Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Theory meets practice? (This is not an anti-theory post)

Spring semester in MALT programme and things have become really exciting. New modules, new ideas, new supplies for our future translation arsenal. One of our most powerful weapons as literary translators is, presumably, a good knowledge of theory. And therefore, we were all happy to find out that there was a “translation theory” module in this semester’s programme.
I haven’t had any specific difficulty with this module, at least regarding all the reading we have to do. I like it, I find it extremely interesting, so much that I actually find myself not being able to stop talking about theories at some times. I have even managed to come up with some pretty decent jokes concerning theories and theorists.
However, I have been facing a problem as far as translation theories are concerned: I don’t seem to be able to apply them-and by the moment I have written this, I know that I take a great risk by using this term.
I am not trying to start an anti-theory manifesto, claiming that theory is not necessary and- in more extreme terms- useless. I believe I have a long way to go if I ever decide to actually set that as a belief. I am only stating that we should not consider theory to be panacea.
Literary translation is a very creative domain of translation studies. The translator is often regarded as a writer, especially when it comes to the “author is dead/alive” dilemma. Some times, intuition is stronger than any kind of theory, descriptive or prescriptive, and unfortunately, intuition cannot be engaged with theories-at least in my mind. Having been practicing translation for some years now, I have come to realise that theory can help to some extent, but it can’t overshadow the state of mind of a translator in the process of translating, unless one is asked to do so. Theory has helped me as a translator- reader, not as a translator- writer.
I feel the need to say one more time that I am not suggesting that theory can be yet another constraint-as if there were not de facto many- for a translator, and I am definitely not rejecting theory. What I am saying, is that if theory is supposed to “simply be a way of looking at the world”, as Gutt suggests, then every one has a different way to do that, a different perspective on what the world is, different experiences and ways of understanding whatever takes place to their reality.
And after I have managed to work all my way through inconsistency, since by quoting a theorist, I automatically reject all the things that I have argued above, I believe that theories are useful when we are not narrow-minded, following them with blind faith, considering them to be our translation Messiah.
However, intuition in translation is a marvelous thing. As the topic of this year’s Norwich Papers issue suggests, “it just does/doesn’t sound right” can be a very powerful theory, strategy, notion on its own (I wouldn’t want to call it something specific, as it is quite wide an idea to be described by one word only.)
To sum up, as mentioned above, this is not an anti-theory post. Theory is essential as well as intuition. They come in peace, they are here to help. They are not supposed to work as constraints. Publishers do a terrific job regarding that…

Thei Sorotou is a translator working with Greek, English and French. She graduated from the Department of foreign languages, translation and interpreting, Ionian University, Corfu, Greece, and is currently a MALT student in the University of East Anglia. She is really interested in the field of drama translation.
Contact: theisrt@yahoo.gr

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