On Faithfully Unfaithful Translations

How many times do I have to hear professors say, “yeah, there are some good translations out there.” Or, “sure, that is a good translation” without any indication that they know why or think they might know why it’s a good translation, beyond the realm of “it captures the meaning of the original language” or it’s “faithful.”

The faithful vs. unfaithful debate regarding translation is over. There is not such thing as a faithful translation (at least not in terms of linguistic “accuracy” as has been the criteria  pre-Venuti, pre-Benjamin, ad pre-all the others who thought outside the box). Moving from language 1 into language 2, we see that meaning always shifts, that new meanings arise, target languages and literary systems are altered, ideas and preconceptions are always shattered, violence occurs, and more. A “good” translation has to do with the translator’s plan. It has to do with the reading of the source text and the translator’s knowledge of the target language and culture — how to negotiate those two worlds. A “good” translation also has to do with the individual reader’s conception of what should be transfered; the meaning that the reader of the source text believes should be transfered from language 1 into language 2 (is it the core meaning, kernel meaning, is it emotive meaning, is it the transfer of “difference”?). We all have a different reading of a text, a different way of interpreting it. A translator is another reader, but his/her interpretation is forced to crystalize (or move closer to a static state) when he/she represents it in a new language. A “good” translation also has as much to do with the target language reader’s interpretation: does the reader perceive that the target language reads awkwardly, is that estrangement actually part of the translator’s plan — to bend the new language and manipulate it so that the source text can carve open a new space?     

The “good” vs. “not good” translation is an old debate just like the debate between good and bad literature. We can’t objectively determine what is a good translation, just like we can’t objectively determine what is a good poem. But at least professors, academics, critics, and readers have developed a language with which they attempt to describe “what a good poem is” and why. Those descriptions of “good poetry” go beyond, ‘it’s good because it meant something.’ When assessing a “good poem” there is discussion on form, content, rhyme, intertextuality, musicality, image, etc. The point is, “good” or “not good”, “faithful” or “unfaithful” seems to be the limit for discussions on translation even after 30 years of ground-breaking concepts that have changed the ways in which we understand language, culture, the process of translation, and the function of translated texts. It’s time to add to the vocabulary. 

The moral: translation and translated texts have played fundamental roles in the shaping of national literatures, social movements, philosophies, ways of understanding the world. Translation and translated texts have introduced new genres, new tropes, new conceptualizations of language. They say the process involves some of the most advanced thought processes known to mankind. The translation of a single word (“fire”/”fired”/”refrain”) could lead to all out war or peace, and in the context of nuclear politics, we all know the implications (see Gentzler and Tymoczko’s “The Power of Translation”). It is time to get with the times and develop a way to talk about the phenomenon that is translation. 

–Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @ http://www.lenguamente.com  (2008)


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