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.

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