Translation and Text Understanding
By Carolina Orloff
“…The literary imagination is not a grace
of life or a diversion: it is the best way we
have found of reaching for the meaning of
R.Fulford in The Literary Imagination In our Time.
In the Author’s Note to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech writer Milan Kundera asserts that, after thorough revision, ‘French translations have become…more faithful to the Czech originals than the originals themselves’. So much does the author trust these translations that, for the English translation, the book has been translated from the French on Kundera’s advice. ‘I had the pleasure of seeing my text emerge in [Aaron Asher’s] translation as from a miraculous bath. At last I recognized my book.’ In Kundera’s statement, I see the ultimate wish of the translator come true: to understand the original text in such depth, as to reach the original essence of the text even before it became one. That is, to understand the text from within the author’s mind, to become the author’s mind thinking and writing in another language.
The translator assumes a responsibility that not only concerns a book and an author, but an entire culture. Understanding is fundamental in every respect, for beyond the fixed text, there is also a culture to be translated into mirror words of a different language. This essay attempts to look at the many levels of understanding involved in the creation of a ‘good’ translation. We shall only concentrate on examples of literary and philosophical texts.
a. Translation as a Powerful Conductor of Cultures: Understanding Language
“A translation is only a somewhat provisional
way of coming to terms with the foreignness of
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’
“Language: to humbly speak thought.”
J.L.Borges, ‘An Investigation of the Word’
In discerning the ethics of translation, Venutti adopts Berman’s view that a ‘good’ translation is one that ‘opens a dialogue, a cross-breeding, a decentering’, forcing the domestic (i.e. the target) language and culture to acknowledge and even learn from the foreignness of the translated text. The translator aims to portray the understanding of the foreign text through another that may be faithful to the original, even in its foreignness. However, the reader should not be completely marginalized, feeling that a ‘foreignizing’ translation is as unreadable as the untranslated original. If necessary, the translator will have to create a new language, one that renders, to quote Brisset’s examples, the cockney dialogue in Pygmalion or the lunfardo (i.e. local slang) of R. Arlt’s Buenos Aires, and still embraces the richness of the target language and culture.
A good example is S.J.Levine’s translation of M. Puig’s Boquitas Pintadas, literally meaning ‘Little Painted Mouths’ and interestingly translated as Heartbreak Tango. The difficulty within this text lies not only on the use of Argentinian slang, but also in the key use of tango lyrics. In the original text, quotes from tango songs appear as epigraphs before
each chapter. The Argentinian (and Uruguayan, perhaps) would immediately associate that quote with a certain melody and even a sentiment, yet how to translate this effect for an English-speaking readership?
S.J. Levine admits that the author’s deep knowledge of the popular culture of United States helped enormously in their joint creative translation for the North American edition. The translator becomes a craftsman, in the search to find words that are familiar to the Anglo-reader and at the same time evoke the same feelings originally provoked in the Hispanic-reader.
The translation of such culturally loaded texts takes into account the world of the author and needs to anticipate the target readers and universe. The translator must somehow be able to know the readers (the way they think, react, live, remember, feel), in order to predict the effect that words are going to have on them. The understanding of language by the translator must be impeccable on both sides of the text: from the culture of the author to that of the reader. Apart from language and as part of it, what also needs to be portrayed faithfully is the author’s precise and deliberate choice of words. For that, the translator must again understand language to perfection, that is, understand the power of isolated words in both cultures.
In the translator’s preface to Kafka’s stories, J.A.Underwood claims that the (usually translated as) ‘giant bug’ which Gregor Samsa has became in The Metamophosis,
does no justice to the cultural resonance of Kafka’s predilection for ‘ungeheures Ungeziefer’. Although ‘giant bug’ does not capture the social and religious exclusion implicit in Kafka’s choice, the literal ‘monstrous vermin’ would not read well in English. Thus, after the understanding, the compromise.
Another example is Plato’s pharmakon, famously ambiguous, meaning both ‘remedy’ and ‘poison’ in Greek. This is discussed by the French philosopher (and translator) J. Derrida, who sees in this semantic ambivalence the vulnerability of the entire course of Platonism in the hands of translators. Undoubtedly, this is a fundamental ambiguity. One only need think of Socrates’ death to understand the importance of translating the right meaning of a single word.
b. The Inevitable Act of Infidelity: Understanding Style
“It will be our destiny to mould ourselves to syntax, to its
treacherous chain of events, to the imprecision, the maybes,
the too many emphases, the buts, the hemisphere
of lies and of darkness in our speech.”
J.L.Borges, An Investigation of the Word.
The creativity of the translator is not in the choosing of the right words, for language conventions exist and restrict the ways in which a certain word can be held to mean the same in another ‘idiom’. It is with style and the attempt to remain loyal to the author in this, that the art of translation blooms…and despairs! How faithful can the style of the translated text remain to that of the original, without obscuring the sense or making the reading too awkward?
I thought of Marcel Proust’s writings, and how the translator had approached his problematic style. The translator of the Penguin edition, T. Kilmartin, argues that if there is a need for a revision of a previous translation, it is because Proust’s style has been altogether misinterpreted and thus, wrongly portrayed. Although ‘complicated, dense, overloaded’, he argues, ‘…Proust’s style is essentially natural and unaffected, quite free of preciosity, archaism or self-conscious elegance’. Whether he succeeds in maintaining it in English or not, I have not yet had the luxury to find out. Yet, the translator has made the decision to remain faithful to the author. This in itself is already a successful act of the understanding of style.
Another example is the complexity of Dostoyevsky’s style. The translators of Crime and Punishment elucidate the problems of Dostoyevsky’s Russian, from the intricacy of names, to a different calendar, punctuation and other nuances. Nevertheless, they set themselves the task of a literal rendition of the Russian chosen by Dostoyevsky, showing a supreme understanding of the culture as well as the text.
It is a delusion to think that an author’s style will remain intact after translation. However, if the translator has fully understood the language and its universe and has, as it were, entered the mind of the creator, s/he can also understand the logic behind a style, which is never a whimsical matter.
Borges’s most faithful English translator, A. Hurley, has fully captured the author’s logic behind his style. He explains thus:
“Borges’ prose style is characterized by a determined economy of resources in which every word is weighted, every word (every mark of punctuation) “tells”. It is a quiet style, whose effects are achieved not with bombast or pomp, but rather with a single exploding word or phrase, dropped almost as thought offhandedly into a quiet sentence (…) Quietness, subtlety, a laconic terseness –these are the marks of Borges’ style”
With such an understanding of the author’s style, thoughts and implicit intentions, the translator moves on to produce a fine text. “I have rendered Borges in the style that I hear when I listen to him”, admits Hurley to the reader, in the hope that the reader, in turn, shall hear something of the genius of Borges’ storytelling and, indeed, style.
c. Translator’s exile and the miracle of translation: Understanding the translated text
“In translation, the work of thinking is transposed into
the spirit of another language and so undergoes an
inevitable transformation (…) [which] shines a new
light on the fundamental position of the question…”
“The power of illumination…is the supreme power of translation”, argues Berman in the idea that translation is, by definition, a clarifying process, for it makes an unintelligible language, readable. The reader becomes ‘illuminated’ by translation, which unveils a new text and, through it, an entire culture.
The responsibility in the hands of the translator (literally) is unfathomable; particularly with regards to non-fictional texts, such as Philosophy, where the essence of ideas have to be rendered on a deeper level than that of the tangible realm of words. Yet, how does the translator approach this final text, after being torn constantly between two languages and cultures, writing and reinventing a text which s/he has never created in his mind? The translator is in exile from his own language, being at the service of another one. This must allow for an enriched perspective, for a deeper final understanding of the text.
The translator is a merciless reader, and as such reading his/her own work, the translator must understand the translation as clearly as s/he understood the original, if not more. It is this second understanding, the enriched ‘bridge’ between one language and the other, that should be portrayed in the final translated text, which is a new version of another final original one.
There are translations that have understood the language and syntax, and have tried to remain loyal to the style, but have failed to understand the final translated text, i.e. the impact that the words the translator has chosen have on the reader. An example of this is P. Blackburn’s translation of J.Cortázar´s Historias de Cronopios y de Famas. In this translation, there are no notes at all. Given the difficulty of the book, even in its original language, this is surprising, for an English reader, for example, will not be able to capture any of the subtle cultural references. I would argue that his translation is culturally irresponsible, that the tranlator has failed to understand his own text.
A.Hurley resorts to an opposite extreme, soaking his translation of Borges text with ‘Notes to the Fictions’, which aim to level the Anglo-reader with the knowledge that a LatinAmerican would have. A certain justice is thus achieved, for although these notes might come across as condescending, the option (to understand more) is there. In that option, lies the possibility of understanding the text in its completeness. For, the translator has already been inside the author’s mind, and is now willing to illuminate us by showing us some doors to the author’s world. The translator has understood that in the essence of what s/he is translating, might lie the very meaning of existence.
Berman, A. (1985) Translation and the Trials of the Foreign. Trans. Venutti, L. In Venuti, L.(ed.) Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 284-298.
Borges, J.L. (1998) Collected Fictions. Trans. Hurley, A. London: Penguin Books.
--------------. (1999) The Homeric Versions. Trans. Weinberger, E. In Weinberger, E. (ed.) The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986. London: Penguin Books, 69-74.
--------------. (1999) An Investigation of the Word. Trans. Weinberger, E. In Weinberger, E. (ed.) The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986. London: Penguin Books, 32- 39.
Brisset, A. (1990/96) The Search for a Native Language: Translation and Cultural Identity. Trans. Gannon, R & Gill, R. In Venuti, L.(ed.) Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 345-375.
Cortázar, J. (1994) Cronopios and Famas. Trans. Blackburn, P. London: Marion Boyars.
Derrida, J. (1981) Dissemination. Trans. Johnson, B. London: The Athlone Press.
Dostoevsky, F. (1992) Crime and Punishment. Trans. Pevear, R. & Volokhonsky, L. London: Vintage.
Fulford, R. (1990) The Literary Imagination in Our Time. In Manguel, A. (ed.) Soho Square III. London: Bloomsbury Publishers Ltd.
Kafka, F. (1981) Stories 1904-1924.Trans. Underwood, J.A. London: Abacus.
Kundera, M. (1996) The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Trans. Asher, A. London: Faber and Faber.
Levine, S.J. (1998) Escriba Subversiva: Una Poética de la Traducción. México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Mochulsky, K. (1967) Dostoevsky: His Life and Work. Trans. Minihan, M.A. USA: Princeton University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1968) The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Kaufmann, W. (ed.) London: Penguin Books.
Proust, M. (1981) Remembrance of the Things Past. Trans. Scott Moncrieff, C.K. & Kilmartin, T. London: Penguin Books, pp. ix-xii.
Reiss, K. (1971) Type, Kind and Individuality of Text. Decision Making in Translation. Trans. Kitron, S. In Venuti, L.(ed.) Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 160-171.
Venutti, L. (1998) The Formation of Cultural Identities. In The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. London: Routledge, 67-87.