Yet another seminar at the LBF was just as important, interesting and thought-provoking, not least because I could relate to its subject as an author, translator/interpreter, and historian. The seminar ‘Globalisation, Translation, and English’ had two questions to answer: how to make publishers commission translations from other languages into English, and how to make them, as well as the public, to acknowledge the role of a translator?
To begin with, where is a problem here? Foreign literature is not being translated into English, so what? Surely, there’s enough English-language books around – in fact, there’re so many of them that the authors of guides like ‘How To Write a Novel’ start with discouraging a budding author from ever dreaming of making it big (they do so by reminding you that to get ‘ad astra’ you need to drag yourself ‘per aspera’ many times).
To use Prof Eco’s powerful thesis, a translation is a negotiation between the cultural milieu of the source text and that of the destination text. Elsewhere in Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation Eco says that “translation is a process that takes place between two texts produced at a given historical moment in a given cultural milieu”. There are many gains and losses to be accepted, but ultimately every good translation serves to enrich the language of the destination text by exploring its ability to communicate all the aspects of the original text. Translation is also important in keeping us connected to the past. It is especially vital today, when fewer and fewer people learn classical languages.
The enrichment of the language, however, is mostly important in hindsight. At present, if we care to learn our language better, we can simply scour The Oxford English Dictionary and the like. This would be much like striving to improve oneself by living on one’s own and never interacting with other people. Such belief in one’s uniqueness often leads to alienation and decline.
Translation therefore is the way to enrich the culture of the country of the destination text. It is the acquisition of knowledge about a country and a period where we do not live (and often never will). It can also be a source of inspiration: not necessarily an impetus to write, but rather to learn more about the author, his country, or the country and the period in which the novel was set, etc. In the end, literature exists everywhere, but our knowledge of foreign languages is always limited, so we constantly need to negotiate the development of our literature and culture by producing literary translations.
For instance, the development of English language and literature in the 16th c. was much fostered by the boom in translations from the classical and European languages. (I include the translation of the Bible in this list, since it was written in vulgata). Arguably, where this process was concerned with translating the antique historical texts, it was sometimes instigated by the acquaintance with the works of Machiavelli. Together with translations from Petrarch by Thomas Wyatt, followed by many other renderings of purely literary works of both antique and contemporary authors, this boom in translations was as much a means to enrich the English language, as a very important part of the English Renaissance.
The trouble is, and this has been highlighted at the seminar, a translation is often being treated as not. This means that all its educational and artistic merits are being treated on the same scale as those of an originally written text, which can lead to costly misconceptions. Once I came across an article, in which a scholar was comparing a 16th c. translation to a 20th c. translation from Latin, almost disregarding the original Latin text. Several times in his short study he concluded that the 20th c. translator was rendering the text into English better that his 16th c. colleague, – whereas his first purpose should’ve been to determine why it was exactly this text that had been translated. In addition, the scholar did treat the translation as an originally composed text. Given the blossoming of such discipline as Translation Studies in the past 15-20 years, you (myself at least) would have expected its findings to influence the academic community. Alas, this isn’t always the case.
One of the first things to do when a translation is being chosen for an academic study is to undertake its textual analysis by comparing it against the original text. This is a painstaking and time-consuming procedure, which requires a lot of knowledge and research. If it is done, however, then we’re likely to obtain a very fine example of an academic study which will shed tons of light on the cultural and intellectual process in the given country at the given time.
As follows from the above, translation is a critical act, which again was mentioned at the seminar. Yet it is evident that no translation can be purely theoretical. A text is a rhetorical act which appeals not only to our understanding, but also to our feelings. I firmly believe that it is a mistake to disregard or to avoid translating this emotional message. This means, in turn, that a translator is always a writer or a poet (depending on exactly what is being translated), which further stresses the importance of his role.
Translation is a difficult subject to discuss, a tricky business to run, and a Titanic labour to undertake. But when one considers how many people across the globe have been influenced by the works of William Shakespeare, it is obvious that all the efforts of his translators have not been in vain.