Sunday, 29 April 2012

The post-colonial banyan tree

One of the most interesting things I’ve found while doing the various readings for our Theory course this term is the range of metaphors that are used to describe the process of translation and the final text produced. One such, derived from an Indian context, is that of the banyan tree. Trivedi and Bassnett in their introduction to Post-colonial translation write that the process of translation as undertaken by Sanskrit/Hindi scholars like Tulsi Das can be compared to the “process by which an ancient banyan tree sends down branches which then in turn take root all around it and comprise an intertwined family of trees” (Bassnett & Trivedi 1999:10). When I saw this the first thing I wondered was to what extent this metaphor was India-specific. A quick google search later, I found that while the banyan tree is found in other countries too, it seems to be most prevalent, or most renowned at any rate in India. I even found out – or perhaps rediscovered is a better verb – that it is the national tree of India, something that I was probably taught at some point in a history class at school. I also clicked on a link to a Government of India website which told me that “the roots ... give rise to more trunks and branches. Because of this characteristic and its longevity, this tree is considered immortal and is an integral part of the myths and legends of India. Even today, the banyan tree is the focal point of village life and the village council meets under the shade of this tree.”

One of the interesting aspects of this image is the use of the word “ancient” in the first quote and “longevity” and “immortal” in the second. In a post-colonial context I suppose these are important because they refer to a long and resilient pre-colonial past. But, in the context of translation they seem to suggest that works that are (or perhaps should?) translated are classical and canonical texts. Given the context of the specific example, in which Trivedi makes this remark, the metaphor works.

In general terms it seems to be used as a foil to the metaphor of translation as a form of cannibalism that emerges from Latin America. But, this metaphor, of a Banyan tree, becomes problematic when used as a general metaphor for translation. Should only classical texts be translated? What is the role of the translator, if it is the source text (the main tree) that produces the roots (the translations)? And despite notions of immortality, the tree does die, so how does death factor in? In the end thinking about this metaphor left me with as many questions as it did answers, and I think that is what makes it an interesting metaphor of translation.

Anandi Rao translates from Hindi and Arabic to English. She is doing her MA in Literary Translation and is interested in theatre and women’s writing. She can be reached at

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Blog Post 2 or A reflection on theory and practice

As an aspiring literary translator I have struggled with the idea of having to study the theory of translation and have found myself many a time thinking ‘What’s the point of all this?’. But as the semester slowly draws to a close I think I am coming closer to answering a few of the questions that my MA requires me to decipher: Should translators know about theory? And does theory describe what translators do, or is it a practical tool that the translator can use?

In a recent workshop MALT graduate Don Bartlett, who has translated quite a few Scandinavian crime writers, spoke to us about the latest novel he translated by Jo Nesbo called ‘Phantom’. Having only being given 7 weeks to translate this book, I doubt that he was thinking about ‘Polysystem Theory’ (although one could argue that he was trying to get inside the Polysystem of literature) or ‘What would Nida do?’ Like most literary translators, Don never mentioned the word ‘Theory’ when he was talking about his translation process, he only mentioned the word ‘Strategy’, and this is because most theories are descriptive rather than prescriptive. This in turn means that we cannot apply a theory directly to our translation process but we can decide what our strategy is going to be before we start translating any kind of text.

At two ends of the scale, we have been studying Translation Theory whilst looking at experimental translation in our Process & Product class. While theory is rarely ever mentioned in P&P, we are expected to bring our knowledge of theory and demonstrate that we have grown as translators during our time on the MA in our essays. However, there seems to be a gap between practising translators and academics that theorise about translation, most of which tell us how we should translate despite ever having done any translation themselves. They remind me of the food critics who appear on popular cooking programmes, where they are brought in to analyse and nit pick at every dish they are served by the contestants, yet most of them probably don’t cook. It is very easy to analyse and criticise other people’s work but I do sometimes wish that theory was a bit easier to understand. On the other hand, there are academics that also translate as well as theorise and because they have seen both sides of the medallion they know what difficulties the translator faces. It is also interesting to see how theories from other fields can be of benefit to translation. For example Relevance Theory came to us from the world of Communication Studies and was picked up by translation theorists. This is not surprising considering that translation can be seen as an act of communication or the need to express something in a different language. This is my favourite theory (not that one should have favourites!) as, in my opinion, it sums up what I want to do as a translator and that is to get the maximum effect from the minimum effort.

So to answer the above questions: Yes! And No! (for the time being anyway).

Selin translates from French and Turkish into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA where she did her undergrad in Modern Languages. Her literary interests include magical realism and crime fiction and she occasionally translates Turkish poetry.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Rorke’s Drift, Michael Caine... and Getting The Old Translator’s ‘Pen to Paper’...

“Your Great Uncle Stan was at Rorke’s Drift when the first shot was fired,” my old dad used to say, before each Boxing Day viewing of Zulu – oh, you must know the one! Written by Cy Enfield, co-produced by Stanley Baker, based on a true-ish story, starring newcomer Michael Caine! The well-to-do Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead – had me fooled at the time! Then again, I was only six when I first saw it... Just where did it all go wrong, eh, Michael? Only kidding...

Yep, Rorke’s Drift. Wednesday 22nd – Thursday 23rd January, 1879, when some 150 British soldiers, each with only one skopos in mind – to be sitting in the old Dog and Duck again on the Old Kent Road (or whichever the road might be) with a freshly pulled pint in front of him – would defend a supply station against some 4000 Zulus, each of which would also have only one skopos in mind – to do to the former what they’d done to 2,000 British soldiers that very morning, over yon mountain, at the Battle of Isandhlwana: to wipe them out and finish the job off.

Well, the good news is that many of those brave – for a stronger epithet! – young men did go on to hold another pint in the old Dock and Duck, and Victoria Crosses were handed out like Smarties to prove it...

One of the scenes in Cy Enfield’s film still gets me to this day: when the Zulus appear for the first time – these weren’t actors but the real thing; that proud and graceful people, and their Chief was played by no other than Buthelezi himself! And when they begin that first charge at the British fort. It’s nail-biting for the boys – another silly understatement. But that wait; each and every one of them sweating more in that minute or so – heck, it must have felt longer! – than they had throughout their entire military careers, before Lieutenant Chard – Baker’s character – finally gives the go-ahead to fire... and not a moment too soon.

But there was, and is, method behind the apparent madness, the one of seemingly allowing the enemy a bit of running space before putting them to the trigger: and I guess that it’s all to do with, well, if they fired too soon, the enemy might be too far away to hit; not only would that then waste bullets but the enemy might gain a decent idea of what they were up against, get their heads down, and move on to a plan B. On the other hand, were the British to fire too late, then they’d inevitably be consumed for being so few – the old Bard would have loved this one, wouldn’t he!

All that being said, whether getting stuck in too early or too late, it turned out that the old chief on yon hill had sent his first wave of sacrificial lambs unto the slaughter merely in order to count the British guns. There was method in that apparent madness, too.
But isn’t this supposed to be a blog about translation? I finally hear you think, faintly, beneath a kind of grating sound – are you scratching your forehead?

And yes, I reply, there’s method in my madness, too.

So here’s my roomy analogy: firstly, there’s the mighty army of translators, who claim – lots of emphasis on “claim” – that they don’t translate a novel until they’ve read it, like it were some four-lined lyrical poem or whatever; and then there are the few of us, yes, myself included – we few, we happy few – who begin the job much earlier than the novel’s final page, and, furthermore, don’t give a Dickens who knows it. I might call this a war between The Practitioners and The Theorists, the latter being the greater army, numerically – though which wouldn’t be the case if two thirds of them were to tell the truth and the remaining third were to do what they ought to do, which is to go away and annoy someone else, or, better still – anything for a laugh – have the courage to do a translation of their own – they certainly wouldn’t have been missed at Rorke’s Drift, would they!

That’s the first part of the analogy: the small army, big army-part.

The second bit is the waiting-to-fire-part – which you may well by now have guessed; I didn’t hear any scratching that time... When to pull that trigger? Or when to put the translator’s ‘pen to paper’?

Only a few weeks ago, I heard PhD student and part-time Lecturer Philip Wilson state that to translate a book without having read a word of it – line by line from the outset – would be no less than “disastrous”. And I do agree, up to a point; though all would depend on the individual translator’s experience, of course, and the particular book, but yes, the potential’s certainly there. You could say it’s like being fired at from a great distance: if the shooter’s not that good, you might just wait for him to run out of ammo and then present him with the sharp end of your tool. But what if he can shoot? Who knows, you might just want to give up and go home for your tea... I guess what I’m trying to say is that the potential for disaster is always there, and that that which fills Philip Wilson with horror – the idea of the translator immediately putting pen to paper – simply multiplies that potential. But it’s not written in stone.

Rather than only translate – in the conventional sense of the word – I also write – again, in the conventional sense of the word; translation is re-writing. Playing in two gardens rather than one, then, as it were, something I believe every translator ought, ideally, to do, allows for a greater perspective. Of course, in the real world, not every translator is going to have the time for both, and there is the argument for the more translation work, the more experience gained.

But the reason for putting my case forward is based on my agreement with something else that Philip said that day – I categorically agree this time. And that is that when we pick up a book and begin to read it, we search for a “way in”; he described it as “looking for a door”, which could be anywhere between the first page and the last – have you ever abandoned a book because it’s simply gotten on your nerves? Oh, don’tget me started on Henry James! Yes, I said Henry James, not James Joyce... Anyhow, my friend Philip is right: that is the process exactly. And for me, that is the moment to put pen to paper, opening the door without banging your head at either side of it for having either rushed or hesitated; not too early, not too late. I can just see the old chief on yon hill, laughing with his ancient companions at the British for having begun to fire too early – “Disastrous!” I hear him cry, holding on to his elderly belly. Or for them having done the opposite: left it too late – “They’ve forgotten which film they’re in!” he screams with delight.

Willard Trask, a prolific and erudite translator for nearly fifty years, said that “Translation is what happens while you do it.” He talked of the “helical” rather than “unilinear”. I think he was talking about the writer’s groove. He, too, never read a book end-to-end before beginning to translate.

We all, of course, know that every book contains two levels of meaning: there is determinate meaning, embedded in the linguistics of the text, which, as Professor Jean Boase-Beier tells us, “demands cultural, linguistic knowledge of the source language; and then the necessary sensitivity of weakly implied or ‘second order’ meanings”. She also asks us: “How do we read and how do we translate what goes beyond the actual words on a page, and how do we ensure literary translations preserve the mind-altering qualities of the original? Style,” she says, “conveys attitude and not just information... it is the expression of mind; and literature is a reflection of mind... we must be stylistically aware...”

Again, I agree, almost wholly. Being stylistically aware is essential, because, yes, the style of an expression “tells us something about the person who uses the expression.” But that idea is also qualified by the above quote “what goes beyond the actual words on a page.” What intrigues me most, though, in Jean’s quotations, is the first of the two questions: “How do we read and how do we translate...? The translator’s “thumbprint” will always exist in a translation, we’re not robots, and that’s the beauty of it; and why we prefer some translations to others. But in order to construct something which might reasonably have been the author’s intention, just maybe we should start to think more about the way we, indeed, read a translation.

Any translator will tell you that s/he reads a book that s/he intends to translate differently to the way s/he reads for ‘pleasure’. And I sometimes ask myself why. After all, is the reader of your translation going to read it so differently to the reader of the source text? A writer doesn’t sit down and think: “I want to fill this next paragraph with adverbs of morbidity! Does s/he? The chronicler sitting on a sand-bag at Rorke’s Drift might have done, when he was able to keep his plume still, but that’s different. Or is it? Wouldn’t those adverbs of morbidity have presented themselves quite naturally within the context? The writer is aware of the process up to a certain consciousness, but, essentially, s/he simply writes, allowing the muse to dictate.

The really interesting – and perhaps crucial – part concerning the source writer’s task, however, is the editing process. For it is here where s/he, paradoxically, goes about trying to make the text read/sound more ‘natural’ in expression – however artificial, this is what we expect as readers; the great literary paradox! In light of this knowledge, then, the question I need to ask is this: Is not our job, as translators, to replicate our experience as readers? I believe it is. And I believe that the secret to a success, or a more ‘faithful’ translation, may lie in that very first reading, in those natural, spontaneous reactions of ours: by going for the jugular once we’ve opened that door. Once we’ve travelled with the flow of the text – the way the original author hoped we might; they don’t sweat over the editing process for nothing! – we may then go about own editing process.

Those who categorically disagree with my theory will tell me that I’ve not given much thought to recurring metaphors, symbols, leitmotif and so on – and what about all those clues in detective fiction? And I say: “But I only noticed that recurring metaphor on page 74 myself! So why should I make it easier for the reader of my translation?” And just as a reader has to turn back a number of pages to confirm that the metaphor is a recurring one, why shouldn’t the translator do the same? Furthermore – scandalously for some – the writer of the source text never set out with the idea of recurring metaphors in the first place – believe me, these things just happen somewhere along the line and writers merely exploit them! We might then, finally, deal with the editing sweat as we were meant to do: in the same fashion as the source text author – if s/he had to go through it, why shouldn’t we?

Gosh, I bet I’m making a lot of translator friends with this piece! And it’s not like I’ve got that many to start with...

But, that’s me and I’m sticking with it... for a while at least...

As for my old dad’s well-worn joke at the beginning of my blog – you don’t have to go back, I’ll tell you now: the line about my great uncle Stan being at Rorke’s Drift when the first shot was fired – his punch line would be: “He was in The Queen’s Head on Stannington Street when the second one was fired...”

I bet my fictitious uncle Stan had already seen the film... Or just maybe he thought Lieutenant Chard had left it that little bit too late... before putting that translator’s pen to paper.

Thanks to Jean-Boase-Beier, BJ Epstein, Philip Wilson, Cy Enfield, Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, to my old dad and my fictitious uncle Stan... and to the Great Zulu people of the Great Buthelezi.

I’m Chris Rose and my details are given further down, just after a previous blog entitled ‘Translating a Tom Stoppard Play on Words’. But if you’d like to drop me a line – whether you’re interested in translation or just a fan of Michael Caine films – my email address is

Sunday, 8 April 2012

On Translation (Re)visions

Identified as “a new international platform for British writing and literature development”, the Norwich Showcase was taking place over the length of several days, offering a plethora of events for those willing to be guided by their literary tastes away from books and to the public celebrations of those same tastes. These celebrations took the shape of presentations, readings, panels, and everything in-between. Translated literature was accorded its share of attention. Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne, both of them seasoned as well as acclaimed translators, were invited to recast the same literary passage from French to English and to treat an audience to a discussion of the choices comprising their finished versions.

That no translation act is ever a self-contained occurrence and that keeping sight of bigger picture is a must when translation is involved may seem self-evident, but this is something that comes to the forefront in the situations similar to the Translation Slam event with Ros and Frank. This awareness makes it that much more remarkable that little more than an hour was enough to make it possible for the audience to appreciate the difference in the approaches the translators employed. Not only was it a true pleasure to hear Frank and Ros reflect on their engagement with the text, but their voiced musings were insightful and thought-provoking.

For example, in attempt to conjure in the reader's mind the kind of image she felt was most appropriate, Ros opted for a term more precise than in the original text. In it, the author describes how a thought unwittingly turned into an utterance resembles an indeterminate kind of insect flitting pointlessly around a person's head. Ros explained that for her translation is largely about describing in words the pictures emerging in her mind in the process of reading, and it was a moth that she saw in the picture painted by the author. The use of the more precise reference suggests that the reader of the translation would be supplied with a rather specific image. By contrast, reading the original version the reader would be forced to do a mental choosing of his own and quite possibly end up with an image of mosquito or fly.

Though a rather mild case of transformative translation, it does illustrate a major issue in the study of literature. After all, this would be one of the things that literature ultimately does: it feeds imagination. The argument here could be that the form of the text conspires with its other aspects to make imagination come alive. In answering the question about the nature of the insect, Ros would seem to have challenged the reader's right to imagine freely. But what if instead she did the reader a favour: by filling in the blank, by clearing up the hazy, by taking care of a trifle of a moth, might she have released the reader's mind for performing grander flights of imagination? Is metaphorical insect entitled to the mind's creative treatment? Thanks to translation, thinking about imagination can run up some exhilaratingly peculiar routes.

In his turn, when asked about handling culture elements, Frank noted that retaining them in their more or less original form often proves optimal. In fact, certain cultural features are too well known under their proper names for new translations to try to carry out some interventionist or revisionist activity. Thus, there are no Elysian Fields in Paris and no one really would argue with that, being perfectly aware that there is, however, the Champs-Élysées. Translations insinuating the existence of such fields could appear ludicrous. The implication, then, is that if a transplant from a different language has proved itself and is now fully embraced, introducing alternatives is an idle pursuit.

For some, this may be a settled matter. Without clear reasons for doing this, multiplying ways of identifying the same referent may indeed strike one as unnecessary overloading of linguistic and cultural systems. Or, when it comes to translation, would we fare better if willing to unburden ourselves of the notion of redundancy? Since the domain of translation is so favourable to metaphors, this could be a matter of deciding which of the two metaphors should get the better of us: revering these pearls of interlingual carry-over items, or, letting novel translations sprout to see if they result in weeds or flowers. Finding middle ground is always an option, but peeking in at extremes is too gratifying to do without. Raised as a platform for literature development, the Norwich Showcase offered some nice vantage points.

Olessia Makarenia is currently working on her MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. Captivated by the magic of English language and the wonder of Russian literature, she is determined to do her bit by introducing some of the latter into the former and pass occasional, sensitive, judgement on the work that others have done so far.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Relevance of Theory

As an aspiring literary translator, it seems only natural to question the need to study translation theory. Will learning about different theories really help me to become a better practicing translator? The field of translation often seems to be divided into those that practice and those that theorise, so before beginning the ‘Translation Theory’ module I was unsure whether it would in fact directly affect my own translation practice.

During the course of this module, we have looked at a wide variety of theories including some from a number of other disciplines which have been applied to translation. One example which has particularly interested me so far is Relevance Theory, which we recently studied during a session on cognitive stylistic approaches to translation.

Relevance Theory, as developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in 1986, has been applied to translation by Ernst-August Gutt as in his comprehensive book Translation and Relevance (2000). Relevance Theory is all about communication and Gutt rightly looks at translation as an act of communication. The question really is what exactly are we trying to communicate when we translate?

As Jean Boase-Beier discusses in her 2004 article, ‘Knowing and not knowing: style, intention and the translation of a Holocaust poem’ perhaps the most significant aspect of Relevance Theory for us as translators is the notion of author intention. Sperber and Wilson (1986) stated that “the crucial mental faculty that enables human beings to communicate with one another is the ability to draw inferences from people’s behaviour.” In other words, we always have to work out what exactly the “informative intention” of the communicator is. Therefore, the recreation of the intention of the original author is arguably the most important task of the translator. We should try to convey what it is exactly that the author of the source text really meant.

The claim that it is possible to know the intention of the author has frequently been contended and it is true that we can never know this for certain. However, it is in fact possible to use clues in the text to reconstruct the original intention as far as possible. To use Sperber and Wilson’s terminology, we use a set of “implicatures” which Boase-Beier (2004) locates in the style of the text since from this we can determine the choices and attitude of the author. This can be related to the distinction made by Gutt (2000) between indirect and direct translation which can be likened to indirect and direct quotation. In this case, literary translation is seen as an instance of direct translation since the style of what has been written needs to be conveyed rather than the form.

In fact, looking back to last semester’s module ‘Stylistics for Translators’, I can’t help but think that the knowledge I now possess of translation theory would have helped considerably with my essay on the importance of the translation of style in a German text called Simultan by Ingeborg Bachmann (translated as Word for Word by Mary Fran Gilbert). During this essay I claimed that in this particular text, “the style is arguably of greater importance than the meaning and content of the narrative.” A better understanding of Relevance Theory and other concepts related to Cognitive Stylistics such as mind style would certainly have facilitated my analysis and understanding of that text and its translation, whilst simultaneously strengthening my argument!

I suppose what I am trying to say is that theory can be considered as relevant in terms of reading texts before and after translation. Knowledge of Relevance Theory, for example, can help us develop particular strategies for the translation of a text, ensuring that the assumed intention of the original author is conveyed as far as possible in the target text. On the other hand, it can also enable us to understand why a text has been translated in a particular way. I think that, although my aim is to work as a practicing translator, I fully understand the importance of gaining this grounding in translation theory and I am grateful for it. As Mary Midgley (2001) said, theories are “pairs of spectacles through which to see the world differently.” And with a bit of luck, our future translations will similarly enable others to see the world in a different way.

Fiona Hayter translates from German, French and Spanish into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA where she has also just completed an internship at the British Centre for Literary Translation. You can contact her at