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Back Door Knowledge

One thing some of my mentees ask about is if I learn from my translations, and my answer is yes, a great deal. Sometimes I learn facts that I could have read or heard about in the news, but oftentimes, they are facts that I would never know about, and even a non-translator in the countries where the documents I translate come from would be oblivious too.

That's why I call it "back door knowledge", because as translators, we enter the world through the back door. We may translate documents that come from countries we have never visited or ones offering products we have never bought, much less heard of until we open that oft-neglected door and get our hands dirty on that computer keyboard.

The beauty of learning through translating is that it isn't like reading a page where the process can be superficial. We may not understand everything in depth, or we may be guilty of skimming through a book while we think about something else. Translating, on the other hand, demands a high level of comprehension. How are you going to translate something if you don't fully understand it? How can you reproduce it in another language? This phenomenon sets us apart from the casual reader, and should not be taken lightly.

So, you ask, what exactly is this back door knowledge? I would classify it in two categories:

  • Linguistic knowledge

In Argentina and Uruguay, they say descripto with a p in there for described, whereas in the rest of the Latin American countries, they say descrito.

A botana is a snack in Mexico. Roman numerals are used to stand for ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.)

  • Factual knowledge In Argentina, when you sign a document, they ask you for your firma y aclaración, which is your signature and printed name. I've never had to do that anywhere else. On Honduran birth certificates, it states the order of birth of siblings in a family. So, if the birth of Juanito Pérez is registered, the certificate must state whether he is the first born, second born, third born, etc. A Latin American Notary has many more powers than a US notary. I know this from going to notary offices to get things notarized, and also through the documents I translate. Londoño is an extremely common surname in Colombia, but virtually unknown outside of Colombia.

I have learned so much through my work, and this has been a bonus for me.

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