By Melissa Harkin and Walter Paulo Sabella
Translated by Catherine V. Howard

My father and I have always shared three passions: culture, history, and foreign languages. We tried to share a fourth—law—but even though I went to law school, I ended up pursuing translation.

I remember how, when I was little, my father encouraged my language studies. I would spend hours in front of the mirror trying to imitate different accents and repeating phrases of my favorite actors speaking their native languages.

My love of languages certainly came from him, but my passion for overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers, which could separate communities (even further) were it not for translation, grew every time I helped someone to communicate with a stranger or translated texts for friends. I finally realized that this was my vocation, my calling.

When I decided to devote myself full-time to translation, my father was worried. There went five years of law school, two years of an internship with the São Paulo State Department of Justice, and three years of experience practicing law. Little did he know (or did I) that the law would still be a part of my life as a translator.

Over the years, my father learned from me and I continued to learn from him.

In this post, my father speaks of the interests we share, the translation course he took this year to better understand my profession, and how he views the significance of translation through history or, as the Australian group Dead Can Dance would say, “from ancient times to the present day.”



The universe of words has fascinated me ever since my earliest childhood. In looking back over my life, I can say that, in almost all the professional paths I have followed, words have always been a fundamental tool, whether in journalism, broadcasting, teaching, or courts of law. With a degree that allows me to teach in the fields of Humanities, Legal Sciences, and Social Sciences, I consider words to be a gift granted to the human species, even if its members are not always conscious of this when they make use of such a gift.

Each linguistic sign pronounced or written in any place on earth is the result of humanity’s long series of experiences over time. Myriad factors have converged in this process: ethnic, sociological, climatic, economic, religious, and traditional. As gregarious creatures, subject to circumstances and contingencies on the planetary stage, humans developed languages, seemingly magical codes for constructing and expressing knowledge. Thought itself is structured through words and constitutes their content. As Ferdinand de Saussure proposed, words are the shape and the source, the signifier and the signified.

Seduced in childhood by this dynamic, multifaceted cosmos of sounds and graphic signs, I now arrive in the autumn of my life knowing something of a few languages, with enough of a critical sense to realize that my sparse, fragmentary, and impoverished knowledge has nothing to do with what is usually called a polyglot. That is why I resorted to the ambiguity of the phrase “knowing something” about them.

And because words still seduce me, the limitations imposed on this stage of life did not prevent me from recently completing a course on translation given online by Cardiff University in Wales, “Working with Translation: Theory and Practice.” This new incursion into the vast realms of words was also motivated by my desire to better understand the professional activity pursued by my daughter, Melissa Sabella Harkin, living in the United States, who has been a translator for over a decade.

Having completed the course, I was honored by her invitation to be a guest writer for her blog this month, analyzing the significance of translation in today’s world.

These times are multilingual. Various languages coexist within the same national spaces, not just the native languages of those lands. From this undeniable premise arises the crucial role of translation in interactions among different peoples.

In our transnational world today, constitutive borders can no longer stand up to the dizzying, intrusive speed of everyday social facts. Mass migrations, the tentacles of corporate expansion, and intellectual and artistic productions on macrostatistical scales, among so many other phenomena, place translation firmly within the category of a fundamental activity of civilization nowadays, more than at any other time.

Interpreters are present in tragic refugee camps, in theaters of war, at customs and police stations, in hospitals and doctors’ offices, in museums and exhibits, in conferences and university symposia, in United Nations sessions, in ships that cross the oceans, and in aircraft that conquer space.

Translators, withdrawn in their offices, in the solitude of their homes, in the recesses of libraries, in shared work spaces, and academic settings, dedicate exhausting and concentrated hours to universalizing knowledge. These activities make it possible to reconcile divergent interests, to draw up international treaties, to negotiate business agreements, to run humanitarian campaigns, to publicize technological and scientific advances, and to provide access to the aesthetic creations of literary geniuses.

Let no one presuppose, through some frivolous or superficial view, that everything gets resolved through a simplistic transfer of the meanings of words from the source language to the target language. Translation goes far beyond this. It breaks through the narrow straits of this negative view and creates a multidirectional avenue of cultural exchanges in the most expansive sense this conceptual image can reveal.

Indeed, those who translate find themselves tasked with conveying intangible, semiological, and historical values from one sociological universe to another, at times from one territorial ghetto, isolated by communication barriers, to another. Those who interpret, in turn, by enabling oral communications between speakers of different linguistic realities, interpose themselves in the space where intense pressures operate, such as fear, insecurity, ethnic grievances, and the influences of gender, creed, and ideology.

Those working in technical or scientific translations need to make incursions into fields of knowledge often unrelated to their daily experiences, consultating with experts in unfamiliar specialties. And those who devote themselves to literary translations must often conduct demanding research to decipher dialects or enigmatic regional expressions.

The older the source language is in relation to the target language, the more exhaustive the research into historical grammar may be, since languages go through so many syntactic and polysemic changes over time. Moreover, languages, like human beings, are born, live, and die. If the translation to be done has a poetic text as a focus, the difficulties are intensified by virtue of the issues of meter, rhythm, caesuras, metaphors, and the need to preserve stylistic characteristics. When dealing with songs, the need also arises to adapt the words to the length of the measures, compelling the translator to become a re-creator, more so than in any other field of work. And let’s not forget that what we might call the music market has also become transnational. This could not be otherwise, given the multinational economy on the world panorama, where even the concept of national sovereignty has been relativized.

Finally, when dealing with historical texts, the translator steps into the land of forgotten eras to convey, from the past to the present, cultural universes of those who, in other moments in humanity’s calendar, savored the gift of words before us. The translator thus becomes a time traveler, making the voices of the past echo in the contemporary era through the deep chambers of human memory.

The translator performs a unique task: crossing territorial boundaries, retracing paths through time, unveiling the enigmatic differences of phonetic and writing systems, and providing people with the marvelous impression that we all speak a single language. Such work is so relevant that, without it, the march of evolution would not be the same.

This, then, has been my summary, in the one thousand words allotted to me for this post, of my impressions regarding the significance of translation in the present day.

FotoWalter Paulo Sabella is a district attorney, professor, poet, and memoirist, with a degree in Law and teaching certificate in the Humanities (Portuguese Language and Literature), and is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Criminal Law and winner of the 1971 National Poetry Prize from the National Institute of Books. My father!

Catherine V Howard small

Catherine V. Howard translates social and environmental research texts from Portuguese, Spanish, and French into English through her company TranslationCraft Services. Having left her heart in Brazil after living there for seven years, she tries to matar saudades by translating short stories and creative nonfiction by some of Brazil’s finest writers.