Sunday, November 23, 2008

Language v. Culture

"Reconciling language and culture is both a science and an art." So ends the NPR featurette on "The Art of Translation" which examins several issues that arise in the process of literary translation. And it is both a science, in the sense of languages being a science, and an art in the sense of creative writing. This bridge that literary translation creates between the critical and the creative, the objective and the subjective, is what perhaps initially drew me into its practice. But it is more than a science and an art, it is and has to be a love.

I was told in one of my first translation workshops with renouned poet and translator Martha Collins that there aren't very many young literary transltors. It seemed odd to me at the time that any craft would have much to do with the age of its practicioners. But it occurs to me that perhaps it has something to do with that requirement of love. As a creative writer, the love I hold for my own work is somewhat selfish - it's hard to get real distance from it, to seperate it from my intentions and emotions. As a translator, the love I bear for the work I'm translating is significantly different. It's not that I don't feel intimately attached to the work - I certainly do - possessive sometimes, proprietary over the original. But that to devote yourself, your creative energies, entirely to someone else's work requires a kind of selfless love that comes with perspective and time.

The NPR story correctly identifies several issues of literary translation as meaning, sound, cultural context. But there are some worrying statements: "A good translation needs to be true to the original and able to stand on its own for a new audience." While I tend to be on the faithful side of the translation spectrum in my own work, it's absurd to say there is no room for more experimental translations, ones that intentionally aren't "true to the original," like Lowell's famous imitation-translations of Akhmatova. Neruda believed that translators could improve upon the original. And being true to the original doesn't necessarily make the translation good - not by a long shot. Trots are the primary example, but I've read stilted, 'true' translations of verse into verse. This is where standing "on its own" comes into play, but what does that really mean?

While I'm lothe to attemt to define what makes a translation 'good,' it seems to me to have something vital to do with power. The effect that the piece has on its reader, or rather, the effect that the piece has on its translator, must be conveyed as faithfully as possible. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the syntax, grammar, word choice, sound, rhythm, etc. also have to be. These are the choices a translator makes, what to sacrifice, what to gain. And the cumulative effect is what makes a translation good or not.

This myriad of possible choices, an endless permutation of decisions, is what makes multiple translations not only possible but in many cases necessary. Compare the three Victor Hugo excerpts on the NPR article, and find subtlely different takes on the character. Each one may shed light on a different part of the book. Even moreso with drastically different versions. As Bea Basso says in the interview, each choice influences the next step, so the intentions of the translator are insinuated into each line, each word of the text. It is inevitable, though not undesirable so long as the readers are aware of the fact that they are coming to the work through the lens of another reader. Being aware of the possibility of different interpretations of an original text, different equally valid translations, encourages a deeper critical engagement with the text, inspires readers to move from a passive receptor to an active participant in the work.

And here is the issue with that closing quote. Translation isn't about "reconciling language and culture" as though they are two opposing forces working against one another. Language serves culture, culture serves language - they are overlapping subsets of a greater whole. Translation can't and shouldn't view language and culture as obstacles to overcome, or warring parties to mediate between. They are the very medium of the art form, the materials from which both the original and the translation are shaped.