Is it too late to have a professional epiphany after 34 years as a translator? When Lanna Castellanos talks about the path of the translator, I think about how different this has been for most of us. Myself, for example. I first knew I wanted to be a translator when I tried to translate the Beatles’ “Girl” into Spanish. I don’t know whether, at the time, I fully understood the importance of the decision to embark on a course of university studies on the basis of which I would live the rest of my life. I don’t even know if I actually understood what being a translator would entail (well, translating, of course, but not the how, the where, the when). But I must admit–indeed, I confess–that the word cast a spell on me. I don’t know how it might reverberate in other languages, but in Spanish, it was musical. I was 17 years old. That’s where I started. And here is where I have reached.

Over the years in college and later, during the early years of my professional career, the dictionary wasn’t just my ally: It was the oxygen I needed to live. The dictionary was everything. Somewhere along the way, however, somewhat on my own, but also inspired by some of great translatologists (particularly Sergio Viaggio), I began to dare to wean myself from my dictionaries, to have more faith in the translator that I am. Suddenly, I could do without them, and, in a state of apnea, submerse myself, diving beneath the surface in search of adjective-fish and adverb-fish within the coral reefs of language, swimming, then, back to the surface with the smile of a translator who has found the word that is the right one, a face that every true translator knows.

With few exceptions, we are trained like sheep–and insecure ones at that–and as such, we translators can end up making the unpardonable mistake of thinking that if something is not in the dictionary, it doesn’t exist. This is how dictionary-dependent we are. And clearly, sometimes words that “don’t exist” do indeed exist in the vocabulary of our clients. A big problem. And so begins a frenzied search in every dictionary, in textbooks, and on the Internet, with our oxygen masks firmly fastened to our faces.

A few days ago, I had a different experience. I found the word I was looking for right away. In fact, I found it in every dictionary in which I looked it up. But in none of those dictionaries whatsoever did I find the meaning for the word that I was certain was the right one. That meaning simply wasn’t there. So my source ended up being… I myself.

We should swim rigorously armed with excellent dictionaries whenever we have to come to grips with translating contracts, patents, pharmacological texts and instruction manuals. But when the time comes to dive beneath the surface and swim free in a sea of words, we should dare to strip off the oxygen mask, swim up to one of those deep-sea words and pet it on the nose. It’s not the right one. We then see another one covered by a snail, and run our fingers over it, but it is not the word either. We may even grow weary of swimming after a while–our Thomas West, Cabanellas, Oxford and Chicago Manual can weigh us down, after all). But then later, maybe while we’re having lunch, the elusive word might scamper, this time like a squirrel, before our very eyes and right into our ravioli, but not swiftly enough to escape the tines of our translator’s fork, so that we can deposit it later in that purchase and sale contract we were working on in the morning. Smiley face! The translator triumphs once more.

If Google T continues to try without success to imitate us, it is because the most perfect of machines lacks human imperfection. We human beings are not monophonic by nature. We are multi-track and, additionally, prone to change. We change constantly. Polysemy is our life’s blood. Google T is a machine that searches like a machine, but which has to settle for a limited range of grays. It can’t resort to the hundreds of thousands of hues that we true translators have access to–excellent swimmers all, rigorously adhering, when practical, to the letter of the dictionary, but wildly creative as well, when called for, masters of a linguistic magic that allows us to swim freely, in a state of apnea, or even to snatch words from the air as they fly by. Sooner or later, we acquire a crystal through which to multiply the colors of our rainbow and to open it up to trillions of possibilities. Our finger then chooses among those trillions, touches the word, and that’s when the magic is born. Translator’s smiley face. SEND.

Aurora Matilde Humarán
Translated by Dan Newland
Illustration by Juan Tavella