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Evolution of Translation

Sarah Schnellbacher's picture

There are few efforts more conducive to humility than that of the translator trying to communicate an incommunicable beauty. Yet, unless we do try, something unique and never surpassed will cease to exist except in the libraries of a few inquisitive book

--Edith Hamilton

In Bryn Mawr College's 2011 Evolutionary Literature course, we have explored the art of language in its dance with the sciences. We began the course reading Darwin's On the Origin of Species which combines the romanticism of the Victorian era with the progressive leaps of science. As we moved to modern works such as Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Richard Power's Generosity, we saw an adaptation of the culture for which each author writes from timidity and caution to bold affirmation of biological evolution. The greatest adaptation we saw, however, was in the translated text of Camus's the Plague and the film Adaptation. In each of these works we were seeing "at best an echo" of the original work (George Borrow).

The art of translation from one medium to another is an impossible task because there is not a direct one to one correlation of words between languages. For globalization, however, translation between languages is essential and made possible through the departmentalization of translation and machine translation capabilities. This shift in methods of translation is an adaptation within the ethics of translation. The departmentalization of translation has led to translation of texts by anonymous authors. The translators work in teams to complete projects at a faster pace and thus the fidelity of translation does not lie in the hands of one translator. This can serve to provide a closer or more distanced translation from the original text. By working in teams, there is a system of checks and balances among translators for which translators become accountable to one another; however, the division of original text among translators can lead to each translator having a less cohesive interpretation of the text as a whole. The translator is not chastised for mistakes but rather the institution outputting translated work. Thus there is less at stake for the individual translator to remain true to the original work when his work will be nameless. This contrasts deeply with the liability bestowed on the translator of the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance we see examples of translators being put to death for minute changes to original text. The translator Etienne Dolet was killed for adding three words that were not originally present in Plato but was only punished with jail sentence for having killed a man in his youth. Likewise the translator William Tyndale who produced the first English translation of the Bible was sentenced to death by King Henry VIII for corrupting the Latin text through translation. The Renaissance translator, therefore, had everything to lose by spinning a translation. The high stakes of translation forced the translator to remain as true to the text as possible. As this fidelity to the original text may have its positive attributes, the speed of translation needed today does not allow for the careful critique of original texts as would have occurred during the Renaissance.

If we are looking for a word to word based translation of a text, then computer databases can perform this task with great speed; however, the emergent property of the text is lost. Idioms of one language do not translate word for word. In an attempt to keep the emergent properties of phrases, computer systems log the idiomatic meaning of phrases. These could be considered the memes of language with regard to translation. This idiomatic log of phrases is useful for the translation of instruction manuals and pieces of information for communication but is incompatible with the translation of literature.

Allan Turner discusses in his paper "Translation and Criticism" how the use of idiomatic phrases in translation can create a different connotation than that intended by the author. Turner explains the difficulties in translating Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the mistakes in various translations of Tolkien's work. Tolkien is a language scholar and thus focuses on the Germanic roots and mythology of the English language in Lord of the Rings. He goes out of his way to avoid the use of any idioms that place the piece in a certain time period to create a sense of timelessness and any idioms that have Greek or Latin origins as his ancient civilizations predate the Roman conquer of Germania. Because terms of antiquity in romance languages stem from the Latin, translations in the Romance languages use Latin phrases and idioms that are purposefully avoided by Tolkien. The translator despite his best efforts to use appropriate terminology in remaining loyal to the author betrays the work unknowingly. Turner conveys that the art of translation is not just knowing what is there but also what is not there to truly remain loyal to a text.

The author Virginia Woolf subscribes to this claim that translating the words is not enough to truly remain loyal to the text (Dalgarno). She out of disappointment with the available translations of Agamemnon provides her own private translation of the work explaining meaning between the lines. She feels that because the forms of discourse differ, it is necessary for the translator to bridge the gap in understanding even if this goes beyond what is directly written. Woolf believes that the original Greek is the best but that it should be available for those who can not read Greek. This takes us back to the quote at the beginning of the page by Edith Hamilton. The translation is a work that helps those of us who lack the skills to unlock the beauty and style of a piece in it's mother tongue to approach this Nirvana, but we can never experience the true beauty of a work unless we read the work in the original language. With translation style or meaning is necessarily lost because languages are not one to one.

We see that the art of translation is a balancing act. A translator can remain true to the words but will lose style in doing so. If he chooses to deviate from the original text, such as Ezra Pound, then he may maintain style but lose fidelity to the original words. In modern translational ethics it is no longer so important that the translator remain loyal to the text but that he tell his purpose in translation and to what aspect of the text he is attempting loyalty. This allows the reader to take the translation with a grain of salt and eliminates the need to execute translators over manipulation of the original work.



Anne Dalke's picture

Translation, evolving?

So, Sarah, I'm a little puzzled by this project. There's no bibliography, no "location" of the large claims you make about translation as "at best an echo" of the original, no source for the historical anecdotes about the punishing of translators who didn't exhibit "fidelity" to their sources, no exploration of why Virginia Woolf (for instance) insisted on "loyalty" in a process that Karl Kirchway told us, just the other night, is inevitably a "betrayal."

I'd like to hear much more about the deep, but as-yet unarticulated presumptions that underlie this essay, and its keywords of loyality, fidelity and betrayal, about the use of the original as standard for measuring the translation, about the impossibility of translation within a single language (say from my head to yours??) as well as from one language to another. I'd like to hear more about how you think of translation, generally, as contributing to the story we are co-constructing here about the evolution of literature. Is translation an attempt to prevent evolution and change, to preserve what is in another form? Or do you see it as in some way generative of change?

And where do you locate yourself in this conversation? The author here seems to be a "we"-- for whom are you speaking?

Sarah Schnellbacher's picture

IPad submission malfunction for bibliography

I wanted to add sources after submitting the paper through links but was away from campus on an extended weekend field trip for Oceanography and was therefore reliant on the iPad for submitting my paper as my computer is being repaired. Unfortunately it would not allow me to add any links or edit the pasted text so I was unable to add sources until getting back to campus where I could edit the paper on the college computers. Lack of sources was entirely unintentional and due to technology constraints. I in no way wished to take credit for the original ideas of the fine authors of cited material. I didn't realize I accidentally dove into the royal "we". I guess I must have been caught up with the initial quote I found from Bryn Mawr grad Edith Hamilton and just carried the person throughout the paper (oops).

Anne Dalke's picture


so add the sources now!