28 June 2010


This is quite amusing. I've googled "Mitwegsein" and found just a few references, all connected with Spivak. Here she is, talking, purportedly, about Edward Said:

I think he often thought I was a fool, to be so persuaded by "theory." His stand, as president of the Modern Language Association, against pretentious and obscure language was against me as well. I think I tried his patience precisely because he cared. I sat next to him on the plane coming back from the Chicago MLA, where he had excoriated unnamed but easily recognizable persons who wrote fatuously obscure books. I asked him why he had so trashed me at the MLA; it was transparent. He said, altogether unconvincingly, and he knew it as he said it, that it wasn't about me - and he named an eminent "French-feminist." And he was amused by my on-the-ground political commitments that had to be different from his, for they were "post"-colonial. "The first critic of the state of Palestine," I had heard him say in 1981. My idea of practical usefulness - I was no stateswoman - was to show the state the usefulness of a different kind of teacher training for the largest sector of the electorate. It seemed such a difficult project, so different from most literacy or science efforts, that I kept quiet about this for the first ten years or so and finally opened my mouth by a happenstance that I will describe in my memoirs. So, anyway, when Edward would ask, "Gayatri, what do you do when you go to those villages?" I would give the usual answer, "Hang out" (Mitwegsein, suspend previous training in order to train yourself, you know). The answer was not satisfactory.

This really is dreadful writing.

24 June 2010

TSR: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

What to make of an article ("The Politics of Translation") that begins with this laziness:
The idea for this title comes from Michele Barrett's feeling that the politics of translation takes on a massive life of its own if you see language as the process of meaning construction.
I think she means "the process of constructing meaning", so why leave in the irrelevant and confusing ambiguity?

The whole piece varies between lazy writing, which is often impenetrable, and bizarrely low-register phrases. Here's a sentence where they're mixed:
When you hang out and with [sic] a language away from your own (Mitwegsein) so that you want to use that language by preference, sometimes, when you discuss something complicated, then you are on the way to making a dimension of the text accessible to the reader, with a light and easy touch, to which she does not accede in her everyday.

[That's my "sic", not hers.] Whose is the "light and easy touch"? Does it really help to say "Mitwegsein"? Actually, what does "a light and easy touch" actually mean?

And there's a failure to expand on some references. On page 373 she talks about a discussion of "Sudhir Kakar's The Inner World, [in which] a song about Kali written by the late nineteenth-century monk Vivekananda is cited as part of the proof of the 'archaic narcissism' of the Indian [sic] male." That's her "sic", not mine. I presume it means that Indian is being used here to mean South Asian, or subcontinental, or even is a mistake and should be Bengali. The point is that the vast majority of readers won't know what all this is about: it needs more explanation.

After two slow readings, I'm closer to understanding the meaning of the whole piece. It is a subtle argument about the need to submit to the source text in order to translate it. She suggests, strongly, that you need an intimate knowledge of the source language (that's what the above quotation means) and of the culture. The article is predominantly about translating third world women's writing, and Spivak argues that the translator has to understand the social and cultural framework around the source text, especially to avoid assumptions of an orientalist kind. It also challenges one-size-fits-all models of feminism, and in that sense it's a vigorous hybrid of post-colonial and feminist thinking.

She's writing from an active feminist perspective: one of the aims of translation is to expose and thereby change women's experiences. Which raises the question - a much bigger question - of whether actions and choices must always be explicitly grounded in praxis. She's taking it for granted that they must be, and while I can understand that, I haven't worked it through completely enough to feel exclusively driven by it.

There's a lot of good stuff here but oh my word how badly it needs an editor.

TSR: Annie Brisset

Terrific piece on questions evoked by the practice of translating plays into Quebecois, that goes way beyond the initial question to look at the ways, in general, that language defines national identity, and in particular the status of the French language in Canada.

Annie Brisset is a Professor at the University of Ottawa. This essay, "The Search for a Native Language: Translation and Cultural Identity", was written in French, so I assume that's her mother tongue, and it was apparently chapter 4 of her book Sociocritique de la traduction. Théâtre et altérité au Québec (1990).

She looks at plays that have been labelled (by the translators) as translated into Quebecois, and asks what that means. The clearest point is that these translations are part of a project to claim language status for Quebecois, as part of a nationalist movement. She refers to several links between the Quebecois movement and xenophobic sentiments. In fact, the language is part of Quebec's self-told history. What surprised me is the extent to which the movement arises in opposition to "international French"; it rejects the association of francophonie. So it positions Quebecois as a doubly oppressed language.

Meanwhile, however, those translators are explaining their actions in "standard" French; even the stage directions use the non-Quebecois language. Brisset gets quite scathing about the pro-Quebecois movement - she's clearly not politically aligned with it - but even without taking sides you can see this as a real-life experiment in language development. In some ways, then, it's similar to the position Susan Sontag described in Bosnia, where a translation into Bosnian was demanded, although there's little difference from Serbo-Croat.

23 June 2010

TSR: Antoine Berman

Berman's 1985 piece, "Translation and the trials of the foreign" focuses particularly on translation of novels, in which bad translation can go unnoticed:
It is easy to detect how a poem by Holderlin has been massacred. It isn't so easy to see what was done to a novel by Kafka or Faulkner, especially if the translation seems "good". The deforming system functions here in complete tranquility. 
He lists 12 deforming tendencies ("there may be more").  I won't list or describe them here, since the article is refreshingly clear. They describe ways in which translators may attempt to clarify or improve the original text. What was maybe new to me were the less obvious problems. For example, a Spanish text (Berman's work often involves translations from Spanish to French) may use a network of augmentatives, which is hard to reproduce in French (or in English, no doubt). The last four tendencies concern linguistic diversity. How for example would you translate favela slang, or local words like lisboeta? He quotes one apparent astonishing success: Maurice Betz's translation of The Magic Mountain. In the original two characters speak to each other in French. Their two Frenches differ from each other, but in the translation they also differ from the novel's French, in which Betz has "let Thomas Mann's German resonate".

I think there's a possibility that much can be subsumed in the question of rendering appropriately the variety of languages in the original.

Berman is in the tradition of Schleiermacher, advocating translations that challenge and therefore develop the translating language (at this point I am beginning to see that "target language" isn't always the right term). He explicitly references Plato, saying that "the Platonic figure of translation ... sets up up as an absolute only on esssential possibility of translating, which is precisely the restitution of meaning". In contrast to literal(ish) translation, which "stimulated the fashioning and refashioning of the great western languages only because it labored on the letter and profoundly modified the translating language".

But where Vermeer focussed on skopos, while understating its mootness, Berman seems to ignore it. There are times when a domesticating translation is right. Children's literature, for example, I suppose.

18 June 2010

TSR: Hans J Vermeer

Maybe I'm missing something, but this piece, "Skopos and commission in translational action", seems to be a glaring example of dressing up the bleeding obvious in long words.

Vermeer seems to have developed his theory of skopos and commission over a long time. I'll try to explain it.

Translation is a specific kind of translational action - which I think is similar to the concept of refraction. An action is defined as behaviour that has an aim or purpose, and Vermeer calls that a skopos. (He says "skopos is a technical term for the aim or purpose of a translation" - dodgy use of the word "technical" there, I think - he's claiming a shared use of something he is essentially proposing as a technical term.)

The skopos for any particular translation is negotiated with the client who commissions the translation. Thus, the commission may specify that the translation is intended to show how the source language works, for example, or may give as an aim to entertain. The translation strategy adopted by the translator will depend on the skopos defined in the commission. This is why we shouldn't expect all translations to be the same.

So, what it amounts to is this: translation strategy depends on the intended purpose of the translation. I really don't think you need to have recourse to "technical" terms.

But have I missed something? The middle part of the essay raises and disposes of some objections to the theory. Basically the objections are that works of literature and/or translations don't necessarily have a purpose, so aren't actions, and can't have a skopos. It seems like an unnecessary discussion. A more serious objection might be that the choice of skopos is itself part of the translation process, and so translation theory needs to discuss and account for it.

16 June 2010

Less exciting than it sounds

I was talking to my sister the other day and mentioned that my main reading currently is The Translation Studies Reader. She looked unimpressed, and I should have added "and it's not as exciting as you may think".

I started reading the piece by Shoshana Blum-Kulka on "Shifts of coherence and cohesion in translation" and found this first example. The source language reads "Marie was helping Jimmy climb the biggest branch of the tree in the front yard ...", and the translation is "Marie était en train d'aider Jimmy à grimper sur la plus haute branche de l'arbre ..." . Blum-Kalka's point is that the French text is more explicit and has more redundancy but she doesn't seem to notice the factual mistranslation. Translating back, the French reads "Marie was helping Jimmy climb the highest branch of the tree".

It's not her translation, I should point out, but surely she should have chosen better. This missed detail has, frankly, damaged my respect for anything she says. So, exciting as the article may be, I'm leaving it there.

07 June 2010

TSR: Itamar Even-Zohar; Gideon Toury

Back to bogginess and the 1970s. But apparently these two writers provided some of the background for Lefevere, so I ought to look at them.

Even-Zohar's "The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem" soon recovers from that awful title. Here he's essentially looking at the different ways in which translation can affect the host "polysystem" (which is similar to the system Lefevere refers to). I think he provides some social/political context to this, although I'd say there's too little reference to sheer political power of one society against another, in economic or military terms. He looks more at the cultural state of the host culture, and it feels right to believe that a new or developing culture is more open to change by the practice of importing translations than a stable old culture would be. It's a pretty short piece, though, not much more than a sketch of what might be investigated further.

Gideon Toury has a simpler title, "The Nature and Role of Norms in Translation", but quickly sinks to this:
The acquisition of a set of norms for determining the suitability of that kind of behaviour, and for manoeuvring between all the factors which may constrain it, is therefore a prerequisite for becoming a translator within a cultural environment.
It's not impenetrable, it's just that it could have been said much more plainly. And so it goes on. The broad argument is that in translation there are some things that you have to do (rules), some things that are at your choice (idiosyncrasies), and those that it's on the whole best to do (norms). All of these are subject to change.

Blimey, I just summarised 12 pages in a paragraph. Of course there's more to it, but it's tough. So he draws us a diagram. The caption says "Schematic diagram showing the Return Potential Method for representing norms: (a) a behaviour dimension; (b) an evaluation dimension; (c) a return potential curve, show the distribution of approval-disapproval among the members of a group over the whole range of behaviour; (d) the range of tolerable or approved behaviour." I'm not even sure if this is just an illustration of what a return potential curve graph looks like, or if it's in any way a mapping of what Toury thinks is the relation between translation norms and acceptability.

At this stage we must be content with our intuitions [...] [M]uch energy should still be directed toward the crystallization of systematic research methods, including statistical ones, especially if we wish to transcend the study of norms, which are always limited to one societal group at a time, and move on to the formulation of general laws of translational behaviour, which would inevitably be probabilistic in nature.
So I can't help thinking this isn't nearly as scientific as it wants to be. The concept of norms etc seems to me very close to Genette's framework of vraisemblance, and I'm eager to see if anyone has made that connection.

TSR: André Lefevere

I've pretty much abandoned chronological order in looking at TSR, so now I'm looking at this essay from 1982, "Mother Courage's Cucumbers", which must be one of the first examples of the "Wittgenstein's Poker" school of titling.

Starting with some unarguably bad translations of Brecht, he then goes on to look at how translations, like other "refractions" (critical essays, stagings ...) are situated within one system of language, and have to use various strategies to adapt the original work. Each system includes ideological, economic poetic assumptions. With the poetic differences there are four strategies, and, André, you could have been clearer at this point. A list, such as follows, might have helped.

(i) One can recognise the value of the plays themselves, while dismissing the poetics out of hand
(ii) One can go in for the psychological cop-out: Brecht's poetics can be dismissed as a rationalisation of essentially irrational factors
(iii) One can integrate the new poetics into the old one by translating its concepts into those of the old poetics
(iv) to show that the system can in fact accommodate the new poetics, and be changed by it.

A similar pattern applies to Brecht's ideological content. Translations and other refractions have to fit within the system of the time.

Finally, economic considerations affect whether Brecht's plays are translated, staged, anthologised. (An amusing consideration is that if there are too many songs in a play in America, it becomes a musical and according to theatre custom and practice requires a full orchestra.)

So, applying these deliberations to translation, it becomes clear that translations are a mediation between different systems. While we may think early translations of Brecht were bad, this is not because the translator nodded, but because s/he had to adapt the plays to make them acceptable. We can only afford more accurate translations because the early ones built Brecht into the canon of drama.

On my other blog, I've recently commented on the National Theatre's production of Women Beware Women. A production is a refraction, certainly, and it might be interesting to try to apply this model to what I've written there.

05 June 2010

TSR: Abé Mark Nornes

I've skipped forward in TSR to look at this, because the 60s/70s was getting boggish, with discussions about basic terminology and concepts that was reading like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, pretentiousness fans, in that the shadow of a revolution was upon it. There was (inevitably) an extract from Steiner, looking more than ever like a relic of a different age.

Nornes' piece is about subtitling films into a different language. This is something he does professionally, and so there's a lot of fascinating stuff about the technical limitations: how many characters can you fit into a line; how long should the line be on screen, etc. Obviously he finds that subtitles are generally inadequate, but offers some evidence that the inadequacy becomes ideological. In a very specific example, he shows how Japanese verb-forms femininise the speech of female protagonists.

But the most intriguing passage concerns anime films. He talks of fan activity, where people (viewers) create and circulate their own versions of subtitles. Using computer animation techniques, these can be much more adventurous than the usual line across the bottom of the picture. He says that some even give long descriptions of unfamiliar terms - effectively footnotes - which the viewer can choose to read by pausing the video, or can ignore. It's that kind of thinking about how we can use modern technology that excites me.

01 June 2010

TSR: Jakobson

Jakobson's essay "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation" is a generally optmistic view of the possibility of translation between different languages. Because every language has metalinguistic capability, "All cognitive experience and its classification is conveyable in any existing language". But poetry is untranslatable, being essentially a framework of puns.