Thursday, 5 December 2013

Fear of Theory

During the final year of my undergraduate degree I wrote a dissertation on translation. It grew from a need for more engagement with poetry in my course and a suspicion that long essays need enjoyment and interest behind them, as well the impetus of a deadline. Little did I know how far from my previous life this particular long essay would take me. I threw myself into a reading list provided by my supervisor, hoovering up whatever I could get my hands on.
 Sitting down to read, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had already translated some poetry by the French poet Pierre Alferi and it seemed to have gone well. However, what I found in books by Lawrence Venuti, Basil Hakim and Susan Bassnett, among others, was a new world opening up before me. Sometimes alarming, always exciting, this discipline of literary translation theory presented challenges I had never envisioned, much less been prepared to tackle.
Imagine this - you are standing over a chasm, toes gripping the surrounding cliff edges like a cartoon bird, desperate not to plummet into the darkness. In black clothes and holding a duffle bag in which the entire culture of a country is hidden, you creep towards a large building. A moment later you’re calmly shelling peas, separating the delicious from the inedible. These are strange metaphorical situations to find yourself (metaphorically) in. These images arose in my mind from the apprehension of how little I felt I really knew about other readers, other writers and the way others think, how essential this had suddenly become. I asked myself, what did this mean for the translation I had just done? What had I got myself into?
Translation theory and much historical thinking about translation makes liberal use of metaphor to explain the sometimes mysterious act of making one text into another one. It was the first thing which struck me about the discipline and the aspect that still interests me now, as a wiser, more experienced MA student. There are so many sites of activity in any one translation, so much happens! Anything which can bring the complications of language difference, cultural difference and historical changes in society into one neat package is very valuable. Metaphor does this.
But what about the similarities, what about the need to explore the literature of other languages from sheer curiosity, from respect? There are metaphors for that too, different from the figures I mentioned before, though no less important. My favourite comes from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Task of the Translator1. Language, he says, shouts into the forest and waits to hear its own echo, transformed yet familiar. This is beautiful, and expresses the reason why the potential mistakes and dangers the previous metaphors entail are worth it in the end.
Here at the university, in the controlled environment of the seminar, I no longer feel the vertigo I once did when faced with the metaphors for translation. In fact, I have learned to look behind them to the many truths about the practical considerations of translating literature. Not only that, but I have learned to live with the risks of translating. I trust my languages and my instinct; I trust theory to keep my mind open. Can you think of a metaphor for that…?
1 Benjamin, W. (2012) in L. Venuti (ed) The Translation Studies Reader, London and New York: Routledge, p80
Anna Bryant is from County Meath, Ireland. She translates from French into English, and also occasionally from Irish. She is currently enjoying studying on the MA in Literary Translation course at the University of East Anglia and can be contacted at

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