Translating ‘Favela’ Part 1: The Problem of Translation

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This is the first in a two-part series on translating “favela.” For Part 2 click here.

In the major cities of the world, there is a common urban phenomenon: informal settlements. According to the United Nations agency, UN-Habitat, which uses the English term ‘slum,’ these are degraded areas of a given city characterized by precarious housing, lack of infrastructure and basic sanitation, and without land regulation. This description of ‘slum’ however, describes aspects of some informal settlements, but not them all, and certainly doesn’t cover any of their qualities. Most importantly, we cannot generalize between informal settlements in a single city, much less between different countries, because there are many causes to the formation of these spaces, and each one is a response to a historical situation and specific policies. The relevance of this concern cannot be minimized, much less ignored, given it is predicted that in 2050, 3 of the 9 billion people living on this planet will occupy informal housing. In fact, this is where population growth in the coming generation will take place.

This type of settlement is known in different locations around the world by different names that originated from simple descriptions, historical occurrences, or linguistic creations. ‘Favela,’ ‘barrio bajo,’ ‘barrio de chabola,’ ‘tugúrio,’ ‘champerío,’ ‘villa miséria,’ ‘bidonville,’ ‘baraccopoli,’ and ‘cinturón de miséria’ are some of the names that we find, looking only in the Americas, to describe what in technical language are called informal settlements. Given that English is the language of globalization and it serves most of the time as the instrument of communication between countries with different languages, we often find globally disseminated articles or texts about informal settlements in which the names are translated almost automatically to ‘slum’ or ‘shantytown.’ If we look for the definition of the term ‘shanty’ in a widely distributed reference such as Wikipedia, we find:

Shanty is probably from Canadian French chantier, a winter station established for the organization of lumberjacks. Hutment means an “encampment of huts”. When the term is used by the military, it means “temporary living quarters specially built by the army for soldiers.” The term is also a synonym for shanty town, particularly in developing countries.

Nevertheless, even if in some cases an informal settlement fits one of these definitions and it therefore appears logical to translate them as such, it seems to me that the common local names become almost proper names. This is because they describe a unique context that needs to be differentiated.

The problem then becomes: if there is a term in the language of origin that represents the situation in the country, why translate it to another term that only exists in English? It is not about whether equivalent terms exist in the target language, but that these terms define situations so specific that they shouldn’t be translated.

A 'barrio' in Honduras

When translating a text, whoever translates it should know what approach to take. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the translator of Plato’s work into German, said that a translation may do one of two things: either direct the reader to the author, in other words, strictly follow the original, or bring the author to the reader, in other words, the original text is translated to be most comprehensible to the reader. Schleiermacher preferred the first option, which implies that translation provokes in the reader a feeling of strangeness, “the impression of being confronted with something foreign.”

And it is exactly this that is being addressed, trying to bring the reader closer to the lived situation in this type of settlement. The situations described by the terms ‘villa miséria,’ ‘barrio bruja,’ ‘población callampa,’ and more are all so peculiar that, even in the case of neighboring countries, they cannot be considered equivalent situations. That is to say that we are talking about the translation of terms that describe a socio-political reality unique to each country. And even having characteristics in common– elements such as the period of establishment, the regions in which they are located, long-term development, and current situation–they are also totally unique to each informal settlement arrangement.

What unites them all is the lack of regulation, which is also what’s responsible for such diverse results. These names are part of the politics of identity which is emphasized in the rights of minorities and marginal communities in the interior of a State—and try to define and obtain a legitimate identity—the right to protect an identity that feels unique, proper, and original; an identity to which they belong. Respecting terms that make up part of the collective conscience of respective societies establishes the base for possible improvement of the circumstances they reflect.

To translate proper terms that have a specific and unique meaning to the area in which they are used is to generalize an identity by using terms that are less pertinent to the concept and belong to a foreign culture. This generalization may be the result of a superficial study that follows the logic that says “if they are similar, it must be because they are the same.” This logic minimizes culture, normalizes concepts, and creates a universality that is not always necessary, nor true. For example, the English Wikipedia page about ‘slum’ states the following:

Slums, also called favelas and townships, are a common feature midst major cities of the world. Above are nine examples.

The ‘also called’ of this sentence reduces an array of possibilities to three terms.

Worse yet is when we concentrate on the most used term: ‘slum.’ What happens if you put ‘slum’ into Google? A total generalization that discounts all good qualities and achievements, and consequently inappropriate when the term is applied to Brazilian favelas, for example: “A squalid and overfilled street or urban district inhabited by very poor people.”

But then, if not by way of direct translation, what strategies could be used to address these terms in a foreign language?

A 'campamento' in Chile

Translator, historian, and translation theorist, Lawrence Venuti, proposes ‘foreignization:’ recognizing the importance of the linguistic and cultural features of the original text and shaping them as they are in the original text to the translated text. Adopting this method means adopting a translation strategy that is regularly excluded by the cultural values that dominate the target language, and therefore, somehow, combats the ‘domesticating’ ideology, the idea of wanting to translate everything into English and not accepting the diversity offered by other languages.

Another proposed strategy is description, coming from the hypothesis that proper names and names of places, in addition to names of events and phenomena that are typical of a culture, should not be translated but should be presented by way of descriptive translation. This descriptive translation is an explanatory circumlocution that is given, according to translator Vázquez Arroya, when “one expresses in the target language what is implicit in the language of origin.” In other words, a term may have a cultural charge, the context which is known by readers of the original language that is foreign to those reading in the language of translation, so the translator tries to explain this context in a simple and summarized way in the translated text.

Therefore, the most pertinent way of referring to informal settlements in a foreign language text would be to use the original term with an explanatory definition about the context of origin in order to transmit to the reader of the target language the exact meaning and not a hardly correct approximation in their own language. This way, the reader would feel closer to the unrecognized reality and, at the same time, understand that it is a completely different reality, thus foreign. In the same way that the original text reflects a unique situation, the translated text would be respecting different cultures and identities, making the reader ‘become part of’ the culture of origin and avoiding forcing the culture of origin to become part of a global element.

On the other hand, we cannot forget that the majority of these terms, by describing part of a society that is marginalized, bring with them an extremely negative connotation and are often used pejoratively. For this reason, they are often stigmatized in daily speech, almost to the point of being considered politically incorrect. After contact with residents of favelas, we see that many opt to use the term ‘community.’ However, we can consider that the constant and accepted use of these terms can bring about acceptance of this reality by society, the government, and public and private entities. To accept—and not ignore—these situations, recognizing them individually and taking qualities and challenges on a case-by-case basis, is an important step in achieving necessary improvements. Not using euphemisms or generalizations, but rather by using the term given to each case by its respective society, helps avoid trivializing the situations and instead raises awareness of them.

A 'llega y pon' in Cuba

Accepting the negative connotation of a term, in time, causes us to move away from this connotation and to end this reality. And, with time, to produce both internal and external modifications to these settlements. Taking as example the Brazilian favelas: the term implies a precarious community, but with the passing of years, and principally in the last decade, this reality has changed.

Although the term ‘favela’ carries this history and still often carries a negative connotation, it is increasingly recognized for its historical importance, entrepreneurship and creativity: the favelas demonstrate daily that they are not simply ‘precarious communities,’ and much less ‘slums.’ Finally, of concern are also those terms that hold a light connotation, for example ‘human settlements,’ which would simply promote their reality while continuing to lump them. These euphemisms, even if politically correct, can bring about the acceptance of these settlements as something commonplace.

Language is a living organism, neologisms are born constantly, and meanings can be modified according to the needs of individuals. All of these terms can take on new meanings, or they may simply become unused if one day such informal settlements stopped existing and instead were viewed as they really are—an important part of society with rights, including the right to the city, and with residents deemed true citizens–not just as a potential vote at election time.

This is the first in a two-part series on translating “favela.” For Part 2 click here.