The Translator’s Tale, or What I Learned From Lupita

Well, today it finally became real. I have incontrovertible evidence that yes, I’m a professional translator now. And that makes me, in a sense, a published author with a byline, too. My contributor copies (ten in English, plus one of the Spanish original) arrived this morning in the mail.

And I am psyched, and more than a little nervous.

Don’t worry, I’m not nervous about telling my mom; I showed her the books right away. She was not upset by the subject matter; she knew months ago, when I first began translating Lupita’s memoir. I was so excited, I just had to spill it to my folks right away. I was about to make money doing two of the things I love most: writing, and translating. (I’ll get to what’s making me nervous in a bit, and just sort of back the truck in nice and slow here.)

In many ways, this job was perfect for me. I’m very multilingual; German was my first language, thanks to my immigrant parents, followed in short order by English. Later came French, at school; I was at the top of my class from Grade 7 (in which I once memorably scored 101% on the midterm exam; I answered even the bonus question correctly) through Grade 13. At my high school graduation I took home the prizes for French and German both. My favorite memory? Being asked by my very prudish high-school German teacher to explain to my classmates the difference between schießen (to shoot) and scheißen (to shit) — after class.

And at university, I took Greek and Latin, and aced Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, as well as excelling in Middle English. The reason for my taking all these languages, besides being a little smarty-pants who knew what she was good at, and was not averse to showing it? Well, the Greek and Latin were just for my own enrichment; I figured I might as well go with the old-school classics. It was a pure go-big-or-go-home thing. As for the rest, I didn’t want to take the dry-as-dust linguistics theory courses that I was supposed to. My mind just did not work that way. But I still had to fill the linguistic requirements of my degree. You could take one or the other, so I picked Old Norse and Introduction to Beowulf. I figured I would get a better feel for language by seeing it in use, and I was right.

A few years ago, after seeing The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, it occurred to me that most of the news our lovely anglo media was spewing on Latin America was just dead wrong; worse, a lot of it stank of putschist right-wing propaganda. How to get at the truth? Well, I thought, the best thing to do was learn Spanish. I was already part way there, with my university Latin (the root of Spanish, after all, and also Portuguese, a smattering of which I’d picked up from a Brazilian-born ex-boyfriend who sent me about a dozen homemade CDs of his favorite songs, with translations.) So, at 38, and with the help of a hokey little old German book courtesy of my mother, titled Spanisch Ohne Mühe (Effortless Spanish), I taught myself yet another language.

I never did make it to the end of Spanisch Ohne Mühe. Before long I’d graduated to an Oxford pocket Spanish dictionary, and then to the gran diccionario that still occupies the place of honor on my desktop. And I was making good use of both, following the alternative news from all over Latin America. I watched endless videos and read reams of print. And I listened to Latin American popular music — the real thing, not the watered-down horse-piss that passes for it on the North American charts. Within three months of starting to learn Spanish, I was already translating pieces for this blog. And in less than a year, I’d bought and read my first full-length book, a hard-hitting first-person account of the Colombian drug wars: Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, by Virginia Vallejo, a journalist and former beauty queen who had been Escobar’s mistress for several years.

My autodidactic tendencies served me well; rather than sitting through a formal course and being bored out of my skull while only half learning the language, I was getting a real feel for it by observing it on the fly — and more importantly, using it. A fun book called Streetwise Spanish helped me get a basic sense of how various strains of slang work, but I didn’t rely on it much. It was better to hear the different accents and figures of speech straight from the speakers. I watched and re-watched all my favorite DVDs, relying less and less on the English subtitles as I progressed, until I could follow all Spanish video without any help at all. I even started to discern between the different accents (Mexican was the clearest and easiest for me to understand; Argentinian, the hardest. And the very snooty Spanish of Madrid, with its lisped Cs and Zs, was undeniably the funniest.)

So much for how I learned Spanish. Now, for the nervous part, which came after Richard Grabman sent me the manuscript.

The Table Dancer’s Tale, or Historias del Table Dance, is at least as hard-hitting, in its own right, as Virginia Vallejo’s memoir. And it’s as much of a lesson in feminism-on-the-fly as my self-taught Spanish was in terms of learning a language. There’s no dry theory or sterile dogma; it’s just the straight, unadorned stories of one Mexican table dancer and her friends and colleagues from the nightclubs. It was easy for me to translate; the things I learned from it, however, took me a lot longer than those four short weeks I spent working (part-time!) on the manuscript to absorb. Some of them I’m still mulling over.

For instance: How do I, as a feminist, respond to such a raw account from the underside of machismo and its doble moral?* What do I make of this book I have translated? Lupita’s stories challenge a lot of conventions (some of them generational, and thus conflicting) that we have had handed to us, holus bolus. It’s not a “pure” victimhood narrative of human trafficking, but neither is it another pile of Happy Hooker hokum about how everyone in the Oldest Profession is fulfilled and free, and totally there by choice, and “agency”, and blah, blah, blabbity blah blah. In other words, Lupita’s tales are problematic from both a Second Wave and a Third Wave feminist viewpoint**.

Frankly, I’m bored to death with both the “No Sex, Please, We’re Feminists” stereotype AND The Happy Hooker. They’re both bullshit. And that’s because they both correspond to patriarchal constructs of female sexuality and the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. In other words, the good old doble moral. A woman can’t be sexual unless she’s a whore — which is to say, bought and sold by men, like an object, for their pleasure. She has no pleasures of her own, or if she does, they centre exclusively around pleasing the man, and putting him ahead of herself. And yet, we’re meant to believe that this kind of thing constitutes “agency”, and that “sex work” is just pure self-expression on the part of the vendor! Doublethink, anyone?

Isn’t that the very thing feminism exists, at least in part, to combat — this stereotype that women are all about pleasing the men, one way or the other?

I am (and I hope we all are) opposed to both the chastity belt AND the chains of the sexualized slave. They are just two different sides of the same coin.

I am, and I also hope we all are, opposed to the idea of people as commodities, which is a profoundly capitalist moral problem. Nobody knows exactly what percentage of the world’s sex workers are in it wholly by choice, although my educated guess is that it’s far less than half. Human trafficking, predominantly in young women and girls under 18, is a multibillion-dollar global industry. There are, in other words, an awful lot of trafficked sex slaves out there; sex trafficking is as rampant as trafficking in drugs.

And the problem, as Lupita gives us to understand very clearly, is especially great in Mexico. While she doesn’t reference sex traffickers directly, there is one account in her memoir that struck me terribly as I was translating it: the story of her friend Fedra, a smart, beautiful, squeaky-clean young woman who “smells of hotel sheets”, in the words of one of her clients. It is Fedra who teaches Lupita how to only pretend to snort cocaine with her clients in the back rooms, so as not to work impaired or, worse, addicted. They quickly evolve an informal buddy system, looking out for each other on the job. And, in between, Fedra tells Lupita how she got into table-dancing and prostitution: Her own father, who either could not or would not get a proper job, pimped her out for the first time when she was just 14. Ever since then, she has been handing over the bulk of her earnings to him, keeping hardly any for herself.

And Fedra is not the only one who is in it out of economic necessity, as the main or sole breadwinner for her family; in several of the clubs, foreign girls who came to Mexico illegally are working as dancers (and part-time hookers), and sending home most of what they make. They come from as far away as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia. They live in constant dread of deportation and police raids; yes, La Migra is a scourge in Mexico, too.

And of course, the Mexican drug wars play a big role in making the clubs especially dangerous, and thus prone to unannounced police “visits”, and searches complete with sniffer dogs. Cocaine trafficking pervades even the finest establishments. In the very first chapter, Lupita and friends witness a drug-related murder that results in an hours-long lockdown of the Rolex club; the joint’s cashier, it seems, ran with the cocaine cartels, got on the wrong side of somebody in them, and paid the ultimate price. As did one young bridegroom, who had nothing to do with drugs and was only there for his bachelor party when he got caught in the crossfire. (What an ignominious way to go. Just imagine how his poor fiancée must have felt when she got the news!)

The doble moral hurts dancers on every front. In many chapters, we meet parents who live off their daughters’ earnings, and know full well how they came by them, and are ashamed of them…but not too ashamed to take all that “ill-gotten” money, buy houses with it, and feed, clothe and educate the dancers’ brothers, who are pampered and cosseted and, since they are boys, can do no wrong in the eyes of the machista elders.

But ironically, two of the funniest chapters for me were ones in which the machistas got an unexpected comeuppance. In one, the controlling on-and-off boyfriend of one of the dancers gets mad when she goes for extensive plastic surgery (it’s practically a job requirement!) after he dumped her, and calls her grandmother to let her know what a whore her granddaughter is. The grandmother, quite unfazed by this “news”, replies: “So, where did you dig her up?”

In another, an old unwashed big-spending cowboy from Jalisco (land of well-endowed men!) gets robbed by a tag team of dancers; Lupita practically has to shove her whole fist up his filthy ass, while her partner rifles through the distracted man’s wallet, relieving him of several hundred pesos. The punchline: It costs a lot for a proper Mexican macho to keep that kind of secret in the closet!

Other secrets from the machista closet aren’t nearly so funny. The last story is that of Barbie, a bleached blonde from Mazatlán, whose earnings built her mother’s house as well as her own, and put her brothers through school. Barbie suffers every kind of abuse without complaint; her mother calls her a whore, although that’s not reason enough for her to refuse Barbie’s money. Worse, one of Barbie’s own brothers is a pervert; he walks around naked in full sight of the neighbors, propositions his own teenage cousin and her schoolmates with all manner of obscenities, and, in a crowning outrage, one night he tries to rape Barbie while she is sleeping. She wakes up just in time; he runs and hides, but she sees him in the half-light, still naked and wearing a condom. That’s the last straw; after years of covering for him, as the entire family has done, Barbie calls foul and takes her story to the police. Where, in true machista fashion, a fresh round of indignities begins. In Mexico, rape and incest victims have to endure not only painful probing, but revealing photographs, to verify that they have, indeed, been violated. Barbie’s mother, of course, won’t help her out, although another brother does. All to no avail. In the end, the perpetrator flees and remains at large. Barbie moves to Mexico City, dyes her hair red, and changes her name to Ariel — yes, as in The Little Mermaid. And goes right on working…in the clubs of the Zona Rosa.

I cried during that chapter. I translated it with tears running down my face. My heart went out to Barbie all the way. It was then that I realized why, right in the introduction, Lupita implores the readers: “Please, mothers, support your daughters…love them…value them.” She isn’t saying that a mother’s love will “save” her daughters from prostitution. What she is saying is that a prostituted daughter, who works her ass off quite literally, seven nights a week in a crappy table-dance bar, is no less deserving of love and valuation than a “respectable” one who stays home, doing the menfolks’ cooking and cleaning for them, and going to Mass every morning before the men are even awake.

In its own quiet way, that is as radical a feminist statement as it gets. There is no virgin/whore dichotomy anymore; all girls deserve love and respect, even if they work in dubious surroundings. In fact, those who work there deserve it, in some ways, the most of all. They literally sacrifice everything, right down to their own reputation, so that their families will live, and eat, and maybe, with luck, get ahead a little bit in the nightmarish jungle of global capitalism.

There isn’t much sense in talking rosy theory about “agency”, “self-expression” or “love of the art” when the biggest pimp of all is economic necessity. Even with slave traffickers out of the equation, it’s still a scourge. Gabriel García Márquez was very close to the bone when he wrote about child prostitutes who worked in a house where it actually said, right above the door, that the girls who worked there did so because they were hungry. They weren’t hungry for sex. Think about it: Is there a little girl in the world who has ever said, “Mommy, when I grow up, I want to be a hooker”? If there is, I have never heard of her. It is simply not a dream job. Not even for those little girls whose mothers are hookers. It is a job, period. A fortunate few manage to make a comfortable career of it and even take pride in their business acumen, but for most, it’s rather akin to cleaning toilets with your bare hands. You don’t do that for your own enjoyment. You do it because you might well starve if you did not. (Sorry to burst your privileged bourgeois bubble, dear North American sex radicals, but your “Third Wave” theories wouldn’t fly very far in the Third World. Hard home truth, my friends.)

For me, this work crystallized a lot of things that had been rolling over and over in my mind for years. Already in the mid-1990s, I found myself exposed, through journalism school and Toronto life in general, to the seamy underside of life. One of my magazine-writing profs had been a gay prostitute, starting as a teenager. Streetwalkers plied their trade right beside the Ryerson campus, as soon as the sun set, every night of the week. The local alternative papers were full of “business personal” ads that were openly soliciting for clients. One of my classmates, a beautiful dark-eyed brunette, worked part-time as a phone sex operator; she had a fabulous contralto voice that went over big with the callers. I often wondered how she dealt with the grotty sadomasochistic fantasies she sometimes had to cater to (and which she told me about; I’m pretty sure they were responsible for some of my first white hairs!) She herself seemed unaffected by it, probably because she worked under a pseudonym and no one ever stalked her down. The last I heard about her, she was working as a translator for the International Criminal Court, in the prosecution of several infamous Serbian war criminals. The strip clubs of Yonge Street were just steps away from campus, and I had to endure the ramblings of one particular bunch of my male classmates on Monday mornings, after a weekend drinking and carousing at the Brass Rail. (I got my own share of baroque invitations from those same guys; they wanted to start a libertarian-capitalist girlie magazine called Liberty, and one of them opined that he’d love to see me in the centrefold. A male friend also revealed that my name was “up there” on the list of female classmates these guys wanted to sleep with. Yeah, that flattered me…right down to the pit of my stomach.)

And the controversy of the day was lap-dancing, which was just new in Toronto at the time, and opposed by a lot of dancers at the clubs, who said it was just a gateway to prostitution, and unsafe prostitution at that. If you had to grind your genitals on the lap of a client, there was nothing to stop him whipping his out and pulling you down on top of them. It had already happened to a lot of girls; it was undeniably rape, but the club owners (who also charged the girls extortionate fees to perform) were pooh-poohing it all. A j-school classmate wrote an award-winning piece about a bawdy-house prostitute, who worked at a massage parlor to pay her way through college. At the Take Back the Night march that year, the guest speakers were a stripper and a prostitute, and what they had to say about sexual abuse, violence, and lack of safety in their respective workplaces was both a hair-raiser and an eye-opener.

And yes, this all happened in Toronto. Not Mexico. CANADA, people.

It’s fair to say that this radically changed my view of what sex workers did, and greatly increased my sympathies for women and girls in the sex trade. I came to the conclusion (confirmed while translating Lupita) that sex work may be sex for the buyer, but it is decidedly WORK for the seller. And at times, it is very grubby, thankless, far from pleasurable work. Sometimes it’s funny; more often, it’s just dreary and at times, downright sad. But it helps the ladies to survive, and with a bit of luck, move on to other things. It feeds their families. In the words of one club owner in the book, “We eat because these girls work.”

How can I condemn these girls for what they are doing, if I have always been just a step or two away from doing the same thing, and am only not doing it because so far, I have been terribly, terribly lucky? For that matter, how can anyone? All of us who are not in their shoes should recognize just how very privileged we are. And we should quit pretending that the playing field is level, because it is not, and it never has been. Equal opportunity, like full sexual agency, is a dream. It is not our present reality. It is something we need to work toward, yes; work at with all our strength. But we really need to quit pretending that we have it. We don’t. We still have a long way to go.

And if we must point the finger of blame at anyone or anything, let’s take our cues from Lupita and point it at the hypocrites, the abusers, the exploiters, the pimps, the johns, the drug lords, the unscrupulous club owners who rip off their dancers, and the entire double morality of capitalism and machismo. Because if anything about the trade is truly dirty, that is it right there.

*I had to use “double standard” in my translation; I don’t much care for that stock phrase, partly because it IS a stock phrase, and also because the subtlety of the word moral is literally lost in translation. Nevertheless, it’s the closest English idiom there is; I had to use it rather than trying to come up with something new, and undoubtedly more awkward.

**I don’t care an iota for this whole trendy “First, Second and Third Waves” narrative of feminist history, either; for one thing, it’s bourgeois and US-biased, and for another, it’s inaccurate and fudgy. As a feminist, as an internationalist, as a student of languages, and as a thinker in general, I don’t like Procrustean beds of theory. Feminism did not begin with the North American women’s movement, and should not be categorized according to the US media’s false image of it, as it excludes so much vital material from elsewhere and elsewhen. But that’s grist for another day.

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7 Responses to The Translator’s Tale, or What I Learned From Lupita

  1. thwap says:

    I always liked Irvine Welsh’s take on pornography and prostitution in his novel “Porno.”

    There are some women in it who know what they’re doing and stay in-control, and there’s some good-natured fucking, … but overall, there’s a lot of abuse and sexism and vileness.

    There’s a section where a drug-dealer rents out his crack-addicts and he gauges the various levels of dependency in their faces and expressions when deciding who will do what, that always sickened me.

    p.s. I’m barely proficient in English. I am hopeless for learning other languages. There’s a commenter at Dawg’s Blawg who is evidently proficient in many languages but who is a complete idiot. He must be a savant of some sort I’ve decided.

    • Yeah, I think I know who you mean…he’s the one with the nonsense name, am I right? I think he’s learned just enough stock foreign phrases to sound like he knows what he’s talking about. And it sounds like he got them all from fascist crapaganda out of wherever.

      • thwap says:

        Yeah. nonsense name. It’s supposed to mean something, but whatever. I told him i prefer when he types in languages i don’t understand because then i can’t tell how disgusting and stupid he’s being.

        • Sabina Becker says:

          Ahahaha! I often understand what he’s typing and I still think he’s an idiot. You can’t disguise Teh Stoopid, it just oozes right out from whatever camouflage you throw over it.

  2. hammer smartt says:

    wow! i struggled with japanese even while living there. now i am on to spanish and it, too, is difficult. i am completely jealous!

    congratulations on your first success as a translator. your post is so good that i must get the book.

    love your blog.

    leaving usa for ecuador in one year. hope some of your excellence with language rubs off as i read your blog.

  3. Jim Hadstate says:

    ‘Bina, this post was absolutely compelling. I started reading it in my RSS reader and I couldn’t stop to transition over to your actual blog page. Wow! And having grown up in the cultural environment of machismo, you so hit the characterization of it that any male who even THINKS he recognizes himself in this depiction should take a really, really hard look at his life and his view of women.

    I cannot get over the moving depiction of the life of a sex worker and the demand that we, the reader, have no right to pity the circumstances encountered there. Who are we to shower pity on someone whose life involves concepts we can’t even begin to conceive the description being provided by the worker. And the demand that we demonstrate the respect of one human being for another, not one human being for a whore. I am just blown away by this entire piece.

    Now I MUST read this book. Has it been released for sale. What’s its status? What a great article from someone who all of us who read you regularly never doubted for a minute you would be published.

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