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Michelle Obama’s recent autobiography serves as a welcome point of departure for exploring how translators and interpreters deal with the English verb to become as well as its adjectival form, becoming when they work into English. As it turns out, English uses the verb in many contexts and these require different solutions in Spanish.
Ms. Obama’s book is, above all, a book about aspiring and the struggles involved in becoming, at first almost unconsciously, as a child and later, more and more deliberately. On the inside front jacket cover, the publisher sets the stage for Ms. Obama’s own story by characterizing her life as a story that repeatedly inquires:
Who are we and who do we want to become?
¿Quiénes somos y quiénes queremos llegar a ser? (My translation).
Ms. Obama’s life story is of course written from the vantage point of maturity, looking back on her life as being composed of successive periods of becoming and names the chapters in that way: Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More – none of which are finished processes or unrelated to the others. She commences her story with a sentence that sets the tone most poignantly: “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving” (p. 3).
Thus, when Ms. Obama used the word becoming to title her book, she was reflecting on much striving. This Tip for the Week explores the many ways in which the English use of the various forms and derivatives of the verb to become are expressed in Spanish.
When Spanish speakers introduce the idea of becoming as one that involved hard work and struggle, they use a periphrastic verb (one composed of more than one word): llegar a ser: This is common when speaking of professions, and so it is usually followed by the name or title of the profession:
Ms. Obama went to Princeton, then Harvard, and became a lawyer.
La Sra. Obama asistió a Princeton, luego a Harvard y llegó a ser abogada.
Many readers also will be familiar with another way of expressing becoming in the same context: hacerse, thus:
Ms. Obama became a lawyer.
La Sra. Obama se hizo abogada.
The difference between choosing llegar a ser + profession and hacerse + profession is that when Spanish speakers use the former, the hard work involved in the process of becoming is implicit – after all, it took a long time for her to go to college and then to law school. In addition, even though the preterit views past actions as summative, regardless of how long the time period was, the use of the preterit with llegar a ser does not diminish her striving and struggles. Interestingly, since striving and hard work are not implicit with hacerse, the use of this verb in the preterit is far more likely; by contrast, the use of the imperfect is more likely with llegar a ser than with hacerse and would suggest that a story is about to be told, to include details about the studying and all her striving on the way to becoming a lawyer. The reason for the difference in likely tense choice is that the verb llegar all by itself evokes images of a journey — its primary meaning being to arrive.
The use of the reflexive verb hacerse deserves more attention, however. When Spanish speakers want to show what a person made of him or herself, the use this reflexive verb explicitly shows initiative, even while it sets the struggle aside, as the above examples illustrate. The schools were not mentioned because the verb hacerse goes right to the result — without any stopping on the way to discuss or mention the process.
In Spanish, we have another verb that translates into English as forms of the verb to become: meterse a + an appellative. This is often the verb of choice when referring to a person’s affiliations, yet without regard to effort, sacrifice or volition (even when there is hard work involved), such as when a person joins a religious order or changes religious or political affiliation.
Barack Obama became a politician.
Barack Obama se metió a político.
Theresa became a nun.
Theresa se metió a monja.
When Spanish speakers express becoming angry, sad or some other emotion, the reflexive verb ponerse is used, followed by the noun that names the emotion. In English, this is commonly expressed using the extremely high frequency verb to get, also followed the noun that names the emotion. Spanish also uses reflexive verbs unique to expressing the concept of becoming in the emotional sense as well as to express states of emotion, health and wellbeing or changes in them. They may be used in any tense or mood.
Michelle became/got/was made happy.
Michelle se puso alegre.
Michelle se alegró.
When past circumstances are being described in an ongoing, developing way, Spanish uses the imperfect:
Michelle was becoming/getting happier…
Michelle se alegraba…
Spanish also has another reflexive verb closely related, sometimes, but not universally interchangeable with the previously mentioned verbs that express the concept of becoming. This verb is convertirse, meaning to turn into. Another synonym, though not always interchangeable with convertirse, is transformarse. Both verbs can be used in any tense, with animate or inanimate subjects and always must be followed by the preposition en and followed by the noun that names the resultant state. Finally, there is the verb metamorfosearse, which is arguably the most inchoative reflexive verb of all, which is not followed by the preposition en. Examine the following examples:
For many women, after she left the White House, Michelle has become a role model.
Para muchas mujeres, después de salir de la Casa Blanca, Michelle se ha convirtido en una mujer ejemplo.
After the fire, the house was turned into ashes.
Tras el incendio, la casa se convirtió en cenizas.
After millions of years, carbon became/turned into/was transformed into diamond.
Después de millones de años, el carbón se transformó en diamante.
The caterpillar metamorphosed, becoming a butterfly.
La oruga se metamorfoseó, convirtiéndose/transformándose en mariposa.
Finally, let’s examine the English an adjectival use of becoming. In Spanish, this can be conveniently and reliably translated as atractivo/a, as in:
Michelle’s cover photo is becoming.
La foto de Michelle en la portada es atractiva.
The title of the Spanish edition is untranslated, in my opinion for good reasons and, unlike the English original, is followed by MI HISTORIA as a subtitle that sets the tone for Ms. Obama’s narrative in which the notion of becoming is repeatedly examined as a succession of processes of striving, aspiring and struggle. This would suggest strongly that llegar a ser would be the best solution for any individual appearances of the word in the narrative, but it just doesn’t work as a title. It would lose its punch and the spunk Ms. Obama has shown from the time she was a little girl in South Chicago. This sort of problem often faces translators, particularly of literature, but even for Analytic Linguists who have to deal with the metaphorical language of the streets. Remember the movie Jaws, a title whose one-syllable in English seemed analogous to the singular, lethal bite of shark? It would have been hilariously mistaken to translate that title literally: ¡Mandíbulas!
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