Saturday, June 26, 2010

Translation as imposition

This morning I was buying a whole fish - fresh salmon - Sockeye, on special at 1.79 per something. What do you think? Was that priced per pound, per milligram, per kilogram or something else? Then as I left with the package, both the meat packer and I said to each other 'thank-you very much' and another client buying shrimp said the same.

I thought for some reason about those syllables thank you - with the hyphen, very much, רב תודות (rav todot) or תודה רבה (todah ravah) according to Google. I imagined the phrase in Japanese - why I don't know. I don't know any Japanese except that one word arigato. Why when I can't remember the names of my friends, I should think of Japanese for thank-you at that time, is a mystery to me - the human mind at work - or not! In Hebrew I thought me'od rather than rav- maybe I like gutturals.

Would I have associated real gratitude with these words in a foreign tongue? They are automatic enough in English and meant. The smooth functioning of our interactions at the grocery store is something we are grateful for. Also the cleanliness, the packaging, the ease of purchase (however much it cost!), the local fishers and the local fish.

Associate thought - feeling - tone - intent - culture - and a few things besides - with just one simple phrase. What do we do when coming from a language no longer spoken with such associations into our own language? Do we study the words to death? Are we rigid or free? Do we appeal to sound? What knowledge of intent do we have? Our clues are many but our output - the phrase / gloss / tone / feeling that we write is mediated through a lens - our being - that we are dimly aware of, whatever our training.

Both BBB and God Didn't Say That are blogs that are written about - really they focus on - translation issues. I the self-trained translator respond occasionally. J.K. Gayle, not regularly blogging at this time shows his mettle with a response to one of these posts here. BBB's current series on foundations has had many comments, especially the hard one on audience. Whom are you translating for? Theophrastus whose blog I should be following, gives a lovely response concerning the problem of language and the issue of ignorance and how to deal with it:
Finally, even for those who [sic] no training in original languages at all, the presence of original languages is certain to raise their curiosity, and in some cases, even provide a first inductive lesson.
Yes - we are curious - and such curiosity is personal, stimulating, growth inducing, and has therefore potential for joy - all good things! Also here are posts on grammar, accuracy, naturalness, collocations, word order, nouns and I expect Wayne Leman will go on with other parts of speech and stuff.

Joel Hoffman has been concentrating on translation traps and has written of a number of them. Some are traps, I suppose. Some are simply facts of life - what do you think? What are the real traps - are they among these?
  • Dependence on the Dictionary
  • Mimicry
  • Missing the Point
  • Myopic Translations
  • Relying on Structure
  • Forgetting your own Grammar
  • Pretending some words don't exist
  • Slavery to parts of speech
  • Seductive translations
  • Short Circuit translations
I don't know if I've got them all. I agree with some, but I think others are not traps, just things that you have to live with.

I have answered the question - 'how I translate' here. A recent phrase I have used is 'deep guesswork' as a description of what I do. Even translating that common experience - 'thank-you' into another tongue implies the guesswork that the other is also feeling gratitude in one way or another that these words will convey my feeling in transmission. So when I translate using dictionary, structure, sound, rhythm, history, geography, culture, grammar, close reading, awareness of parts of speech and their forms and how disputed they are, and whatever else I am feeling at this time: the wars over meaning and rights and wrongs and cosmic things that are in this age, what you get is a personal translation in which I am imposing my limited knowledge and my cultural bias onto the text in a way that gives me pleasure.

But I left one thing out - it's not a thing though it could be translated into דבר even if this word expresses itself in unexpected associations. The thing that is not a thing is that incommensurate and indefinable love that has gripped my life with all its contradictions and troubles and somehow taken it up into its own and allowed itself to know me through its self-emptying. This is my motivation, and I hope the spark in my own thank-you in whatever tongue it is expressed and at whatever price - 1.79 per 100g. Big fish, little fish...