Translation as Adaptation: Some Metaphors

August 1st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

(I’ve been sitting on these thoughts for some time, pending more precise, perfected phrasing that might give them greater clarity, but as they dovetail somewhat with Lucas Klein’s recent, lucid, and considered reflections on reviewing translation, especially his concern that foreign work be evaluated in a domestic context, I thought I’d post them anyway, because hey, what’s a blog if not a place for rough drafts?)

I have never much liked the idea of literary translation as performance. The comparison, usually musical, is unimpeachable at heart: a performance is an individual rendition of an existing score, as is a translation of a text. (Rendition, we say, to avoid using that slippery and too closely related word, interpretation.) I am too literal-minded, however, and like my metaphors to map better. The score is the original text, the composer the author, and the performer the translator. So far, so good. The piece as performed—not as written—is the translation, and here I begin to run into trouble.

The idea has obvious merits. It allows for, and even goes some way toward explaining, the variety of translations that may arise from the same material. To do so, it prizes expressiveness. Translation is artistic, subjective, even personal. If we hold that the translator’s highest good is sympathy to spirit over letter, then like a performer, the translator’s dual duties are fidelity and enchantment: in bringing out the essential qualities of a piece, to make it captivating for a public that either does not read music or has no access to the score before hearing it played (in both cases, like most of the readership in a country where a translation is published). In this scheme, musical notation is the source language—but how reductive, really, for what language is so universal and invariable? There is no wrong way, beyond the merely technical, to read music—but there are many wrong ways to play it.

The performance differs from the original in the tools at a performer’s disposal: vicissitudes of tempo, emphasis, intonation, volume, exploited within some elastic yet definitely bounded allowances of taste and tradition. Perhaps the source language is something more ethereal then, something approaching a cultural-historical understanding. But mustn’t a translator also possess such understanding in addition to understanding the source language? And doesn’t any understanding, whether of language or context, reside like apperceptions of enchantment or essential qualities, in the translator’s mind? It seems this metaphor leaves out language—not necessarily by dint of prioritizing performer and performance, but nevertheless—and in doing so, leaves out much of what distinguishes translation as an activity: the negotiation between two systems.

And what, in the reverse mapping, is a musical instrument? A score often stipulates the instrument, or is even composed with it in mind, for instruments, like languages, have their particularities; no source material stipulates any eventual target language. If a translator’s instrument is language, what is left for the original language to be? If an instrument is some externalization of what a performer brings to a piece, what part of the understandings listed above does a translator externalize? An instrument is hardly a typewriter or a bilingual dictionary. If the only kind of performance to accurately map translation is an attempt to play music meant for one instrument on another, then what was once metaphor quickly becomes tautology. » Read the rest of this entry «

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