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.