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Essay: Elisabeth A. Miller

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Speaking In A Passive Voice

By Elisabeth A. Miller                 

          Providence elected a new mayor in 2014, the US born son of immigrants from Guatemala, Jorge Elorza.  Jorge defeated the infamous twice mayor, twice convicted felon, grandson of immigrants from Italy, Buddy Cianci.  He follows in office the city’s first Hispanic mayor, son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Angel Taveras, who stepped aside to run for governor and lost in the primary.  At his campaign rallies, Jorge’s supporters chanted what has become a common mantra of causes championed by Hispanics in the US, a slogan which is credited to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, “si, se puede”.

          “Si, se puede”, according to Wikipedia, translates as “yes, it is possible” or “yes, we can”.  Others have translated it as “yes, you can.”  The United Farm Workers, which has the phrase registered as a trademark, translates it literally as “yes, it can be done”. 

Translation, as I often tell my students, is about providing the best equivalent in meaning while using the natural syntax of the target language.  Following that rule, maintaining the passive voice, when it is not awkward or stilted in English, is preferable and better conveys the true meaning of the original.  “Yes, it can be done” is the best translation for “si, se puede”, even if it is not very effective as a chant.

          In Spanish, it is very common to use the passive voice, while English generally tries to avoid it.  The passive voice can be created by using the pronoun “se” and the verb in the third person, with an unidentified, impersonal or non-specific subject, a vague “it”.  In these grammatical structures, the person who is the subject of the verb, the actor, in English, becomes the indirect object of the verb in Spanish.  Forgetting in Spanish is often expressed in the passive voice.  “Se me olvido” is “It was forgotten by me”, rather than the preferred English “I forgot it”. 

          It is also very common in Spanish to use things as the subjects of verbs and people as the indirect objects, receiving the results of the actions instead of initiating them, where English does the reverse.  Every beginning Spanish student learns that to say “I like chocolate” in Spanish, the chocolate becomes the subject of the verb.  “Me gusta el chocolate” in a word for word translation is “chocolate is pleasing to me”. 

Changing the actor changes the meaning.  Did you ever decide to like chocolate?  Is

liking really an action that you take of your own volition?  Or did it just happen that you like chocolate?

          This variation in the way that Spanish describes the world reflects a very real difference in the way that Spanish speakers see themselves in relation to the world versus how English speakers predominantly view themselves.  In English, people are in control of a lot more of the elements of their lives than Spanish allows for.  People are empowered in English to act upon their environment, and are usually not the objects of its vagaries.  Just the way young children believe, until they may learn better, that the

world revolves around them and must answer to them, English makes people the centers of their own universes.

          Spanish does not fall into the same trap.  Spanish recognizes, in a way that English does not, that there are forces external to oneself which are always in play, and which have an impact on events such that the outcomes are not always the result of decisions deliberately made by conscious individuals.  This can be very handy, because the common grammar of the language removes blame or responsibility from people who are in this way not the actors but rather the acted upon. 

          Once, when I was managing a hotel in Mexico, we built a dock out into the Caribbean over a reef, and we put up a sign which said “no fishing off the dock.”  One day, a small boy was standing on the dock with a fishing line in the water.  I told him that the sign said that no fishing was allowed because of the hotel guests who used the dock.  But, he said, he was not fishing.  What then was he doing?, I asked.  Standing with a line in the water, and if the fish wanted to come then that was up to them, wasn’t it?  “Yo no estoy pescando.  Los peces solo me llegan, verdad?”      

          The simple act of dropping a book, in Spanish, is expressed as “se me cayo el libro de las manos.”  Literally, this is “the book (by) itself fell from the hands of me.”  This is not the same concept as “I dropped the book”, even if that would be the usual translation.  The Spanish allows for some unknown force to have caused the book to fall, clearly signifying that it was not an intentional act by the person to drop the book, but rather it was happenstance, maybe caused by a gust of wind, or by a poltergeist, or maybe the book was too heavy.  In any case, it was an accident, wasn’t it?

          It was not an accident that Jorge Elorza won the race for mayor of Providence.  Or was it?  People organized to support him; they made phone calls and knocked on doors; they held rallies and chanted “si, se puede” and “yes, we can”.  Jorge’s campaign had a fraction of the funding that Cianci’s did.  Cianci had huge, illegally oversized signs all over the poorer neighborhoods of the city and excellent ads on Spanish language TV.  Many young Hispanics, too young to know who Cianci really was, eager to back a winner perhaps, knocked on doors for him. 

          The one remaining local paper, The Providence Journal, ran article after article, opinion column after opinion column, reminding people of the Cianci legacy.  Convicted of running the city as a criminal enterprise, having spent years in jail and yet seeming unrepentant, the specter of a third Cianci administration was too much for most people with roots in Providence to imagine, although the list of his campaign contributors revealed many well-known names.  Cianci was endorsed by every union of city workers, police, fire and teachers.  A couple of weeks before the election, it seemed that he had already won, but then the polls started to show that maybe not.

          Cianci ran as an independent.  As Cianci’s campaign gained momentum, one by one the rivals to Elorza in the Democratic primary pulled out and threw their support to him, and the remaining candidates that he beat came strongly to his support after the primary.  The wealthier residents of the East Side neighborhood of the city started spending money on anti-Cianci and pro-Elorza propaganda.  Then, the Republican candidate made a donation to Elorza’s campaign and made it known that he was going to vote for Jorge.  Wow!  You drop in a line, and the fish come in for the bait.

          For Spanish speakers, “si, se puede” is empowering not because it means that people have power.  It is empowering because it provides hope of action by something much more powerful.  It is “yes, it can be done (God willing).”  “Ojala”, taken from the Arabic (if Allah wishes) into Spanish to mean hopefully, and “Primero Dios” (first God) are not just implied, they are in the hearts, minds and souls of every Spanish speaker who rallies with the cry.  But the hoping is lost in the English translation.  It is lost when the phrase is translated into the active voice, with people as the actors who will move the world, when it becomes “yes, we can.”

          In English, we state as a declarative what we believe to be so, that we have the power in ourselves, alone or together, to bring the change, to create our own destiny, to make a difference.  We want to take deliberate actions which will lead to planned outcomes.  We want to be in control, and we believe that we usually are.  Are we just fooling ourselves?  Are we naïve?  Is English unable to express a truth that Spanish inherently embodies? 

          “Si, se puede” is empowering because it offers the possibility of deliverance.  It is being heard again now at rallies supporting immigration, chanted by young “dreamers” and their parents and their allies, opposing the newly liberated forces of the ugly know-nothing party of Trump and his supporters.  Deliverance, for people outside of the political system with no vote but a strong voice, is all that can be hoped for.  

          Yes, God willing, with God’s help, if the forces of the universe line up on the right side, if luck is with you, if it is fated, if it is meant to be, if it is destiny, if it is in the stars, if the creek don’t rise, then yes, it can be done.  In a way that Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta clearly understood, and probably as Jorge Elorza understands also, but lost in translation to the English only speaker, precisely because it is in the passive voice, “si, se puede” is powerful.  More than 40 years after it was first called out to rally the workers to support Cesar’s cause during his fast in 1972, it is chanted in Spanish as it was chanted then, as a kind of a prayer.











Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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