Cuban presenter gives new perspective about translators

Challenges and incredible moments mark the road to one boy’s dream

On Tuesday, Sept. 26 and Wednesday, Sept. 27, author and translator Alberto Gonzalez Rivero came to Minnesota State University, Mankato.
He was the key speaker at the event, Cuba(n) Conversations, which was funded by the Nadine B. Andreas Endowment.

“A number of years ago, the university received a gift, and part of the gift from the Andreases was funding for faculty to bring in speakers to enrich our community,” said Kimberly Contag, a professor of Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures.

Before his presentation, Contag gave a brief summary of Rivero’s background.

“Alberto was a high school teacher,” said Contag. “He grew up in a very poor, mountainous community outside of Havana. He was born right at the beginning of the revolution. It’s like a shack, what he grew up in, but because of the changes in Cuba, after Fidel Castro, there was a push toward comprehensive healthcare… free education for everyone.”

Rivero had a passion for English that caused him to pursue further education.

“Because [Rivero] was bright, his teachers motivated him to stay in school,” Contag said. “He got his teaching degree, he also got a degree in theology. Really, his greatest ability is in moving from Spanish to English.”

Rivero’s first talk, “Mind Games in Translation,” took place in the Memorial Library. He started the presentation with a demonstration of how a translation works. He translated for a Spanish speaker who came with him who spoke about his ancestors in his native language and showed old family photos, all while Rivero translated for him from Spanish to English.

During the talk, Rivero explained how he started on the path of becoming a translator.

“I just wanted to study English, I don’t know why,” he said. “I heard it for the first time as a subject in junior high school. Since I heard it for the first time, I just fell in love with it.”

In the place where he grew up, there were no books, dictionaries, or other devices that he could use to study English. He overcame these challenges and found other ways to learn the language.

“I was a clear example of the proverb that you have in English that says, ‘where there is a will, there is a way’,” he said. “When I walked down the street, I memorized English songs, letters to Fidel, the whole life of Christopher Columbus that I learned by heart in English. I did that over and over again.”

He also made pen pals who wrote in English, which helped him to learn English phrases and practice writing in English.

He explained in his talk that in order to be an interpreter, he must be an actor. He has to pretend to have the same feelings and expressions as the person he is interpreting. He said that one of the most difficult things is “saying something that you know that in fact, that is not true, or that is against your feelings, or you disagree totally with that. It is a challenge, but you cannot show that to the people who are listening to you.”

Translators must be loyal to the person they are interpreting, Rivero said. You are representing their feelings. Cubans use a lot of expressions and voice inflictions to convey their message. If you don’t, you are not truly translating their meaning.

“You have to pretend that it is okay,” Rivero said, on translating something he personally didn’t agree with. “But you cannot be neutral either. You’re supposed to represent the feelings that the person is expressing.”

Rivero has translated for famous people such as Rosa Parks, government officials, and even Fidel Castro himself. He has had his share of embarrassing moments and said that translating is a very stressful job because of the fear of messing up. Even though he felt like giving up after making mistakes, he has persevered and is still learning.

“I remember every single one of my mistakes because those were the biggest learning experiences,” he said.

Rivero embraces the challenges of being a translator and could not imagine doing anything else.

“I love what I do,” he said. “If I were to be born again, I would do all the challenges again.”

Rivero wrote a book about his journey to becoming a translator titled, “Born to Translate Cuba: A Country Boy’s Dream Come True,” which he translated from Spanish to English himself. He had books available to buy and for him to sign after his talk on Wednesday, “Cuba Today: Much More than Cigars, Rum, Salsa and Old American Cars.”

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