Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Words whirreds werdes

Did you have to pause to think about that title for a second or two? Did the second two words stand up, look you in the eye and demand to be noticed? If so, it’s because they were trying to get your attention. But we don’t always notice what words on a page are doing. Sometimes when we read, writes Margaret Freeman (2002), the physical words of the text ‘disappear’. It’s something we’ve probably all experienced as we greedily turn the pages of an engrossing book, the story’s universe forming itself somehow – mysteriously – in our mind. How does that happen? Where does it happen? Where do the words go? We certainly aren’t aware of every word on the page when we read quickly in this way, and yet the words and phrases we’re reading are all working, making us see and hear and feel, in ways that we sometimes don’t realise until we sit down with a metaphorical magnifying glass and have a close look at how the threads of the text are woven.

Of course, words don’t always affect us without us realising. There are some types of text in which the language makes itself a little more ‘opaque’, as Freeman puts it.  When we read poetry, words often insist on being heard. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example, makes sure you can’t miss them. Try not listening to: “Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend/ His rash-fresh re-winded new-skein├Ęd score/ In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour/ And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.” Punchlines do it too. Did you ever hear the one about the policeman who got called out to a nursery? A three-year old was resisting a rest. When language use is unexpected like this, it draws our attention to it; this is frequently the case with literary texts. But whatever it is we’re reading, if we’re about to translate it, we have to look closely at individual words and grammatical structures as we try to work out what the text ‘means’ (doing the MA in Literary Translation has taught me that ‘meaning’ is a slippery little word that doesn’t like to be pinned down, hence the inverted commas).

Translators have to look for some kind of meaning. They have no choice – they’ve got to produce a translation. To help them do so they might try to understand how the style of the text works on its readers to create the effects that it does – how it conjures up those mental images, those strong emotions, that (deceptive, of course) sense that there are real people speaking to us from a text, each in his or her own distinctive voice (Culpeper, 2002). An area of theory that might facilitate this is cognitive stylistics, one of the fields we have looked at as part of the Translation Theory module of the MALT. A cognitive stylistic approach to translation gives us a theoretical basis for examining how style affects us when we read, and in turn how a translator’s stylistic choices will affect his or her audience;  Jean Boase-Beier, discussing the application of cognitive theories to translation, points out that such theories might help make us more sensitive to ‘the interplay between the creativity and freedom of the translator and how this must always be affected by what the reader of the target text might do,  feel and decide’ (2006). Cognitive stylistics tries to explain how the words on the page interact with ‘the cognitive structures and processes that underlie the reception of language’ (Semino and Culpeper, 2002), linking the mysterious reading experience I described earlier to the language that generates it.

It’s exciting. It makes us think about thought. It explores why ambiguity in a text might make us uncomfortable, how we might perceive language sounds and patterns as ‘echoing’ what they represent in an iconic way, why metaphors might be central to the way we conceptualise and understand the world. Thinking about how these sorts of stylistic features work in the minds of readers of the source text, and trying to anticipate and recreate the effects of such features in the minds of readers of the translated text, has helped me as a theory and a tool in translation. I now try to analyse more carefully the techniques the source text is using and to what ends, which is useful for avoiding a ‘word-for-word’ approach to translation. In general, studying translation theory is making me more aware of the games words play – what’s with all the personification of words in this blog post, for instance? I’ll have to give it some thought. 

Romy Fursland translates from German and French into English and is currently studying for the MA in Literary Translation at UEA. She can be contacted at romy.fursland@googlemail.com.

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