Greatest Women in Translation: Regina Alfarano

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Dear readers, welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

I doubt anybody else enjoys this series as much as I do. I love it! Meeting new people, learning more about them in order to ask the questions, reading their amazing answers…

And today, once again, it’s with a great pleasure that I introduce you to the lovely Regina Alfarano, nominated by Luciana Meinking.

Welcome, Regina!


melissa harkin

1. Let’s start talking about your “firsts”. You were part of the team that founded the second translation university course in Brazil, back in 1971. A few years after that, you also joined the staff starting the translation course at USP. Additionally, you founded the first publishing company specialized in translation publications in São Paulo, Alamo, and the first translation journal in Brazil, Tradução & Comunicação. I can only conclude you had quite an important role in introducing translation studies in Brazil. Could you tell us a bit more about these experiences you had?

Those were very exciting years! And undoubtedly, times of fighting hard battles as well. Translation was not recognized as a specific area. It was seen as a “branch” of Language Courses. So, a university course was considered “unthinkable”. I heard – from active interpreters then – questions like: “Do you really think you can teach students to be translators?” “Do you honestly think Translation can be a course on its own?” Well, I am glad it did not take too many years to see Translation and Interpreting as they were originally thought to be and as they had already been in other countries! The experience was different at Ibero-americana (from 1971-1985) and USP (1979-2000). Ibero-americana held an undergraduate program, while USP held a graduate program in Translation only. Both contributed immensely for the professional development of both areas. The first translation journal – Tradução & Comunicação – was one of my most gratifying achievements. Although aware of the groundbreaking character of such endeavor, I was flabbergasted when right after Volume 1 was launched I received a letter (those were old times [1981], when communication was carried out through letters!!!!!) from the Fedération Internationale des Traducteurs (FIT) with an invitation to present the journal at their International Congress in Vienna, Austria. META was the only translation journal in the Americas (Montréal) at the time, so Tradução & Comunicação was greeted sparklingly and immensely welcomed.

2. According to your own words, one of the most interesting projects you were ever involved in was The translations of William Kennedy in Brazil while being a Fulbright Scholar at the New York State University at Albany. Why was it so interesting?

First of all, being a Fulbright Scholar was, in itself, extremely gratifying. A Fulbright Scholar in the US enjoys high respectability and is recipient of many privileges. Secondly, only in my post-doctorate could I dedicate my research to Translation Studies! USP would not accept translation projects for Master’s Degree or PhD back then. Of course my background in American Literature (Master’s Degree) and British Theater (PhD) were of great help, as was my background in Language and Linguistics. I had visited Albany before, very briefly, after reading William Kennedy’s trilogy – his Albany trilogy. This was 1990. The trilogy was added by a number of books later on. But in 1990 I was absolutely taken by the trilogy – Ironweed, Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game – and while in the United States, I decided to visit Albany. That visit increased my interest. Back to Brazil I found the translation for the 3 books. Although a trilogy, and practically three books as three chapters of one encompassing work, each was translated by a different translator, and each clearly suggesting to be totally separate. Therefore, the Albany area and its social and cultural scenario – the very core of Kennedy’s trilogy – were lost. Not only that had been lost! I decided to call the publishing house of Ironweed (Vernônia, in the Portuguese version) to try to contact the translator and understand why Kennedy’s language style had been changed (just one example: all swearing names were eliminated). I was informed that the translator could not be contacted. She used a pseudonym and had asked not to be identified! (At a time of such hard struggle for translators’ visibility, rights and copyright.  I was very active both with ABRATES [Associação Brasileira de Tradutores] and SINTRA [Sindicato Nacional de Tradutores], had created ABRATES-SP, and acted as a Director of ABRATES and President of SINTRA ). And worse: she was very religious, and did not approve of swearing, so, she eliminated all the swearing words in Ironweed!!!!!!!!!!!! I was lucky to interview Mr. William Kennedy and was embarrassed to inform him of the unbelievable fact! Mr. William Kennedy had bought the house where Billy Phelan had lived, and not only preserved it but kept it untouched. It was the first and only time I actually visited the physical scenario of a book! The building, the furniture, glasses, lamp fixtures! And William Kennedy sitting in Billy Phelan’s chair and talking about his trilogy! It could not have been more interesting and more of a privilege! I was even more embarrassed, however,  when he said he had never been paid for the copyright of the books published in Brazil!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Not one cent! Not one letter! How horribly embarrassing could that be???? I had the opportunity to meet Mr. William Kennedy one more time (although very briefly) in Paraty, at FLIP 2010. As one of FLIP’s guests he had very busy days and of course was highly requested by participants!

3. You describe your first experience with the translation practice as “a scuba diving initiation”. Could you tell us about your experience and how it shaped your translation career?

I was 18 years old and had just returned to my hometown (Limeira, SP, Brazil) from my one-year AFS exchange program in the US. Someone called from a local hospital. They had just received new equipment imported by a wealthy man who, nearly dying, would have his last chance if the equipment could be put to work. So, they had the “brilliant” idea of calling an 18-year-old whom they thought would translate the manual. As much as I tried to tell them – as I already knew back then, in 1965, that speaking a language did not mean I would be able to translate, let alone a manual – the pressure was so high (‘The man will die if this does not work!’) that I went to the hospital. A piece of equipment, a team of medical professionals and technicians and myself, scared to death. As I translated the instructions I thought ‘I will be the next one to need emergency help here…..’. But slowly but steadily the team started activating the commands – the equipment worked and the man was saved! I felt as if a plow had gone over me! Sweating, hardly breathing, exhausted! But relieved! Would that be the reason why I would never, ever come close to translating manuals? The experience may have shaped my translation career in the sense that I do not, by any means, translate technical material, manuals, and the like. But yet, I do translate medical material, so, it may have been the “scuba diving initiation” to show the challenge, the excitement and the gratification translation can offer.

Translation is not only about languages, knowledge, cultures, and all that comes with it, of course, but about those using it for those purposes: people.

4. Besides this first experience you had, you also say you had total immersion experiences that shaped your areas of specialization (poetry and medical translation). Could you tell us a bit more about them?

When teaching translation I used to say to my students that only poets could translate poetry, which explained why I never included poetry in my Literary Translation Courses. At some point in time, Haroldo de Campos asked me to translate the speech he was going to deliver at a ceremony to honor Octávio Paz. The speech included some poetry. I froze when I received the originals, and immediately talked to Haroldo about it. He said he would give me support if I needed – how would anyone in this world refuse a request by and support from Haroldo de Campos? I decided to take the challenge! Of course I said I would send a first version for Haroldo’s reading, suggestions, etc. etc. To my total astonishment, he did not make any changes at all. And to my double/triple astonishment, sometime later I received a call from Régis Bonvicino, who was organizing a poetry anthology for the Brazil Exhibition in Paris. He invited me to translate Contemporary Brazilian Poets, and before I had any reaction, he added: “Haroldo said you would say you do not translate poetry, but that is not true, you do translate poetry, and he has recommended you”! Again, how could anyone refuse such invitation! And Desencontrários (Unencontraries) was my first delightful experience translating poetry. Others – just as delightful – followed, and I am glad to say I truly enjoyed ‘every word/verse/rhyme’. Working with Haroldo de Campos was most enriching, as expected. Sitting with him, reading poems and translations – invaluable and unforgettable!

As for medical translation, I was caught having to check reference material for one of my projects. Those references showed so many translation problems that they could hardly be useful as references. So, I had to search, re-search and re-search for my research! The project I was involved in included doctors’ research, and again and again, high reading volume. Then, it led me to FDA material research. As the project was of high relevance, I was very involved and of course wanted to do a good, reliable job. Extensive reading and research called the attention of the doctors involved and they recommended me for an even larger project that was medical-related. After detailed information I realized I could face the challenge. That was the beginning of a fast-moving dive into medical translation. One day, my husband, a medical doctor himself, came to my desk, saw the material (we used many dictionaries back then, and many typed copies of translation….. and re-typed pages…..) and asked me: “Are you translating medical texts?” I answered I had been, for some time. He was very surprised! So, it all had to do with my own projects – it all led me quite naturally. The long-lasting AIDS projects both in Brazil and in the US were of profound involvement and partnerships. Thanks to my graduate Translation students at USP who helped me, Brazil was the only country to launch AZT on the same day and at the same time as the US. I was honored to have translated presentations by top Brazilian scientists and researchers on the model AIDS prevention project Brazil developed (and unfortunately interrupted in recent years). The bridge between poetry and medical – as odd as it may seem at first…. – reached its apogee when I translated one of Nelson Ascher’s poem – Mein Herz – from Portuguese into English. As soon as he got my version he called and asked me: “Are you a physician?” “Why do you ask?”, was my reaction. “Because you translated this poem so beautifully, and it sounds ‘medical’”! Coming from a translator of such stature, I could not doubt the ‘bridge’ was viable (and enjoyable!).

5. You say stress and adrenaline are integral parts of translation. Why and/or how?

It has been proven that interpreting is the most stressful profession in the world. The study compared interpreters and surgeons! So, stress and adrenaline are part of the very nature of interpreting, of the fantastic decision-making process and rendition. Interpreting is very often referred to as ‘oral translation’. I would say that is too simplistic! But stress and adrenaline are also integral parts of translation. Clients’ turnaround needs, clients’ reviews of originals – so often – clients’ updates for materials already translated, clients’ requests for additions. And, of course, in no time at all! Clients traveling all over the world – all those requests to be delivered on time and wherever they are. The only way to meet those needs is to draw a map and have color pins to show who is where – Brazilians in Asia, Europeans in the Americas, Americans in Europe. Time zones are absolutely crucial, and projects overlap, since changes were requested after projects had been delivered. ‘The project is over’ – wishful thinking! It does come back….. and back again. When it comes to medical projects, that is potentiated. Huge projects come back for updates two, three, four years later. Many a time, clients’ staff has worked on interim versions (‘minor’, as they say…..). Medical records to be translated for patients who must travel for medical care. Documents required to import medications for all sorts of patients (and many times, children). It is an extremely stressful cycle, fighting against time and having to comply with bureaucracy. Interpreting doctors, nurses, patients and family members about very serious conditions can be the most stressful and the most intense of all experiences. Clients, medical staff in Brazil and all over the world watch the very personal, and many times very sad, testimonials, which must be rendered as any other interpreting session. To be honest – not at all like any other interpreting session. Stress and adrenaline can hardly be measured. And although trembling voice must be avoided, an  interpreter is not always successful when others around are already shedding tears.

[The translation profession] rewards the cumulative years of experience, which is to say, age counts positively; it encourages and demands ongoing learning, which is to say, it is intellectually healthy; it also demands recycling and updating, which is to say, it is continuously evolving; it fits in wonderfully with self-employment, which is to say, one can—or tries to!—manage one’s own working days and hours.

6. You give your students two key pieces of advice: 1. Do not charge less than you deserve for your work; never, ever charge more than you believe you deserve for your work.; and 2. Choose what you really like to do as a profession, and above all, have fun doing it. Why do you think these are the most important pieces of advice to give to translation students?

Dignity is crucial in life – personal life and professional life. Every professional deserves to be compensated for the work done, which goes without saying. But competition may interfere, and ‘professionals’ trying to find jobs unfortunately do charge humiliating fees. So, that is the first part of the first piece of advice: do not charge less than you deserve and the professional field finds to be common sense. And how to find out? Very easily: through professional associations, translation unions, international associations, peers. Competition must never interfere with dignity. On the other end, if a professional is aware of how to charge for the work done, that is what should guide his/her attitude – never, ever charge more. Translators are so often, too often in fact, faced by urgency, by extreme clients’ needs (a few examples above), by the literal plea ‘charge whatever you want’. Of course there are urgency fees, but that is a different issue altogether. There are also pro-bono projects, which are extremely important, gratifying, and no doubt made evident by their own nature. As for regular projects, translators must present their fees very clearly, from the start. Clients should ideally receive a document which shows all services to be rendered, all situations under which they can be rendered, and just as translators expect clients to comply, so must they.

As for liking what we do as a profession, and above all, have fun doing it, I pose a question: how do we feel every time we have to do something that we do not find pleasant, or likeable? It is definitely not a good feeling. When involving others, the result will certainly not be satisfactory. When involving professionals, it can be nearly disastrous! Translation in itself is about making decisions. So, the crucial decision is: I want to be a translator, I like to be a translator, I enjoy what I do, and I have fun doing it (despite all the stress). Then, the decision making process at the core of translating will flow more smoothly. It would never flow otherwise, I am sure.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate someone you admire and that is a great woman in translation.

I can think of a  number of great women in translation. The one I choose to nominate is Angela Levy. A pioneer in interpreting in Brazil, a prominent translator and outstanding translation/interpreting teacher, Angela has trained and inspired so many translators and interpreters. Angela is to be admired and respected as a professional, as an amazing human being, and as a long-time peer and friend.


Regina, I sincerely appreciate you accepting Luciana’s nomination and my invitation, and taking the time to answer my questions. It was an honor to welcome you on my blog. Thanks a lot! 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Greatest Women in Translation: Regina Alfarano

  1. Pingback: Greatest Women in Translation: Angela Levy | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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