Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Translating etymology and philology

When word choice is influenced by etymology or philology rather than surface meaning, it can be challenging for a target readership to decipher. For the translator, these underlying layers of meaning can be difficult to render to a target audience, further removed from these initial cultural references.
Etymology and philology are inextricably weighed down by the unique social, political and historical contexts of a given language community. The word is, in effect, a suitcase which we - the reader, translator, the critic – tend to view from a far. Rarely will we venture close enough to unpack a word. When we do, we realise that baggage inspection can be a risky business.
For example, one suggestion regarding the derivation of posh relates to India under British colonial rule. Pale-skinned expatriates would avoid the sun by standing on one side of the boat in the morning, and on the other at sunset, leading to the acronym Port Out Starboard Home. Is this a reliable story? The OED refutes this explanation but concedes it is part of ‘folk etymology’. In other words, although it may be erroneous, the explanation is widely believed.
Opening a suitcase suddenly becomes complicated when we can’t agree on its contents. Yet if a translator perceives that a source author is trying to convey these complicated meanings, can they be brought over to a target language?
Translation (from Latin translat- 'carried across') implies the notion of journey, yet often a word’s etymology will be lost along the way. Possible word-for-word translations of posh into other languages run the risk of losing these etymological meanings: pijo in Iberian Spanish (of uncertain origin according to the Real Academia Española) and alinhado in European Portuguese (from Old French lignage, from Latin linea 'a line’ according to the latest Dicionário Onomástico Etimológico da Língua Portuguesa ).
In “What is a Relevant Translation?” Dérrida is preoccupied with the transfer of a word’s cultural baggage from one language to another, going as far as to question whether it can leave the ‘airport’ at all. But is it therefore viable to ignore these meanings altogether? Venuti bemoans the tendency to domesticate when translating into English, and this could certainly be seen as an extension of this process.
At the end of “La reivindicación del Conde don Julián” (The Revenge of don Count Julián) Juan Goytisolo presents the Spanish reader with clusters of Spanish words of Arabic origin such as “algodón, algarrobo, alfalfa” (cotton, carob, lucerne). The stylistic effect here attempts to undermine the then Francoist claims of Spanish’s linguistic and ethnic purity. Approaching the translation of this cluster into English, I feel that two strategies are feasible. One would be to maintain the words as they are in Spanish, thus maintaining the Arabic overtones suggested by the prefix al- (Arabic: the) of which many English speakers would be aware . Essentially, the English text is foreignised. The second would be to introduce a Francophone element into the target text, leading to coton, caroube and lucerne. The English text is once more foreignised. Or is it? While this replicates the philology of English, or the influence of French in English, the cultural baggage of these words is transferred to a target setting. As a means of preserving the baggage of the source language, the first strategy is most successful.

-- Andrew Nimmo is a translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and French into English. His areas of interest include music, journalism, fiction and film. You can contact him at

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Lawrence Venuti's The Translator's Invisibility

Lawrence Venuti's book, The Translator's Invisibility (2008, 2nd edn) is a polemical history of translation into English from the seventeenth century to the present day, and it is littered with contradictions. I think we can understand these contradictions if we understand his argument not as a recommendation of a certain translation process, but as a way of critically reading translations. I also think that his polemic can be recast as a discussion of location. The notion of location will undo some of his more flagrantly rhetorical argument, hopefully opening the way for more open discussion.

This critical appreciation was written shortly after reading Anthony Pym's review in Target, and owes a good deal to his thoughts. I should further mention though, that I am engaging primarily and simply with Venuti, imagining that this can be worthwhile despite all the scholarship which has moved on from his position. The first edition of his book was published in 1995, and I recommend in particular Maria Tymoczko's work on post-colonial translation and ethics.

Venuti's most basic distinction is between domestication and foreignization. He draws heavily on Friedrich Schleiermacher's notion that the translator can take the reader to the author, or bring the author to the reader. So these two nouns are verbal: they refer to ways of translating: translation which domesticates, and translation which foreignizes. Venuti is against domestication, and for foreignization, on ethical grounds.

He first takes issue, though, with a distinction between qualities of discourse: fluency and resistancy. These are not however to be simply aligned with domestication and foreignization, nor are the latter to be seen as poles in the manner of many historical pronouncements on translation.

Violence is essential to the nature of translation. Venuti denies that this is a metaphorical description, but that violence is literally done to the semantic, syntactic, phonemic, phonetic structures of the source text.

He seems to indicate that he would prefer more violence to be done to the target language, in order that the cultural status (I must admit I struggle to understand this section of his argument) of the source text might retain its uniqueness, emerging undamaged into the target culture, where it might have a 'dissident' or disruptive effect.

I will now turn to his contradictions. Archaism is approved, as in (Cardinal) John Henry Newman's Iliad or Ezra Pound's Wayfarer. Archaism is disapproved, as in Robert Graves' Twelve Caesars, 'catamite'. Fixed form is approved, as in the balladic stanzas of Newman's Iliad. Fixed form is disapproved, as in Matthew Arnold's recommendations and criticisms of Newman.

But why, in each of these cases, is there approval or disapproval? In Newman's Iliad and Pound's Wayfarer, archaism is a populist or playful gesture. In Graves' Twelve Caesars, 'catamite' is an abstruse word meaning 'young man with whom one engages in sexual relations' and is disapproved of as homophobic. In Newman's Iliad, the balladic form is a popular way to tell a tale in verse, as it has long been in English tradition. Arnold's recommendations of heroic couplets and hexameter, which had long been considered a close way of rendering Homer's Greek versification while maintaining some of the tradition of the English epic, are disapproved of as evidence of elitist, exclusivist sensibility.

Liberal humanism is approved, insofar as the tolerance and acceptance of others is in focus. Liberal humanism is disapproved, when it seeks a principled implementation of its values. (Nida's functional or dynamic equivalence is dismissed as the pragmatic proselytising of a confirmed evangelist).

Venuti perceives a 'trade imbalance' between (the many) books translated from English and (the few) books translated to English: more translation to English would be good. But the co-opting or appropriation of foreign literatures to some kind of hegemonising 'world literature' would be bad.

Hence the importance of the ethical approach to translation: we translators should present the foreign faithfully, we have a duty to our authors, to our readers, and to our various cultures, whether distinct or shared.

Here is my one point of detail: when reading in chapter six Venuti's account of his own 'foreignizing' translations from the Italian, I was struck by how naturally they read. I mean naturally both in the discursive sense of 'fluency' and the ethical/cultural sense of 'domestically'.

There's a particular word choice he picks out: 'carefully.' Perhaps I was prepared for too much of a shock, perhaps I've read too much slightly shocking English literature, or perhaps Venuti's argument has had such a great effect since 1995 (when the first edition came out) that my youthful understanding has formed entirely in his wake. I'm not so sure. He claims his translation of 'carefully' is suggested by the English translation of Hegel's works, and that the whole poem is working out a tension between the positions of Hegel and Nietzsche. Perhaps my ignorance of the German philosophers should hold me back from commenting, but perhaps he is just going a long way around the houses to seek justification for a very simple choice.

What if this is turned on its head, though? If I ignore that Venuti seems fruitlessly to seek justification for a choice, then I can notice that he is very carefully inferring a great deal from the text of his translated poem. Then foreignization is no longer to be considered an attitude which can motivate the translation process. Foreignization is not a way to translate. It is an attitude of reading-in, a way to critically appreciate translation.

Then Venuti's apparently contradictory readings of Newman and Arnold and Pound and Graves and others could stand - or fall - on the specific arguments of his readings. My basic criticism is that Venuti is too ready to ascribe specific intentions and values to the translator, and that he does not seem to recognise or make explicit the way in which his criticism is simply a way of reading.

This can move one step further. Frequently, in casual discussions of translation, the terms 'domestic' and 'foreign' very quickly become confusing. Whose domestic? Foreign to whom?

I translate only to English, so it might seem simple enough at first. But a book written and published in English and set in Tripoli, Libya, such as 'In the Country of Men' by Hisham Matar, uses 'Baba' and 'Mama' on the first page. At home (domestically) I would say 'mum' and 'dad', and in New York (Matar's birthplace) 'mom' and 'pop' might be more usual.

Location might be a more helpful word for translators. Location would, at first, be more concerned with cultural concepts that occur within a text - places, foods, dances, modes of address, and so on and on - than with the form and style and feel of a text. We might later argue that form and style and feel and rhythm do as much if not more to locate a text, but there is unfortunately no room for that exploration here.

What the notion of location does, is recognise that the cultural setting of a work of literature is far more specific than simply its language. And that the languages we call 'French' and 'English' and 'Arabic' are far more heterogeneous than those easy names give credit. There are traditions - plural - within any language. And it is harder by far to define a 'Standard English' than might be imagined. Venuti's polemical terms of 'foreignization' and 'domestication' flatten the field of argument so much that they are difficult to engage with in dialogue. Location would allow us to account for a literary and cultural pluralism.

When translating novels, which is probably the most visible area of literary translation today (at least if you look at certain best-selling crime novels) the question of location occurs often. The question at many points of difficulty could be, how will I locate this?

The translated novel need not be afraid of the new. I don't remember the last time I read about an utterly familiar setting. Some student moves about a bit, and ends up in a small room with many books and a view (over the rooves on the edge of the estate) of a horse in a field just outside Norwich. Even in this, though, I realise that there is much here that is still unfamiliar to me. Whose is that horse?

Insofar as any literature is concerned with the particular, it will be unfamiliar to its readers. Without that, we could have neither the joy of pure escapism nor the food for thought of more difficult reading.

The central thrust of Venuti's book is that translators should do two things. We should seek for quality. And we should assume responsibility. Venuti is perhaps embarrassed to say such a simple thing, but in the end his call to action asks simply for translations, and translators, to be good.

--- Tom Russell is a literary translator from French to English. He read French and English at Oxford and is currently studying for an MA in Literary Translation at UEA. Particular interests include eighteenth and twentieth century short fiction, and problems in the translation of rhythm. He is also currently co-editor of Norwich Papers, an annual journal of translation studies.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Happy endings and open doors

The sound of the word theory usually makes me feel suspicious, especially if it is to form part of practical training. I am not saying anything original here: it is a common belief that in order to learn and improve one’s practice one needs to get her/his hands dirty practicing, not to talk about practice; and in this case in specific, one need better translate instead of theorize about translation.
But then again, there is quite a large bibliography on translation theory and without translation theory, what would translation studies be? Maybe then, translation theory can actually help. Maybe it came to exist in order to satisfy a need, in order to reply to someone’s constant cry for help. Maybe the answer to ‘can translation theory help me as a translator?’ is yes. Maybe this is not even the question I should be asking, maybe I should ask: How can translation theory help me as a translator?
To be honest, I think that, even though I had never before formed the words, I did have this question in mind when in the beginning of this term, I was taking out from the library all sorts of translation textbooks, each week a new approach, each week new names of academics that had said too much-or too little-in the specific field. But the answer to the question instead of becoming clearer became vaguer.
I felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what I was reading; what I could not grasp was how what I was reading would make any difference to me when I would have to deal with the rendering of an idiomatic phrase, let’s say, with high cultural specificity, in another language. Because yes, all these bipolarities suggested by different people-and meaning more or less the same-made some sense, but could they really be of any use?
Yes, a translation can be foreignizing and it can be domesticating, it can be documentary and instrumental but did it have to be either or, and even so, what did this mean for me when I was translating? I became highly doubtful of the fact that all this was helping me become a better translator and suddenly, I found myself asking again, whether translation theory can actually help me. Everything I was reading made my confusion bigger.
At some point I even thought of not reading any more theories…what was the point? After all, the result was to further confuse me and surely, soon I would not remember half the things that confused me, so why bother? But then again, I do not so much like to be the faint-hearted that ends up quitting, so I decided to continue reading the different theories we had each week and treat the whole process as something helpful. Now, when and where and how it would be helpful I should not question, and maybe in the end meaning would reveal itself to me.
I would really like to say that I was right and close this story with a happy ending along the lines: “And so, now, I know why I read translation theories, everything makes perfect sense to me and I live happily translating with the invaluable help of theory”.
But, this is not the case. It is not not the case either.
The ending to this story is that with the passing of time-and the reading and perhaps understanding of more theories-I started noticing that even though I was not consciously thinking of any of the theories I read about when translating a text, I was actually using them a lot when I talked about the said translation. Also, I found that with my fellow classmates we tended to go on for hours about something that we had all read and trying to give our own definitions of terms introduced by Venuti or Nida or some other academic.
With time all the conversations and all the thoughts that came after I had translated a text and was looking at the translation, made me feel more at ease with translation theory and also made me read translation theories with a different attitude. I still feel that what I’m reading is not clearly transferable in the actual practice of translation, but I also feel that by being exposed to theory I have learned to understand better my practice and to be able to talk about it with more confidence.
I know that I will probably forget most of the names of the theoreticians and surely, the theories that were already outdated when I read about them, or that I completely disagreed with, will not stay with me, but nor will the confusion and the suspicious eye towards translation theory. I feel that perhaps it is not there to be with me constantly, and I know that it does not go hand in hand with practice but I also know that if read with an open mind it can help open doors for the translation.
And opening doors that would be otherwise closed has to be a happy ending, no?

Avgi Daferera is a translator of English and Spanish into Greek, and Greek and Spanish into English. She just finished an MA in Writing at Warwick and is currently doing an MA in literary translation at UEA. She is interested in the translation of poetry and children’s fiction.