When people think about translators, they usually picture someone in a conference booth, listening to a speech on the headphones in one language and speaking softly into a microphone in another language. Then you explain that they're actually thinking about interpreters, and what you do is translate the written word. Upon hearing that, they immediately transport their stereotype to a trendy cafe and imagine you typing a book translation away on a cool-looking laptop while sipping a latte.
While I know there are people out there who match this profile, it would be very hard for me to actually work in public like that. I don't know about you, but I sure am not the only one who has to act out some expressions in order to translate them correctly, because looking it up in the dictionary simply wouldn't be enough.
How many times have I found myself nodding, shrugging, frowning, taking a deep breath, clicking my tongue, climbing a hill, throwing a knife, slashing someone's heel... I've even given my kids a fright a couple of times, going from quietly typing to suddenly making weird moves and noises.
Then there was this time while I was translating the last quarter of John O'Dowd's Mahko's Knife. The author mentioned someone's "hollow of the neck." I immediately touched the hollow of my neck with my index finger (no, the image above is not a picture of me...) and the word "saboneteira" came to mind. Literally, it's a "soap dish" in Brazilian Portuguese. However, I wasn't sure the term would apply to the male anatomy as well, as described in the book.
I looked up the expression, combined with the word "male" in Google Images. Results in English confirmed that it was indeed the area right below the Adam's apple. In Portuguese, however, results for "saboneteira * homem" or "saboneteira * masculino" were completely unrelated and, sometimes, of the XXX kind. I started looking for "pomo de Adão" (literally, "Adam's apple") to see if maybe scientific images would give me some anatomy knowledge. Again, it was no use...
The next best thing I had was a live male specimen, aka "my husband." He was laying down on the couch, watching TV, when I knelled beside him and reached for his Adam's apple. "What you doing?" he asked. "Shhh! Don't talk!" I replied briskly. Yes, living with a translator can be romantic like that sometimes...
Suddenly, the inspiration came to me. "Thanks, honey!" I said, as I got up quickly to return to my laptop before the solution escaped me, leaving him there with that what-just-happened look on his face. And that is how I happily settled for "espaço côncavo logo abaixo do pomo de Adão," literally "that concave space right below the Adam's apple."
If you allow me one last graphic analogy, I'd say that, from my point of view, working as a translator―be it with technical or literary materials―is pretty much like a tampon commercial. You know, we always see those women smiling on the ads, ready to go play tennis or take a stroll at the beach, but if you're a woman in your fertile years, you know pretty well that there's nothing to smile about and you just have to go through the pain and the inconvenience until you come out on the other side of it.
So, next time you think of translators, keep in mind all the struggle we have to go through to find the right words and put them to paper. Our work is not about replacing words like a walking dictionary; it's about powering through the cramps and headaches until your work is done. Then, and only then, you're allowed to put that silly smile on your face.
RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).