Monday, April 17, 2006

Translation as Treason

Earlier this year, I read If This Be Treason by translator Gregory Rabassa and wrote a short review of it that is forthcoming in Facköversättaren (the journal of the Swedish Association of Professional Translators).

The first part of the book is about Mr. Rabassa’s life in general, the second looks specifically at the authors and works he has translated, and the third attempts to answer the question that runs through the entire book: Is translation in fact a sort of treason?

Mr. Rabassa considers translation treason in several ways. A translator can not be truly faithful to the source text, since words do not work the same in different languages and do not have the same meanings or create the same images or feelings, so he commits treason against the individual words, and thus the language, and the culture behind the language. Mr. Rabassa writes that a “betrayal of language is many times the betrayal of words and at the same time it is a reflection of the hurdles present in communicating between cultures.”

He also mentions that there are several types of personal treason committed in translation, that against the author, since his words and meanings are not truly preserved, and against the reader, who only reads and receives the translator’s interpretation and re-creation of the original text, and even against the translator himself, since translators “sacrifice our best hunches in favor of some pedestrian norm in fear of betraying the task we were set to do.”

Mr. Rabassa suggests that one could consider all of life a translation and thus a treason, as “life is an idea, a word, in short, a metaphor for conscious existence and hence a translation. We are translating our existence and our circumstance as we go along living and before we are fatally assigned the translator’s lot once the treason has been done.”

If translation is treason, then I think it is a necessary sort of treason. Obviously, no one can read all texts in their original languages. Language often separates writers from their readers, and readers from information or enjoyment. But translators serve writers and readers by bringing them together, by bridging the language divide.

We translators can only do our best to make the treachery as small as possible.


Anne Slater (near Philadelphia) said...

I thoroughly agree with Mr Rabassa's suggestion that life, viewed individually, is de facto a translation -in-progress. He is making a profound philosophical statement.
We are aniumals, but we are the highest order of animal (as far as I know), and being necessarily self-centered, we "read" and interpret the world around us in such a way as to promote our personal survival and emotional comfort.
Now I must go find a copy of that book.

Anonymous said...

Not only do we use our life experiences and the culture we live in to create a representation of poetry and fiction in our minds, but a big part of what makes reading itself worthwhile is that it can provide us with new ways to understand those life experiences, i. e. a new way to translate life.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Yes, I agree with you both. Words are central to our experience, which is why it can be so important to find just the right word when speaking, writing, or translating.

Anonymous said...

It is a little bit out of the subject, but I think it is worthwhile to mention it. For the last couple of years, we are getting more and more texts written in Asian English to be translated into French, etc. For example, from a US clothing distributor of garments made in China even under famous labels. The brand company in the US or EU just reproduces the transliteration of the Chinese descriptions done by English-speaking(?) Asians, e.g. I had to ask my Chinese colleague what is the meaning of the original Chinese text. Who will know that anti-silver for a slider (zipper) was in fact antic-silver (also is it the colour or the metal?) Now we refuse to do these types of translations. We lost 2 hours of research on the above-mentioned expression.
Pierre from