Monday, July 21, 2008

Ideology and Translation

I want to quote from Clifford E. Landers’ book Literary Translation: A Practical Guide once more.

Regarding translation and ideology, he writes “What does the profession of translation do? Obviously, it translates. If a translator allows ideology to color anything he or she translates, the profession suffers. And when translation is stifled ether by repression or self-censorship entire nations are deprived of a glimpse into the mind of the Other.”

Clearly, his comment refers to the ideal of translation. In this ideal world, ideology would not color our translations. But sometimes (especially for texts that are not primarily factual, such as contracts) it is impossible to avoid. We translators must simply be hyperaware of the fact that our opinions and experiences do influence and they may make us choose certain translatorial strategies or words or styles of writing that perhaps are not exactly right for the text.


Masked Translator said...

Sometimes it's best to stray from a literal translation of the source text. Western European texts repeatedly use American Indians in a way that is offensive to most readers in the U.S. If the reference to Native Americans is not the point of the text, but is merely thrown in for "flavor" the translator should absolutely change the source text.

Because otherwise in a literal translation what is intended as a cute, heartwarming reference in the source text becomes a crude, ugly racist attack in the translation. Since often that is obviously not the intent of the source text, it's important to alter the reference so as not to introduce an off taste that wasn't present in the source.

If the text is all about Native Americans and the point of reading it is to find out what the Swiss or the Swedes think about Native Americans, then by all means translate everything.

I doubt ideology is usually what causes translator's to stray from close, literal translation. Sometimes it's professionalism and common sense!

Eric Dickens said...

The very fact that you choose to translate one particular article or book, but not another, can be an ideological decision in itself.

Could Masked Translator explain a bit more what s/he means regarding a "literal" translation, as this term is prone to misunderstanding?

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for your comments! Masked Translator, how would you recommend someone translate, say, Mein Kampf? The translator can not change everything that is crude, ugly, and racist, right? What would the translator decide to change and why? Similarly, perhaps the offensiveness of a reference to Native Americans should be kept, because it says something to the reader about the author and/or the source culture.

Best wishes,

masked translator said...

Mein Kampf is a terrible example—it’s an important historical document more than it’s literature.

Ultimately the translator always has to judge how close to stay to the source text. A translator is only as great a translator as he or she is a judge of how far to stray from the source text and when to do it. Ultimately it all comes down to who the audience for the translation is.

In my example, I am only talking about literary translation. The Native American example came up in a children’s book I translated targeted at 9-12 year olds. And while I appreciate Eric’s point, this was a literary translation commissioned by a publisher, translating a book chosen by the publisher, translating with the goal of marketing the book. And it was a sweet and wholesome book in the context of the source language and culture.

The point of the book had nothing to do with Native Americans. It was good, fun children’s literature. The Native American thing came up as a fluke, a random thing the protagonist happens to do that in the source language is cute and endearing. But translated into English for American kids it would NOT have been cute and endearing. It would have drastically changed the way an American reading audience viewed the character in a way that the author of the text never intended.

Certainly, a translator cannot change everything crude or ugly or racist. Nor would you want a translator to. Usually the translator shouldn’t change anything. But occasionally it’s necessary. A text does not exist in a vacuum;, it is the product of a culture. And cultures don’t always translate 1:1. Knowing when to make the change and when not to is what makes a good translator.

B.J. Epstein said...

Okay, you're right -- Mein Kampf was a bad example!
And yes, the rest of your point is taken as well! As you say, ultimately knowing the right thing to do for a text is the mark of a good translator!

Best wishes,