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Tlaxcala Against the Unique, or How to Translate a Lamb

AUTHOR:  Santiago Alba Rico

Translated by  Translated by Manuel Talens and revised by Mary Rizzo

It has always seemed strange to me that one needs a piano to play piano, this kind of wooden dinosaur one has to strike with both hands; it also seems strange to me that nobody seems to find it strange that in order to translate a text from one language into another it is not necessary to use cranes and pulleys, ropes and levers to elevate all this heavy weight from earth. In the languages that I know, all of them badly, “to translate” (tradurre, traduire, traduzir, translate, übersetzen) evokes the very physical operation of re-placing a load, of transporting a package, of carrying and lifting and resting a great piano onto another site. Also the Arabic verb “tarjama” - from which stems our Spanish “trujimán” or “truchimán” or “dragomán” - shares a semantic field with “naqala”, literally “to transport”, whose guttural central “qaf” materializes the very robust image of a truck full of oranges. I believe that the members of Tlaxcala will not feel awkward if I imagine them all (regardless of their sex) as stout truckers or young porters who accept and are proud of both the social character of their means of transport and the explosive material they transport.

The wind that moves the seed over the fence and pollinates the sterile field is the wheat’s translator!
The river that moves water, ships and lime from one country to other without drying off on the borders is life’s translator!
The impetuous lip that moves saliva to the lover’s lip is fire’s translator!
The bricklayer who moves bricks to build a house is determination’s translator!
The longshoreman who loads bales on the port, the miner who pushes the tipping skip, the factory-worker who laboriously transforms fabric are captive power’s translators!
The militant who passes a message, the resistant who transmits clandestine information, the student who distributes a furious newspaper are limit’s translators!
The peasant who transports weapons to all Sierra Maestra of the planet is his people’s translator!
The poet who moves common names to an unforeseen possibility is the future’s translator!
And just for the same reason, and the other way around, this translators’ beehive of Tlaxcala is a phalanstery of verbs, it is wind, river, saliva, brick, longshoreman, miner, factory-worker, peasant, militant, poet.

The mysteries are three. The first one is that we speak. The second is that we speak different languages. The third is that we can translate them. Of the three, the most enigmatic and definitive, the one which better defines us as human beings, is the last one. A lion and a butterfly do not have anything to say each other, a zebra and a lamb can collide, but they do not change places. What distinguishes men from animals is that only men can translate and be translated. Only what does not admit a translation is a species, only what is not possible to translate is a race and that’s why a zebra is a jail. If something is impossible to translate it is not free. Racism, xenophobia, male chauvinism, imperialism, capitalism, are fiercely opposed to any translation, they want to exhaust the world in their watertight species, they treat men as zebras of a unique version, as untranslatable lambs. To translate is to go out of the zebra, that is to say, to go out of jail. Translating a lamb is converting it into a human being.

The opposite of translating is to reduce: to reduce a prisoner, to reduce a revolt, to reduce a settlement to ashes, to reduce a house to rubble, to reduce a people to misery. This is the Empire’s vocation. Monsanto wants to bridle pollens and wind; Lyonnaise des Eaux wants to bottle rivers; Repsol wants to coagulate saliva; fire, tipping skips, fabrics, fields speak the same language, an idiolect, and there is not another one to move them to. The tale of Babel is pure propaganda: in order that united men would not construct this tower so threatening to the sky, God had to then create an empire in order to prevent translation and generalise a troubling common language. At least two languages are necessary to have a deal and a thousand to close an agreement. In order to divide men, God imposed upon them a unique language and locked them in it. Both the Pentagon and NATO are busy reducing houses and bodies; El País, CNN, The New York Times, among others, take care to reduce minds. Empire cannot be translated: it is unique, total and intransitive.

The translator’s figure has always been marked by a sort of original failure: it was the cobbler who patched Babel’s devastations, the half-lit lamp which hardly managed, as in the beautiful Cervantine metaphor, to show the tapestry’s reverse, the traduttore traditore resigned to moving invalid senses, approximations, trials and errors, and who received the scorn with which one let go the forgetful messengers. Tlaxcala, a cooperative society that transports voices, mobile park of common words, part of the opposite and more exact principle which states that monolinguism is both dangerous and a failure; that it is Unique which prevents unity; that only an alliance of differences can triumph against Totality. Tlaxcala was born to be glad in Babel’s confusion and to send its trucks, with weapons and oranges, in all directions. Tlaxcala was born to fight the imperial English language and also to save the English language, reduced – impossible to translate - to a concise, imperative, skinny, steely, spherical and cheating language, to a species and not a language Pulleys and cranes, ropes and levers, it thrills me and I am personally grateful (I, small time polyglot) before the muscular social work of translators (both from Rebelión and Tlaxcala), without which we would continue being zebras or hyenas in the zoo of CNN and El País. Tlaxcala aspires to be the Toledo School of Translators of anti-imperialism, the army of trujimanes who will build, brick by brick, the boisterous tower against the silencing Unique, the linguistic arm of revolution which will free rivers, saliva, tipping skips and men. The world is a translation and all its parts are original. The Unique should beware of Tlaxcala, because it has started translating the Union.

Translated from Spanish into English by Manuel Talens and revised by Mary Rizzo, both members of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity (www.tlaxcala.es). This translation is on Copyleft.

This article appeared originally at Rebelión (http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=26975).

The Spanish philosopher Santiago Alba Rico has written numerous essays and books on Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics. He has been living in the Arab world for the last seventeen years and has translated into Spanish the Egyptian poet Naguib Surur and the Iraqi writer Mohamed Judayr.