Don’t Trip! Joys and Challenges of Straddling Two Cultures to Research and Write a Biography of Archbishop Romero
By Emily Wade Will
Why did you choose to write a biography of Archbishop Romero? He’s not exactly a household name outside Latin America.
Due to my interest and experience living in Latin America, I was smitten when Archbishop Oscar Romero became “the voice of the voiceless” in the late 1970s, using his position’s status to defend the dispossessed. The more I learned about his story—no one expected him to shake up the status quo—the more engrossed I became in it.
In 1998, I wrote a draft biography for young adults. I used existing sources and did not anticipate doing my own research. However, having found little about Romero’s early years, childhood through ordination, I decided to hunt for more.
So you just went to El Salvador and made calls?
A friend who lived in El Salvador encouraged me to visit. She linked me to a small nonprofit that connected me with knowledgeable people and helped me find publications I’d otherwise not be able to locate in the States pre-internet. The archdiocese also allowed me to do research in its archives.
And the Salvadorans granted you interviews and opened up?
Amazingly, yes, likely due to a few factors:
- I find Salvadorans friendly and forthcoming. Several interviewees expressed surprised delight and pride that I would travel from far away to learn about a Salvadoran. (I visited during the pre-Pope Francis era, when the Vatican preferred to keep Romero out of the limelight.)
- I had just finished a first draft, and I knew Romero’s story well. Names of churches, locations and key figures were fresh in my mind, greatly easing my understanding of interviewees’ comments.
- Most of the interviewees were elderly—retired, unhurried, patient—who enjoyed sharing experiences. Some, however, had poor hearing or spotty memories. A few, especially those with little formal education, didn’t “get” my lack of familiarity with Salvadoran terms and slang. A third party often stepped in to smooth over communication problems. When I spoke with the woman who had helped in the Romero household as a tween, for example, her grown daughter explained the woman’s comments to me. Such willingness to assist humbled me.
- I’m an unintimidating person and was fascinated with what each interviewee had to say. Such receptivity goes a long way to encouraging others to speak and be patient with an interviewer whose Spanish is less than 100 percent.
I asked mostly specific, often mundane, questions, such as how pre-seminarians dressed or the floor plan of the Romero house. When it came to more sensitive issues, such as relationships, as a journalist I knew how to gently reword and ask again until I teased out a reply.
Recording and transcribing the interviews allowed me to review conversations as often as I needed after I returned home.
What challenges did you face in using and translating Spanish sources?
- Feet Mired in Caliche
For the first draft, I relied heavily upon two English sources and one Spanish.
The latter, Piezas para un retrato, by journalist María López Vigil, assembled memories from some 150 individuals who had interacted with Romero. I delighted in these vignettes, bursting with color and slang, but had great trouble translating pre-internet, pre-WordReference forum, pre-Google Translate. Even with several dictionaries, I often could not locate a word key to comprehension. In El Salvador, I asked various individuals for help with phrases I hoped to quote.
Fortunately, by the time I began a second draft in 2013, Piezas had been translated into English as Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic by Kathy Ogle of the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA).
In her acknowledgements, Ogle named the squadron of individuals who had helped her with the task. I felt better about my own comprehension difficulties when I read her words:
“As colorful Salvadoran expressions and slang rendered dictionaries useless, I relied on a team of Salvadoran friends near and far to describe phrases in enough detail to help me choose worthy English equivalents. These consultations always generated moments of laughter and discussion—due appreciation for the linguistic creativity of the Salvadoran people. I am especially grateful to Zoila Elías, for whom no moment was inopportune to discuss the intricacies of Salvadoran caliche.”
- Bloopers and Betas
Beta readers corrected my bloopers nearly up to print day. José Artiga, executive director of SHARE El Salvador, burst my balloon when he told me a translation of a pre-seminarian’s ditty was inadequate. I had been proud of it, keeping the rhyme.
Here’s the original:
Como un arbusto oloroso
nací por Cacahuatique
Y cresco súngano y hermoso
aquí por Chaparrastique.
My translation, using the cities’ Spanish names, was:
Like a fragrant bush,
in Ciudad Barrios I was born and bred.
And here in San Miguel
I grow into a handsome pumpkin-head.
I had thoroughly researched súngano on the internet, or so I thought. Photos of it (large, round, brown rind and orange flesh) reminded me of cantaloupe. “Pumpkin-head,” I thought, rhymes with “bred” and is a word that junior-high-age kids might use to brand one another as dim-witted. Genius!
Alas, Artiga told me súngano is not pumpkin-like. Small spikes remain after the sungano’s flesh is removed, giving the fruit the name zapote cabelludo—“shaggy zapote”—in some parts of El Salvador. The schoolmate was making fun of Oscar’s thick, unruly hair! I eventually arrived at “mophead,” keeping the rhyme and a truer meaning of the jest, although losing the fruit allusion.
I’m so grateful for beta- and proofreaders who find my errors and guide me to more accurate translations!
How did I choose what to convey about the culture and context?
A critique group I belonged to played an essential role in fashioning content. I often erred by assuming readers knew more than they did. Chapter by chapter, critiquers showed me where I needed to add explanations or background. They were especially unfamiliar with Roman Catholic terms, including nuncio, women religious, diocese, miter, Jesuit, base communities.
Critiquers also indicated which material might be better booted to a footnote or exiled to a separate section. Their feedback about my fairly high writing level helped me see that the book’s audience could extend beyond teens to general-public adults.
I wanted readers to understand the era that formed Romero; his personal journey is inextricably tied to specific historical circumstances causing people to cry “enough!” to oppression. Some might say I provided too much background on El Salvador and the Roman Catholic Church. Others find footnotes annoying. But I’m addicted to details able to cast a more complete or nuanced light to a narrative. Readers can skip over footnotes if they like. I also included two mini-chapters— “backgrounders”—on pivotal events; readers can choose to “get into the weeds” or step around them.
Coming to the topic as a woman also helped shape the content. The biographies I had read, by men, contained skeletal info about Romero’s mother, limited to her roles as housewife and mother. The reality was more complex, and I came away believing that in every positive way, Oscar’s mother guided his life.
What are your tips for preparing for cross-cultural interviews, both in regard to content and ways to help interviewees feel comfortable with you and your purpose? Do you know individuals who straddle both the cultures and languages well enough to help you proofread and offer suggestions?