els que lluiten per nodrir
La poesía, la bellesa I el parlar
Dels que tu t’allunyes, et separes I acabaras per trair
I les teves paraules resonen
Resonen I m’ofeguen en un oceá de sons
Oberts, tancats i neutres que em confonen
Em confonen pero vull pensar que aviat
(dubto, pero, si s’escriu amb v baixa o b alta)
Podras entendre que el pes dels anys no m’ha canviat
I podrás veure que encara que somii cap per vall
I no recordi la direcció dels accents
el catala es el meu refugi, el meu amagatall
els passats viscuts, els futurs per venir, els molts presents