Sevinç Türkkan, "On the State of Translators"

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Detail from Leonardo's Codex

Written by Sevinç Türkkan (Comparative Literature)

When I first found out that translating literature is not considered academic work on many campuses across the USA, I was very surprised. Does that mean that in academic circles today, translation is considered merely as the mechanical process of turning text from one language into another? In this blog post, I reflect on my experience as a literary translator and draw on my recent work on the politics of translating Orham Pamuk, which I presented at the 2009 MLA convention for a panel on "Turkish Literature and Cinema in a Global Context."

Especially after the “cultural turn” in the humanities, everybody has been talking about the interdisciplinary nature of translation. Today, translation research goes beyond text-linguistics, contrastive textology, and pragmatics to account for the site in between languages and cultures and to highlight the cross-cultural interaction that takes place during the process of translation. Translation theory goes beyond transportable content to account for textual and extra-textual relations that form the process and the product of translation. We all know that the translator cannot merely search for equivalent words in the “target” language to render the meaning of the “source” text. Rather, the translator must attend to the context, to the world and culture behind the text.

Lately, we have witnessed positive developments regarding the issue of translation in this institution and at large. It is not a coincidence that MLA president Catherine Porter made “translation” the topic of her presidential forum and the focus of the 2009 MLA convention. As a leading research institution, the University of Illinois has recognized the urgency of addressing problems of translation. In 2006, Dalkey Archive Press, the leading independent publisher specializing in literary translation, moved to Urbana. In 2007, the university established the Center for Translation Studies. These translation units collaborate to train a new generation of translators and translation researchers. That is, translation activity is gaining some recognition.

What happens in classrooms where we face a largely monolingual body of undergraduate students to whom we teach “world literature” in translation and often ignore (or do not stress enough) its translational aspects? How is translation addressed in popular media and by book reviewers? Unless we command the language of the original text, we don’t feel comfortable discussing translation with students. Underlying this attitude is the fear of losing students’ attention to the text because of its “secondary” nature. Often, we get caught in the common perception that any translation is a second copy and therefore unworthy of study. Translated texts expose the limits of the beloved and trusted close reading technique literary scholars so often apply. When we do have sufficient language skills to compare the source text and its translation(s), our discussion of the translated text is often limited to how “good” or “bad” the translation is.

Book reviewing and popular criticism are not far away from this kind of approach to translations. Book reviews address translations as if they were transparent copies of the original. They comment on the stylistic aspects of the text, quoting from the English version as if it were the original writer’s words. Often, reviewers compare the translation to works of other “world” writers, whom they also, most likely, read in translation. Typically, reviews fail to acknowledge the input of the translator. Possible questions such as the text’s quality, its intended audience, its economic value in the book market, its relation to literary trends in the target literary system, or its place in the translator’s career are neglected. When translation-conscious reviewers like a translation they give the credit to the first author, and when the text fails to meet their expectations, they blame the translator, “the second author.” The intercultural aspects of translation are rarely discussed. Translation is still treated as secondary, marginal, and subordinate to “originals.”

Why is this a problem? It is a problem because many world authors depend on their translators for their “worldliness” and it is only fair that we acknowledge the translators and their work. How many of us read One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish, Foucault’s Pendulum in Italian, The Tin Drum in German, Notes from the Underground in Russian, Remembrance of Things Past in French, One Man’s Bible in Chinese, or The Black Book in Turkish? We know these works very well; yet how many of us acknowledge the translators whose language and text we are reading? The translator is often ignored because she is supposed to obliterate herself, become invisible, and merge with the author. Treating translations as if they were a transparent copy of the original ignores the impact of the translator’s creative agency and the mediated nature of the final product. In some circles, translating almost carries a negative connotation.

Yet, when we think more carefully, we realize that the author is the translator of the first order; the translator of reality. To translate is, in a sense, to hold up a mirror. The point is neither who the author is nor who the translator is, but rather recognizing that they are indistinguishable. The first author creates a narrative, the second one recreates and disseminates the narrative, allowing for additional perspectives and interpretations. This proliferation of meanings reaffirms that the work of narrative transmission is cooperative, ongoing, and never finished.


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