Translation at TCU

On April 1, 2008, I was invited to give the Cecil and Ida Green Honors lecture at the Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth where I spoke on “Translation and Cultural Politics in the USA” to an audience of 80-100, mostly students in the modern languages department.

The talk was well received. I gave some data on language minorities in Texas, which readers of this blog would not be surprised to learn exceed the national average. But some in the audience were surprised to learn that, according to the 2000 US Census, in Texas, 68.8% of the population five years or older spoke English at home, down from 74.6% in 1990. In some cities, such as Laredo, Brownsville, or El Paso, the number of people who are bilingual is in the 80-90% range. Here are the top non-English languages:

Language Number Percent
English 13,230,765 68.8
Spanish/Spanish Creole 5,195,182 27.0
Vietnamese 122,517 0.6
Chinese 91,500 0.5
German 82,117 0.4
French/Patois, Cajun 62,274 0.3
Tagalog 39,998 0.2
Korean 38,451 0.2

These figures are of course dated, from a census that is now eight years old. Many in the audience seemed surprised to learn that over 30% for the population in Texas were non-English or limited-English speakers. The national average is now approaching 20%.

While I talked some about the visible translation phenomena historically in the United States, treaties and the like–for example, the Declaration of Independence had to be translated into many languages so that the multilingual colonists could read it in order to ratify it–I also expressed the idea that I am less interested in traditional definitions of translation and more interested in hidden forms of translation articulated by creative writers, students and teachers, and immigrant and ethnic minorities. This, too , struck a chord, and several professors commented on how they often leave their translation work off of their résumés, as translation is not valued by academic committees, and thus translation by teachers serves as another form of hidden translation.

We also touched upon the issue of the vernacular in translation, although I am not sure how it came up, and several people commented upon how Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Garcí­a Márquez often simplifies the rich array of curse words in the Spanish. This topic needs further investigation.

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