The Amphibian Translator

By Ezra Fitz

My friend Jorge Ramos, for whom I’ve translated several books now, likes to refer to translators as amphibians because we dwell in two different languages and serve as a bridge between them. After all, the word itself comes from the Greek amphi, meaning «both», and bios, meaning «life». These are not easy days for amphibians like Jorge living in the United States. He often feels as if he doesn’t belong to either of his two nations: Mexico or the U.S. «I see the two governments, and they seem distant and unappreciative to me», he once wrote. «But then something pulls me out of these abstractions and makes me part of a group, a home, a project on which we’re working. And since amphibians inhabit two worlds and handle two languages, we naturally evolve into translators».

Rio Grande Leopard Frog (Rana berlandieri) jumping into water, Texas

I always found this notion —that becoming a translator is a process of Evolution— to be an intriguing one, because unlike the first fish to climb out of the primordial soup onto land, translators don’t cease being one thing when they become another. Jorge has spent well over half his life in the United States, and his English is stronger than my Spanish, yet he still prefers to write in his native language. «It’s clearer for me», he once said, even after thirty-odd years, «and the words flow more quickly from my heart». He is a fully-fledged U.S. citizen, but he did not evolve to fit the traditional definition of what was once considered American. Instead, he passes back and forth between both worlds. What he has to say is essential to the Spanish speaking world, but his words also matter to English speaking Americans. Similarly, as Jorge’s friend and fellow Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros once said, «What I’m saying in my writing is that we can be Latino and still be American». The opposite, of course, is true as well. For example, William Carlos Williams, who in many ways was a twentieth-century evolution of one of the most American of all poets —Walt Whitman—, was himself the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a father who was a British-born Caribbean islander. And there was Carlos Fuentes, who wasn’t shy about the influence William Faulkner had on Latin American literature. As he once said to a North American audience, Sinclair Lewis «is yours, and as such, interesting and important to us. William Faulkner is both yours and ours, and as such, essential to us». Whether Williams or Faulkner realized it at the time, they are now examples of what it means to live «life on the hyphen»: to be not one thing or another, but to be an amphibious hybrid of both.

As Jorge likes to say, I am his voice in English, his «other self». He does the reporting, the writing, anchoring the text in Spanish before letting the translation serve as the bridge across the river known as the Río Bravo in one land and the Rio Grande in another. In a way, he evolves into me, and I evolve out of him. I expect many of us feel a similar sense of duality as translators, whether it’s with an author or the actual text itself. We like being amphibians. We like having permeable minds that can absorb (rather than repel) new notions and modes. It’s much preferable to the hard, scaly skin of a reptile that seals in its own internal environment while sealing out a whole other world.