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.

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