On Violent Translations

The “violence of translation” has been a key concept floating around national literature departments and it seems to be a way of overlooking the process of translation and its central role in the  construction of the very national literatures that professors profess. 

Statements regarding translation and it’s problematics come out in many ways, often with stern looks and visible scholarly agitation with the translator (i.e. furrowed brow, the look on one’s face that some kind of intellectual doom is near, finger resting upon forehead, etc.): “Yes, the erasure of dialect, is violent in this text. The translator is engaging in an act of violence.” (Of course the use of the word “dialect” is often equally “violent” — “language” is a dialect with an army after all — but that can be the subject of another piece).    

What is at stake here is the convenient excuse for sticking to one’s own language, culture, geographical location: ‘I can’t teach in translation because it’s always an act of violence.’ or ‘It’s never the same text’. ‘It is a re-write, and a violent one.’

But let’s face it: only reading in English (or whatever dominant language), only teaching books originally written in English — even if under the pretense that going beyond entails violence —  is perhaps a greater violence. It is to isolate and prevent students (and the self) from exploring, from going outside of the “myth of their own language” (Bhaktin), outside of the assumptions that their nation or group has constructed for the “outside” world. It stifles interest in travel, in moving beyond norms; it prevents questioning oneself, and seeing oneself or one’s nation as part of a greater picture.    

That is not to say that translating does not entail violence. Translators have long been linked to colonial expansion, massacre, exploitation, and destruction. And the texts they produce are always problematic because it is impossible to duplicate meaning between languages, to transfer the full range of emotive, linguistic/kernel/core meaning, cultural meaning, metaphor, double-entendre, phonetic meaning from language one into language two. Translators manipulate texts, choose which meanings they want or need to transfer. The effects can be destructive (the translation of Jorge Amado tells the English-reading audience that Brazilians are a bunch of oversexed, superstitious people who live in the middle of nowhere) or positive (suddenly the English-reading audience realizes that what they thought was the height of Modernism had been done 2,000 years ago in a small fishing community). What I am getting at is that translation may be violent, but it is not an excuse to not work with translated texts, and to study the process of translation itself. 

Further, violence is everywhere. Not only does all representation and re-representation run the risk of violence (especially in the world of inequality in which we live), life too is violent. We are violent by nature, and our societies, arts, and thought processes reflect that. Turn on PBS at 7pm: lion stalks gazelle, separates it from the heard, and has his feast; baboons beat each other senseless to prove that they have enough energy stamina and “machoness” to be a good mate; some female species even eat their male mates after they engage in the reproductive process (that is, unless the male proves he is good enough or strong enough to be of some use) 

Like our animal counterparts, we are violent. Our daily life is violent. That doesn’t stop us from wearing tee-shirts made in sweat shops, from driving on busses fueled with gas from illegally invaded countries where innocent people are dying every day. I’m not trying to say that violence is acceptable or that we should just accept it without a fight. I’m saying that the fight against violence will surely entail violence, and that avoiding texts in translation under the pretense that they are “violent” is to not look at violence objectively. Further, if we believe the idea that humans are less likely to go to war with a group whose language, culture, and arts are known, the “violent” translation work with texts may lead to a less violent world. 

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @ www.lenguamente.com  (2008)

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