Every now and again a book turns up in the letter box and I drop what I’m doing and simply sit down and read it. And that’s what happened with Translation, a Very Short Introduction by Matthew Reynolds. It’s a new title in a series called Very Short Introductions and yes, it is very short, only 120 pages not counting the References, Further Reading, Publisher’s acknowledgements and the Index, which takes the book up to 142 pages. I read it in an afternoon.
I was interested in it because the worth of translation per se is a topic that is persistent in the literary world. There are people who loudly scorn translations because they can’t possibly be true to the original, and so they confine themselves with lofty moralising to books in languages that they know. Every now and again there’s a little flurry on Twitter with links to someone or other pontificating about what a distorted experience it is to read in translation, or picking to pieces this translation versus that one and how this is proof that the whole process of translation is a bad idea.
For the opposition there are bloggers like Stu at Winston’s Dad, Tara at Reading@Large (formerly Book Sexy), Jacqui at JacquieWine and plenty of others as well and you will find links to their reviews of books in translations all over this blog. I like to read and review books in translation, because it brings me worlds I cannot otherwise know. I can just about read books in Indonesian and in French, but it is hard work, and I know I’ll never be able to read in all the languages that I’d like to. I can’t imagine life without having read The Great Russians, Zola or Balzac, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Bible or Thomas Mann, and that’s just to mention ones that come quickly to mind. Orhan Pamuk, Marguerite Duras, Hans Fallada, Irene Nemirovsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Ismail Kadare, Jose Saramago, Herta Muller, Veronique Olmi, Patrick Modiano … once I get started there’s no stopping!
Well, Matthew Reynolds tackles the topic with aplomb. He’s Professor of English and Comparative Criticism at the University of Oxford and his books include The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer and Petrarch to Homer and Logue (OUP, 2011) and he’s a judge for the annual Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. So we know what ‘side’ he’s on. And a nicely reasoned argument it is too. Chapter 1 ‘Crossing Languages’ deals with the instances of translation that occur: everything from school translations when we’re learning a language to flexibly negotiating languages with someone else not a native speaker of your language, something that happens all the time in multicultural Melbourne or when we travel. There’s the jargon that we encounter from the medical profession; there are different kinds of English with different idiom; there are sign languages like Auslan and languages in different scripts. There are dialects and slang and the strange language that Gen X, Y & Z speak. Shakespeare and Chaucer need some hard work in interpretation when we read them in the original English with its non-standard spelling. There are sub titles and international icons; there are the very carefully nuanced translations for the diplomacy of the European Union, and there are precise legally binding translations in courts and asylum seekers applications. These are everyday instances of translation and they all have features in common:
- Translation does not simply jump from one language to another. It also ‘crosses languages’ in the sense of blending them. (p.5)
- All translation involves diplomacy, because the aim of conveying what a speaker or source text is saying has to be tempered by an awareness of what the listener or reader is prepared to take on board. (p.6)
- All translation involves the crowd, whether through the use of commentaries, dictionaries, multiple source texts or Google Translate, and the translator’s own linguistic competence is honed through other texts and conversations. (p.9)
Even the word ‘translation’ can’t be exactly translated, and that’s the starting point for Chapter 2, ‘Definitions’. Reynolds says that’s because there is no exact translation of any word. The image of bread that comes to mind when you think of the French le pain is not the same as the Indonesian roti or the German brot. In Chapter 3, ‘Words, Contexts and Purposes’ he invites us to try this with the various words for ‘house’ which looks like a universal word until you try it and then the English word ‘scone’ as in clotted cream and jam, which is clearly culturally specific and a word for which there are no easy correspondences e.g. in Chinese. (He could have done the same with the French word madeleine, eh?)
So translation does not translate the meanings of words; at least, not in the sense of taking the meaning of a word in one language and finding a word with the same meaning in another. Many words are like ‘scone’, with propositional meanings that can’t be matched by any single words in other languages. So the translator performs some workaround, explaining the troublesome source-language word, or simply pulling it across in to the language of the translation. (p.30)
Dryden in 1680 summed up the issue in a way still influential in translation theory today:
- metaphrase, now called word-by-word or very literal translation, not varying the word order or anything else, relying on language standardisation;
- paraphrase, or translation with latitude: now meaning translation within a language rather than between them, with words not so strictly followed as the sense;
- imitation, now described as ‘versions’, where the translator feels free to vary the words and the sense as s/he sees fit.
Reynolds warns us that translation is infinitely complex, influenced by factors such as
your historical moment and political situation, the genre of the text you are talking about, its context and purpose, the features of it that seem most important. (p.18)
In Chapter 4 ‘Forms, identities and interpretations’ he discusses everything from comics to the poetry of Dante. A reader has to choose between a translation that preserves the unique rhyme scheme (Dorothy L Sayers’ version) or abandoning it (Longfellow’s or Mark Musa’s) or rewriting it in quatrains (Clive James). (I’ve got a version on my iPad too, but I have no idea who the translator is, it’s really not an App worth having).
I do take issue with Reynolds on one issue. He seems to think that we should take a robust attitude to ‘tone’ and he is quite stern about reviewers of translations. I think this is a bit rich, considering that we are doing our very best to promote literature in translation and it’s better to comment on translation issues than to ignore the translator as if he s/he doesn’t exist. IMO Tone matters in literature when a translator is trying to render the connotations of speech and context, and I’ve had some horrible experiences reading Zola’s novels where they’ve been translated using modern slang which has crassly altered the class distinctions that Zola was aiming to render. I don’t agree that the original has no tone or spirit in itself; it takes readers to imagine those into being. Good authors choose words carefully to capture age, class and identity; as you can see if you have to choose one of these for a translation of ‘maman’ from the French: ‘mum’, ‘mummy’, ‘Mother’, and ‘ma’. Even ‘mummy’ has different connotations depending on context: in Australia, it’s quite common for little kids to use ‘mummy’ but the same word used by an adult for a parent is an occasion for mockery because it’s associated here with being an upper class British twit. (No one has ever raised an eyebrow over my use of the Anglo-Irish ‘Mother’, but I’ve betrayed myself again and again with my use of ‘Daddy’ which is what I’ve called him ever since childhood). No Australian, I think, would ever use the American ‘mom’…
What’s nice is that Reynolds acknowledges that translation of literary fiction is difficult because
literary texts are open to a great variety of interpretations: that is part of what it means for them to be ‘literary’. Critical essays give their readers fewer interpretive options. One reason for this is the way they are written: they don’t, on the whole, play with ambiguity, fictionality, and form the way that literary texts tend to. (p.60)
This review is getting a bit long: I’m going to wrap it up by telling you that Chapter 5 is about ‘Power, Religion and Choice’ (with an interesting venture into the impact of translation on the Treaty of Waitangi and some exploration of censorship issues; while Chapter 6 is about ‘Words in the World’ exploring the languages that are translated often in the book trade, which is what I’m interested in (i.e. 40-%: English in all its forms, French, German and Russian) and those translated less (1-3%) – Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Danish, Latin, Dutch, Ancient Greek, and Czech). Chinese, Arabic and Portuguese less so, and Hindi not much, even though these are the most commonly spoken languages in the world. (If you’ve read some of these, well done!) And then there are languages that barely register: Ahom, Lushootseed, and Tok Pisin. (Tok Pisin is spoken in New Guinea, but I’ve never heard of the others). Chapter 7 is called ‘Translational Literature’ and it explores nationality and culture, and literature as a nation-building force, and the opportunities of multilingual texts in the modern world…
There’s a huge range of books in this series but I think you can see why this particular title appealed to me:)
Author: Matthew Reynolds
Title: Translation, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press
Available from Fishpond: Translation: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)