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.

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