Thursday, 3 November 2011

Multiple Translations of One Text

One thing people who are not familiar with the field of translation often cannot understand is how people can come up with different translations of the same source text. Surely ‘table’ means ‘table’ in any language, so why is translation so hard? Surely there’s a right and a wrong answer, and how on earth could people spend time discussing translation? Just last night, my husband – and he knows more about translation than most digital analysts, by dint of being married to me! – was exasperated to hear another of my flights of translation fancy, and blurted out: ‘You should just translate what’s there!!’

How is it, then, that if you go into Amazon and type in Madame Bovary, you can choose from Geoffrey Wall’s version, Margaret Mauldon’s version, Eleanor Marx-Aveling’s version, Lydia Davis’ version, Adam Thorpe’s hot-of-the-press version etc etc …. Indeed, in researching my Translation Theory module, I came upon a website that had 23 versions of Baudelaire’s poem Le Balcon. As I grappled with the subject – often highly philosophical, and not easy for someone who still remembers re-sitting French Philosophy in the Hall of Shame back at university – I was persuaded that the notion of ‘mind style’, an idea from the field of cognitive stylistics, might be used to explain the existence of vastly different and yet equally valid translations of a single source text.

Mind style can be defined as a linguistic style that reflects a cognitive state. Clues to the mind style of a text are to be found in its implicit information, which in turn can be worked out by looking at the stylistic devices present in a text. Stylistic devices can include such things as alliteration, ambiguity, the repetition of words, complex metaphor, or the use of different registers or of specific syntactic constructions.

I find it plausible that multiple translations of a single source text can exist because translators read the mind style of an author in different ways, influenced as they are by their own individual past experiences and worldviews. In addition to this, the translation goes through a further stage when it reaches the reader, since she or he is also going to filter the translation through her or his own experiences and worldviews.

To illustrate this point: in spring 2011, I produced a (very fine!) sample of a German novel for a literature-promoting organisation. Taken out of the context of the rest of the book, I read the German text quite positively – the scene was Rome in the summer in the 1970s, and as nothing explicitly bad happens in the short section in question, my mind was instantly transported to my own (pleasant) experiences of Rome in the summer. I gave my translation to my sister to read, who said she thought the translation adequately reflected the claustrophobia of the main character … where did claustrophobia come from, I thought? Finally, when I read my sample out at a public reading event, one of the audience’s reactions was to laugh. This is a common reaction in a group setting since it releases tension and conveys approval, but it also showed the translation going through an additional stage, that of being filtered through the mind of the reader (or, in this case, the minds of the listeners).

So the next time we pick up a translated work, we might want to remember that we’re not only getting an insight into the mind of the author, but also into the mind of the translator, and indeed into the way our own minds work, as they interact with the words on the page …

Rebekah Wilson is a freelance translator working from French, German and Dutch into English:

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