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How to deal with difficult translations



Interpretations By Natalie Pepa (Taylor)

My friend David Cohen is visiting Buenos Aires from New York and I’ve invited him for lunch. He arrives at the house promptly at noon and we head over to the garden. Osvaldo, my tango teacher, sits next to me. Occasionally he leans over to tell me something, our arms and shoulders touch and we linger that way longer than necessary. Once in a while he simply rubs my arm and smiles. We pass a large bowl of fresh pasta with olive oil and grated cheese, a salad of greens and tomatoes and several loaves of bread which I picked up at the bakery. It’s a simple and tasty meal. As always we have several bottles of vino tinto—red table wine.

"Why does Osvaldo like the close embrace style better than the open?" David asks. He speaks no Spanish and Osvaldo no English, so I act as interpreter.

"It’s a purer form," Osvaldo explains, "it’s much more primitive and closer to our souls. The touch is the primal form of expressing affection. Human beings communicated with each other with their bodies much earlier than with their speech."

David nods his acquiescence, then says, "The problem is, this close style is dying out. If you look around at the young people, the future of tango, they are dancing in a more open stance."

When I translate David’s words, Osvaldo becomes angry.

"He doesn’t know shit!" he says, "sure there is a fragment dancing and imitating what they see on stage, but there are plenty of young people who continue with the close embrace. There is something compelling, intuitive that awakens the need to be close to another human being. The showing off displayed by those who imitate what they’ve seen on stage cries out for attention. In that style the couple dances for the audience, in the close embrace it is simply for the enjoyment of the dancers."

"He thinks you are not fully aware of all the nuances of tango," I begin my translation and tell David the points made by Osvaldo.

"He is living in denial. Tell him that!" David says, becoming more impassioned, "Tell him I see what is happening in America. In America everyone is following the style of Gustavo Naveira. Either he is deluding himself or he is an idiot."


When Osvaldo hears the name Naveira he grabs his hair and pretends to pull it out at its roots. He spews out a few choice insults both at David and such dancers.

"There is no Naveira style!" Osvaldo affirms in a loud voice. "There is no such thing. Pure commercialism! And those who fall for it are total fools."

I don’t repeat the personal attacks. Osvaldo watches me translate, expecting a reaction from David. "Osvaldo is not completely sold on the Naveira style..." I begin.

Osvaldo cuts in. "What does he think, ha? What?"

He is expecting a stronger reaction from David, but I refuse to become the Chinese messenger.

"You obviously don’t see things the same way," I continue speaking to David, "I think I’d rather stop being a go between. You need to learn how to speak to each other one-on-one, I’m out of this game."

"Wait, wait a minute," David says, "I want you to tell him something else."

"All right, this and that’s all." I say.

"Que dice? Que dice?" insists Osvaldo leaning forward, holding me by the shoulders. He wants to know what David is saying. I take his face in my hands and tell him to calm down, this is not a war, I say. It’s only a dance.

"Nena," he says, "it is war."

"Look, this is the way I see it," David says. "The milonguero-style is Judaism, Naveira is Jesus Christ. Judaism was the foundation, it preceded the teachings of Jesus, he appropriated it and spread the word. Today you have three times as many Christians as Jews in the world. So whose religion won out? It’s all marketing. Naveira is today’s Jesus, he will win in the long run. His style will be the style of the masses."

When I translate this for Osvaldo, he begins to laugh. He likes the analogy, he tells me, he looks at David and gives him a thumbs up gesture. They click glasses.

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