Thursday, October 4, 2007

Translator, traitor

I'm an amateur translator. Mostly Thai to English, though I've dabbled with English to Thai. Much more difficult. There are some short examples of my work (in English) on my personal blog here here and here. They're excerpts from books I've read, and there's another post about translating titles here.

How do you convey something in another language? There's an Italian saying, "traduttore, traditore." That is, "translator, traitor." I first heard this phrase in an essay by Umberto Eco, which decries, in part, the sentiment behind it, by encouraging the original author to be involved in the translation of his work. I particularly like this statement of Eco's:

The job of translation is a trial and error process, very similar to what happens in an Oriental bazaar when you are buying a carpet. The merchant asks 100, you offer 10 and after an hour of bargaining you agree on 50.
I think this is a great insight into the nature of translation. There is no Perfect Language, so there is no Perfect Translation. Eco's explanation of source-oriented vs. target-oriented translation was quite helpful for me.

This essay on the problem of translating puns gives the following dilemma, thought up by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Translate the following phrase into English:
"Oui, oui, vous m'entendez bien, ce sont des mots français."
You might translate it as, "Yes, yes, you are receiving me well, these are French words." But wait, they're not anymore. In that case, is "Yes, yes, you are receiving me well, these are not French words" a better translation? What about "English words"? You will probably offend some portion of readers with any of these solutions. Eco mentions a similar problem in translating the French dialogue portions of War and Peace into French--there was a specific reason Tolstoy chose to include French dialogue, or why Eco chose to include Latin text in The Name of the Rose, and why the Latin was left untranslated in the English version of that novel.

Eco ends the essay with a lighthearted reference to the Italian maxim by calling translation "admirable treason." I just hope my efforts, leave much to be desired though they may, can too be called admirable. Or am I weaving the noose for my own traitorous neck?


Scott Abbott said...

Translation, as Walter Benjamin writes in his provocative "The Task of the Translator," can alter, when it's done well, the language into which the original text is being translated. That makes perfect sense to me, but I'm left looking for examples.

Thai and English are so radically different from one another that I'm wondering if you have some examples of your own translations that show English being bent and pounded into something new.

michael morrow said...

The best I can do is personalize the education in which I am embroiled. Off the top, I watch minimum tv and attend fewer movies. I disengage in those settings, sleeping through most. I did see, twice, "Apocalypto" when it came out a few months ago. I dont think I have ever seen a movie twice. But, considering my religious background, together with discovering the wicked, surface piercing criticality rhetorical analyzation of society and culture affords, this one really caught my attention. The innuendo, blood, and interaction between cultures/religions provided productive release of piles of confused ideas and prejudice misplaced. I remember sitting through "A Clockwork Orange" when it first came out 40? years ago. Perhaps I'm now ready to see and derive something from it. I may see
the movies you guys are speaking about this weekend.

Speaking of experiencing "foreign" languages, I attended an African dance class last night taught by an African dance master from Guinea, West Africa. The dialogue experienced is diverse, unfamiliar, and exhilarating. The elevated cardio factor allows for personal intimacy I dont get from other literature/narrative. Feeling, interaction, and friction soar in a dance experience in ways very different from a verbal/written exchange. All the while there is strong, in some ways invasive, dialogue ongoing through the powerful drum's voice. Under the honed, generations-old, creative, eye/hand/voice of a master artisan and his personal drummer the experience is absolutely life-changing.

I find translating/relating deep, heart-felt feelings within myself, and then within any other relationship WITHOUT the "foreign" factor is a challenge I struggle with. In fact, I'm wondering about the difference between the requisite relationship necessary to translate a document from one language to another and translating ideas, feelings, and beliefs between people, face-to-face.

While translating words on paper is ultimately a relationship between people, I find a certain increased safety in dealing with another human with a paper safety net between us. Just gaining confidence and trust in this machine sufficient to convey my observations and ideas has taken me to levels of consciousness only dreamed of not long ago.
Growth ongoing!!!!!!!!!!!

xenobiologista said...

Remember the guy (Salvatore) who spoke gibberish in The Name of the Rose? Is it the same gibberish in the original Italian, or different gibberish?

I don't know Italian but I did like Weaver's translation. Given Eco's views I guess he would have let Weaver do the bulk of the work but done the final editing himself?

There have been a few times when I've read books by authors whom I KNOW are bilingual and have been baffled as to why the heck they didn't do the translation themselves. One of my favourite graphic novels is by a Malay cartoonist called Lat but he let Adibah Amin do the English version. Since it's a graphic novel, there is a lot of colloquial speech and it comes across rather stilted. (And the speech bubbles have type rather than handwriting so it looks ugly.)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Wonderful to read translators mulling over this one.

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