Sunday, 25 March 2012

Translation theory

As a practitioner of translation I have for a few years now had problems with trying to understand why translation theory (and by extension translation studies) actually exists. I came out of my undergraduate degree with a persistent and lingering thought: Does theory really aid us in translation? My initial reaction to the theories presented was one of confusion: was I being stupid or were all the theories not just saying the same thing? The answer to me was rather simplistic and there are two paths down which one may walk indicating a choice: we either translate to a paraphrase or metaphrase model. However it turned out to be a little more interesting...

Theories today tend to be descriptive observations of what has already occurred in translation; they detail how people have translated specific texts. This is a historical shift from the days of the prescriptive stance in translation and the arduous task of remaining ‘faithful’ to a text by following syntax and word order. We now know this to be a rather stilted notion, hence the move towards descriptive models which have allowed us - as translators - a more liberal approach (within reason) i.e. content over form. However, because theory now tends to be descriptive, we can only derive strategies from these observations, strategies which can aid us when looking at specific works in literary canon (which is another debate in itself) and may aid us when translating something similar in style or which perhaps alludes to texts which have preceded it; an echo of previous literary works if you will.
These may guide us to mishaps in translation and may alert us to tread with caution but they do not actually teach us how to translate. Although this would arguably be an impossible task, especially in literary translation (each text is unique even if it resembles another and therefore requires an individual approach), the problem remains that translation is a wholly individualistic task and quite simply we all work in different ways so a theory cannot be tailored to everyone and their respective needs.

Some modern theorists are now more concerned with cognitive stylistics and detecting authorial intent: in essence we must ascertain the meaning behind the lexical choice and in Alexander Pope’s words capture the fire of the text. This is common sense to translators but when one is plodding one’s way through a translation there is a tendency to lose ourselves in what is written, not what is being said. Theories, or rather notions in this case, can help us to remain permanently focused on reading between the lines. We are not only translators but also readers, and as such can easily be influenced by our own interpretations of what is going on in a literary text.

As a reader we already carry out the necessary and obvious tasks of reading, analysing and decrypting in order for us to proceed with translation. If a piece is feminist in genre or style, then it must be translated as a feminist piece: anything else would be a corruption of the source text. This is where Vermeer’s Skopos theory comes to the aid of us functionalists who have a rather pragmatic approach to translation. Our ultimate mission is to translate according to a specific aim or goal i.e. purposeful transaction; therefore, in literary terms, we are to translate and basically remain ‘faithful’ to the text’s content due to certain criteria imposed upon translator and/or commission (one notable exception is translated drama texts where more scope for adaptation is permissible). These restrictions notwithstanding, any deviation of style in reality would mean that the purpose of the target text differs from that of the source text, which has either been misunderstood or intentionally corrupted. It is that fire of which Pope speaks which requires not just attention but also retention.

Having said all this, there has been one snippet of theory which has caught my attention and it may belong more to the domain of linguistics: nevertheless it has struck a chord, the reverberations of which will not escape my mind. Walter Benjamin posited the notion of ‘pure language’, a language which is operating behind all others (think of a computer program ‘running in background’ when several other programs are simultaneously being used). We seek to decrypt, translate and (re)encrypt for the target audience, then disseminate the message, passing on the story from one person or culture to another, ensuring that the message is harmoniously and simultaneously broadcast to disparate cultures in their respective living languages and resisting the notion that certain things are untranslatable whilst embracing the fact that everything is comprehensible across cultures. I liken it to music or the look on somebody’s face: although there are innumerable instruments with which to create music and endless melodies, beats, notes, tempos and genres, the mere fact that everybody can enjoy and find pleasure in it, whether it be foreign or not, has provided me with the conclusion that we all fundamentally understand one another on some intangible yet higher and some may say telepathic level. And the look on somebody’s face? Well, a smile means the same thing in every culture, right?

Adam Kirkpatrick translates from French and Swedish into English and is currently studying towards the MA in Literary Translation at the UEA. He is particularly interested in Fantasy Fiction, Historical texts and the work of J.M.G Le Cl├ęzio.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Read a Translated Book: A Challenge and a Campaign

[Note: This post was first published on Brave New Words, which is run by BJ Epstein, who teaches on the MA in Literary Translation programme at UEA and translates from the Scandinavian languages to English.]

I run an award-winning international literature book group here in Norwich. As far as we know, it’s the only book group in the UK that just reads translated literature. This is surprising because translated literature is a gift that allows us to learn about other people, other places, other perspectives, other ideas, other ways of being, other lives. Without translations, we would be so much poorer and our lives would be much narrower.

However, many people are afraid of translations; translated literature seems harder somehow or less authentic. But that needn’t be the case.

So I want to challenge you to read more translations. Start with just one book. You can pick a Nobel Prize-winner, for example, or maybe one of the books that’s up for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year. Pick a translated thriller, if that’s your favorite genre, or try some poetry. It doesn’t matter which book you read; the aim is just to read translated literature.

Then the next part of this campaign is to keep reading translated literature. Start with one book and then try to read one or two translations a year, or even more. Encourage your friends to do so as well.

If you live in Norwich, come to my book group. If not, you could even start a book group of your own that just focuses on translated literature. If you want some tips, here is a document I created to help people start book groups like the one I run.

Pass the word on. Tell others what books you’re reading and what you think of them. Post comments here or on other blogs and discuss your experiences.

I challenge you to read just one translated book. I think it will change you and I suspect you’ll want to keep reading translated literature. Translations aren’t scary; rather, doing without them is.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Theory and Practice, or, How to Wear Two Hats at Once

This semester I feel as if the MALT programme is pulling me in two drastically different directions which (somewhat paradoxically) complement each other, through the modules we’re studying: ‘Process and Product’ and ‘Translation Theory’. I imagine these modules as requiring me to sport two kinds of headgear that are both present in my translator’s dressing-up box. The first is a practical translation hat, but despite the name it’s not practical at all, in fact it’s garishly coloured, many-textured and covered in pompoms, and I can redesign it whenever I choose (encouraged by the very creative seminars we’ve taken part in during the Process and Product course). The second is a translation theory hat, which is much more subdued, and doesn’t fit me quite as well: I have the feeling that I’m trying on someone else’s hand-me-down. It’s really quite heavy because although Translation Theory is a new discipline, this particular hat has been around as long as there have been languages to translate between, and as such it is imbued with a lot of weighty History. Thus my problem is as follows: I have been very much enjoying wearing my practical hat to translate poetry and short stories, and thus I am, at the moment, reluctant to take it off in favour of my theory hat.
I understand the need to possess both hats, because wearing the theory hat helps me learn about what other people do when they’ve got their practical hats on, what others think translators should do when wearing their practical hats, the decisions I myself make when wearing my practical hat and the stylistic and ethical issues faced by practical hat wearers. And vice versa, the experience of wearing my practical hat feeds into the work I do in those moments when I have removed it in favour of my theory hat. But despite this I still don’t feel entirely comfortable translating myself from practitioner to theorist through the substitution of hats.
When I finish the MALT I may decide to consign the theory hat to a dusty corner of my dressing-up box, or give it to a translators’ charity shop (a shop whose only customers are members of a thriving community of translators, rather than one raising money for a dying breed of multilingual bookworms, I hope). But while I am still on the programme I shall continue to strive to find a way to wear both hats simultaneously. As yet I have had little success in this task; the practical hat is too irregularly-shaped for the theory hat to stay on if I try and put it on top, and if I reverse this configuration and put the theory hat on first I can’t help but feel it as a barrier between me and the creativity of the practical hat. Perhaps I shall have to learn to juggle at warp-speed so as to create the illusion of wearing both hats at once, a blurring of the boundaries between practical hat and theory hat, but then of course I’ll have to figure out how to type at the same time. Unless I choose to perform my translations orally rather than writing them down (I’m sure there’s a theory about that; maybe I am getting the hang of this after all…)
Any suggestions for translation hat solutions gratefully received at this address:

Lucy Greaves translates from Spanish, French and Portuguese into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA, and is particularly interested in Latin American literature.