Minority language translation in Spanish cultures

Spanish, the second most widely spoken native language in the world, is the official language in 21 countries. It also holds a privileged position among languages that share official status with a large number of minority languages. So what happens to these minority languages when they have to coexist with a giant such as Spanish?

In most cases, it is a constant struggle to keep from disappearing. It is basically thanks to the efforts of the citizens whose mother tongue is a language other than Spanish, in countries where Spanish has official status, that their small language manages to achieve recognition. This is the case of the Catalan, Galician and Basque languages in Spain, where in addition to these three, a total of 15 minority languages are known to exist; it is also the case of Quechua and Aymara in Bolivia, a country with a total of 42 officially recognized languages; and of K’iche’ and Kakchikel in Guatemala, where there are 27 registered languages, to offer a few examples.

What happens to technical translation in these languages? The daring of companies like Microsoft, Google, IBM and Nokia, to name a few of the businesses that have sought to translate their products into some of these languages, is helping these endangered minorities.

As a regional language vendor located in Catalonia, we have been translating into Spain’s official minority languages for more than ten years. Experience shows that apart from the possibility or ease of finding translators into these languages, there is something more important to take into account: a sensitivity for undervalued languages. In this case, being bilingual in Spanish and Catalan is a huge help. It should be noted that there is a clear difference between learning languages as a child, using them interchangeably in day-to-day family life, and learning them in school as a foreign language. This is my personal case: I am bilingual in Catalan and Spanish, and merely competent in English.

Catalan is a minority language, and like other official minority languages in Spain, it was prohibited for the 40 years of General Franco’s dictatorship. Now, all of these languages have become healthier thanks to the efforts of citizens. This gives bilinguals in similar circumstances a special sensitivity for these languages — they love them, they protect them, they want them to last and, most importantly, they reach out to support their speakers.

The challenges to overcome when translating into minority languages are basically divided into technical and cultural, although another division could be added, associated with geographical areas and social environments. In fact, these languages cover quite a wide expanse of territory.

In the case of languages like those of the Iberian peninsula, there are few cultural difficulties. While it is true that different languages clearly mark different cultures and ways of doing things, such differences are quite diluted in a country like Spain. From a technical standpoint, the first big challenge to be faced is to change the mentality of translators so that they can be turned from administrative, legal or literary translation professionals into technical translators. Luckily, in a country like Spain this was easy, as there was a good base of translators due to the existence of excellent universities where translation studies were offered. Over time, specializations in technical translation, localization and other fields were added.

For languages coexisting with Spanish in Central and South America, the two types of challenges (technical and cultural) are much bigger, and the geographical areas and social environments prove much more significant. Technically, the first difficulty is to find universities that offer translation studies in the native language. This is, in fact, not a difficulty but an impossibility, as for the moment no such universities exist. Another factor is the lack of knowledge of English. In some cases it is necessary to teach whole teams how to write in their own language because they lack the grammatical skills needed to write, or the grammar changes so often that retraining is constant. Finally, what an aspiring professional translator has spent four or five years studying in a university has to be concentrated into weeks.

In terms of infrastructure, issues include obtaining an internet connection in areas where there are no telephone cables; finding computers that can support the software used for translating; or establishing a comfortable work environment. Depending on the areas where the language is spoken, the support that needs to be offered is huge, completely different from translation into one of the majority languages. The development of their daily schedule needs to be managed, even for tasks that are weeks long. And above all, we need to be constantly reviewing and encouraging, even when the same basic errors are repeated over and over again.

Really, the most complex challenge is dealing with cultural differences. In countries where the language is spoken in small areas, and with limited interference from others, the culture is more closed and it is necessary to be more open when engaging in dialogue. Respect for elders or for the main leaders of the population is a basic element to keep in mind, so much so that any mistake in protocol could result in the suspension or even cancellation of a whole project.

For those accustomed to the rate of translation into Spanish, translating into Quechua or K’iche’ requires an exercise in deep reflection, forgetting everything you know and relearning everything from the beginning again. This process entails a mixture of desperation and satisfaction when at last the hoped-for results are achieved. The truth is that the business vision needs to be relegated to second or third place. In first place is the personal challenge, an eagerness for adventure or a desire to reach out to different cultures in situations in some way similar to your own. We have the support of a company, but ultimately it comes down to a question of personal pride and a touch of insanity, since in business terms it is a high-risk investment. At any moment it could all collapse like a house of cards!

Logically, the fact that we all speak Spanish greatly facilitates matters, as it is a language that we share naturally. And for those of us who translate into Spanish, ultimately we find that what was once an end has now turned into a means.