When I started the MA in Literary Translation in September it was not the first brush I’d had with translation theory. I first came across translation when I was on my Year Abroad in Spain taking a class called ‘theory and practice of English translation’. We looked at linguistic theories such as those of Nida, Catford and Newmark. These ideas stemmed from a linguistic view of translation; that a text should be translated based on the concept of equivalence of form, meaning and style. We were mainly looking at the translation of advertisements, slogans, newspaper articles and tourist information. Most of the strategies we used in our translations considered whether the text had a source-language bias or a target-language bias. The former relies on such techniques as word-for-word translation and the latter on free translation. Equivalence played a big role in our translations, so for example translating a proverb with its TL equivalent and using adaptation, so if a text has a reference to cricket, perhaps in French that should be translated to the Tour de France. However, when I arrived at the department of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, I realised there was much more to translation than ‘equivalence’. We looked at the ethics behind this kind of translation, adapting cricket into the Tour de France for a French language target audience would be the worst kind of ‘domestication’ (in Venuti’s terms) because the source culture has been swallowed by the target culture. Furthermore, one has to ask if the target audience isn’t being somehow short-changed with this sort of equivalence. For example, in Spanish there is an idiom ‘mi media naranja’, whose equivalent in English would be ‘my better half’ (when referring to a partner) even though it literally translates as ‘my half orange’. The translator is faced with a dilemma: to translate literally would make no sense to an English reader, but if we use the equivalent, the image of an orange which the source-text reader gets is lost. Does the Target-text reader deserve to get a sense of the Spanish original? Of course, in translation, there is no right answer.
These questions plagued me when I came to do my first proper literary translations. The question that I couldn’t get out of my head was ‘do I want to create a translation which has domesticating or foreignizing effects?’ My natural instinct had always been to make my translation as intelligible as possible for the target audience, even if that meant being quite free with the source language or culture. However, at the beginning of the course I read Friedrich Schleiermacher’s 1813 essay ‘On the Different methods of Translating’. He advocated translations that brought the reader toward the author. Perhaps the source language and culture are, in fact, the most important things.
I decided to translate a passage from Entre Les Murs by Francois Begaudeau. It’s a book about life in a suburban Parisian school. Now, if you take Nida’s idea of dynamic equivalence or Schleiermacher’s idea of bringing the author to the reader and change the French education system into an English one so that English readers will understand and perhaps relocate the story to London, I can’t help feeling you would completely lose the point of the novel and also of translation. What is interesting about this book, and so what would encourage any translator to translate it, is its portrayal of pupils in a school in Paris, nowhere else.
However, when I translated my passage, I didn’t really have these ideas in mind. I took a scene where the teacher is pointing out, to the pupils, the kinds of mistakes they make in their writing. I decided to take each fault they made in French and change it to a roughly equivalent fault that children make in English. This works when the passage is out of context, but of course, following from what I’ve just said, why on earth would a French teacher in a French school start teaching his class about English vocabulary? For example, he points out that they constantly write en train de as two words: entrain de. In English this would be translated as ‘in the middle of’. I don’t think any child would attempt to write that in two words. So what do you, as the translator, do? In my equivalent translation I changed the mistake to ‘a lot’ which is often written as ‘alot’. But we’ve already discussed why this won’t work. We need to find a way to represent the French school and the French language in English so that the novel is not assimilated by the target language and culture, but at the same time it must be readable for the target audience. Lawrence Venuti writes extensively on strategies for ‘foreignizing’ a text and at the same time keeping the translator in sight. One can always indicate the translator’s presence using archaisms or unusual sentence structure, though this wouldn’t solve our French-language-in-English dilemma. My only solution is to keep the French children’s mistakes in French and use endnotes or footnotes to give English equivalents, even if they might take up more of the page than the actual text! I’m sure there are other solutions and the book has been translated if anyone is desperately interested in other possible solutions though I haven’t been able to get my hands on it yet so I can’t tell you here.
I have learnt that any translator carries a huge responsibility to represent not just the content of the source text but also the form, the rhythm and the style. The source culture should not be assimilated by the target culture and the translator’s art must be visible for all to appreciate. Translation is not a simple matter of transferring one language into another; ethics will always have a part to play and this makes translator’s choices even more risky, and therefore, even more worthy of our attention.
Emily Rose translates from French and Spanish into English; she is currently studying for the MA in Literary Translation at UEA and will shortly be starting an internship with the BCLT. Contact: email@example.com