Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Versioning vs. Translating

Last week, I attended the conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in New York City. There were several panels on translation, which was exciting to see. However, it seems quite obvious that not everyone really understands what translation is.

At the first panel I attended on translation, one woman (who shall remain nameless) was introduced as "a poet and translator." However, it quickly became clear that this woman was a monolingual. She didn't know the language she was "translating" from, nor did she know much about the culture, and she had never visited the country. How, then, did she translate?

Well, she is a professor at a university. She found a professor in the psychology department who was a native speaker of the language in question; that professor wrote a literal translation of the poem, and our "translator" then rewrote it as she saw fit. In other words, she took word-for-word translations and wrote versions of them.

Versioning is indeed a form of creative writing, but it is not translation. To truly translate, one must know the language the work is written in and the culture that informs the work. There is team-translation, but this doesn't seem to fall into that category.

It was surprising and disappointing that at a major conference, there was such confusion about what translation is.

8 comments: said...

You are correct. There is much confusion around the terms used in our profession. Clearly, versions and translations are not the same. I had an experience much like this at a medical interpreters confernce. So-called interpreters were unable to differentiate between interpreting and translating. I guess this means we need to continue our education efforts.

bint battuta said...

Oh, don't get me started on 'versioning'...and so-called 'poets', who have the last word, as it were...

B.J. Epstein said...

Some of the people attending definitely protested against this use of the term "translation," but some of the "translators" clearly didn't care -- they felt that this was simply a matter of semantics. I thought we had to educate customers and consumers, but obviously we have to educate "translators" too!

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

What I find funny is that you pretty much only find this "versioning" misunderstanding of what translation is with a) academics and b) poetry. I've seen the same phenomenon at the American Literary Translators Association conference. You never seem to find people versioning and then claiming to have translated the bankruptcy ruling for some airlines or someone's coronary angiography report. Funny, huh?

B.J. Epstein said...

Good point. And of course that relates to how people have little respect for non-literary translation -- they don't even consider it in the same category as translating (or versioning) poetry.
We really need to educate these academics!

Best wishes,

A.Z. Foreman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.Z. Foreman said...

Translating poetry is never a simple matter, to be sure and I personally have never attempted a translation from a language I did not know. I don't mean to sound like a sourpuss here, during my first baby-steps into the blog-world, but I do have a bone to pick with this post.

It seems strange to set "Versioning" in a different category from "Translating," particularly where poetry is concerned, particularly based on the sole criterion of whether the person knows the original language (or working closely with someone who does) or not.

For example, when Edward FitzGerald published his "translation" of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, his version took great liberties with the original. He invented new lines, new quatrains, changed images around and rearranged the whole poem in a way that was far more reflective of his own sentiment than that of Khayyám. (To take one famous example, he translated the words "realm of a Sultan" as "paradise.")

He differs from your monolingual woman only in that he knew Persian extremely well.

By contrast, W.D. Snodgrass translates from languages he does not know all the time, yet his "versions," as you would call them, display a remarkable degree of fidelity to the source texts in terms of quality, tone and impact. For example, although Snodgrass speaks no Romanian, the Romanian poet Nina Cassian has praised his translations of Mihai Eminescu's poetry as masterpieces. I'm uncomfortable with calling someone like Snodgrass a "versioner" while vaunting FitzGerald as a "translator."

Moreover, there is the issue of whether a text as culturally pregnant as a poem can every be translated in a way that is not, in some form, "versioning."

If, for example, I'm translating a Persian poem by Hafez and find a reference to Jesus (who is considered a Prophet in Islam, but not the Messiah) there is absolutely no way for me to prevent the Anglophone reader from seeing the Christ of the New Testament or to eradicate the Christian resonance from the reader's brain.

Whether "Translating" or "Versioning," moving a poem into a new language always involves a cross-cultural transformation which will inevitably cause the translated text to serve purposes, convey meanings and fulfill functions for which the original text was not intended and which the original author may not even have been able to imagine. If the target culture is ignorant of (or even hostile to) the source culture and language, no amount of linguistic aptitude and scholarly erudition on the part of the translator can realistically be said to compensate for it. He/she might as well not know the language.

"Versioning" in many ways seems somewhat more honest to me, as it doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

Sorry if this sounded overly combative.

If you're curious, you can find some of my own translations at my blog (

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, A.Z. I see your point and this might be, in a sense, a matter of semantics.
Your blog is quite interesting. I'll link to it here!

Best wishes,