Saturday, July 4, 2009

Found in Translation

In the story of the Tower of Babel a united humanity builds a vast tower to the heavens, but this tower is devised to proclaim the glory of Man rather than God, and so God scatters the people across the lands and waters of the Earth, dividing them with distance and the death of a unified language. Peoples are separated by their fractured voices, their inability to communicate, and so in their isolation they each evolve in their own way, each following their own cultural and linguistic path. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand… small islands of homogenous voices adrift in the vast sea of the world.

And yet those islands are now connected more closely than at any other point in history. Planes wing across the world in hours, and information flies far faster. Perhaps it's not so strange that we have a translation service called Babel Fish, as the deep waters between islands grow ever more shallow, ever more transparent.

Yet we all know things are lost in translation, that differences in culture, language and evolution breed confusion and divergence. A man travels to France and attempts to ask, in broken French, for the address of the Hilton in Paris… and unwittingly asks for personal access to Paris Hilton. Une erreur romantique terrible! Un embarras culturel! This is the difficulty of connection, of communication. We laugh at the hapless man's attempt to converse… yet how does one translate schadenfreude? How does one explain it? What is it we lose in translation?

A better question, though, might be this: what do we gain in translation? Literature, too, is opening to new vistas, new opportunities. Never before has the idea of a true World Literature been so possible, so close… and yet we often look no further than our own islands. Safe harbors, pleasant beaches… so familiar, so comfortable.

But just beyond, just over the last wave… there are whole countries of new voices, whole continents of new stories. There is much to be found, I think, in these stories, in finding something separate and strange. We seek newness, originality… where better to look than beyond our own borders?

Our stories are constructions of two related worlds: the reality of our little island (the world we see around us) and the fictions derived from it. That is, our stories come from the physical reality we face (the land, the city, the people…) and from the fictions others have built upon it. We are shaped by our stories, the stories of our islands. We draw from a common pool of myths and allegories. We draw from common stories and common tropes. Elements repeat, are transformed, and repeat again. The stories change, evolve, become new… a series of minor gradations, of small shifts and jumps.

Yet the babelfish can show us something new. Stories drawn out from other pools. Stories that draw on different myths, different metaphors, different dreams… they arise from a different evolutionary path. Something entirely new… and ripe for cross fertilization.

We have before us the possibility of a vast connected world of literature. We can find a writer like Haruki Murakami through a Russian like Gogol, or from South American magical realists like Marquez or Borges. Maybe we'll see some of ourselves, too, reflected in a line, an image. Yet Murakami comes, too, from his own island, from The Tales of Genji, from Musashi and Mishima, from Tanizaki and Endo and Oe. We can see that newness, that strangeness, in Murakami, and in Kobo Abe, and in…

And here we draw back to our islands. A world literature has started, one voice found in many, a voice that whispers to itself the words of new and strange stories… yet we do not often reach for it. We know a few names… but many great writers still lie undiscovered by us, or at least ignored. The waves look high and turbulent, and the beach so comfortable…

Chinua Achebe offered us the voice of a silent continent, an Africa that had been hidden beyond words. Or, rather, he showed us his Africa… and in so doing opened us to the voices, the possibility, of other Africas. And yet those Africas, those stories uniquely born from their own strange and wonderful evolutionary paths, will disappear if we make no effort to hear them, to listen to them. Those voices will be silenced, will be hidden by distance and a lack of curiosity, by those steep waves gorging themselves on our bright beaches.

Yet such wide opportunity exists beyond those waves… and it is an opportunity we could embrace. A chance to find something new in translation, a chance to transform our own stories. Why not let our own voices be shaped by the voices of Africa, the voices of Japan?

And these voices are out there, sometimes close at hand. If you are interested in such a search, the Dalkey Archive might be a good place to start. It is a press devoted to publishing, and preserving, great works of literature, both in our language (works both out of print and unknown) and in others. They publish interesting masterpieces from a variety of countries and a variety of languages, having faith in the possibilities of translation, in its regenerative and renewing power. In the words of Ezra Pound, "English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translations, every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer."

So what are your experiences with translation? The good, the bad, the ugly? The humorous? What do you think translations can offer readers and writers?


Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

My main experience of translated works are poetical - Japanese Haikus that drip with imagery and elegence in Japanese just don't add up in English.

Ink said...

I think poetry is one of the hardest things to translate. The more limiting the form, the more difficult to capture the essence. I think, in a novel, that if you can't quite recreate a line here and there... well, not too big a deal. You get as close as you can and move on. The gist of the book, the story, shouldn't be too harmed. But in a poem, particularly in something short and strict... well, you miss your target by a millimetre and you're in trouble.

And, of course, the translator has to have talent. But I think prose works definitely offer more wiggle room.

Mira said...

'A chance to find something new in translation, a chance to transform our own stories'

That's a beautiful line, Bryan. I really like this. It's lyrical, and there's a quiet power to it. Really made me think.

And, in some ways, I know this isn't quite what you meant, but it took me there - isn't all writing a translation? Even if we speak the same language, we're trying to convey a unique perspective to others.

Thanks for sharing this! Did you really write this in 24 hours? Wow.

Ink said...

I wrote it in an hour! That's all the time I had before Nathan's cruel deadline. :)

And I do think that idea of "all things are translations" has a fair bit of truth in it. The first story, of course, lives entirely in the head of the writer. The paper (or computer) version is always a sort of rough translation.

annerallen said...

Great piece, Ink. I love the hopeful tone. The shrinking globe and the idea of a "world order" has been terrifying people of late, but there was a time when we saw interdependence as a good thing. You remind us that culturally, it is.

I think it's fun that we are all connecting through Nathan's blog. Thanks for all your nice comments. Losers of the blogosphere, Unite!

Laura Martone said...


I really enjoyed your piece - very perceptive and, as Anne said, hopeful. I can't believe you wrote it in an hour! It seems way too polished and deliberate.

As for reading translations, all I can say is that I did more of that in college, and I wish I still were immersing myself in foreign cultures. Marquez especially moved me when I was just a young writer.

Much like watching foreign films (which I also did more of long ago), I find that I often choose the easy path - reading books in English (by American and British authors) or watching American/British/Canadian movies often supercedes exposing myself to other foreign cultures... a terrible way for a travel writer to be.

Inspired by your thoughtful post, however, I plan to spread my mind a bit and start reading/watching more foreign books/films again. Although it would be better to be able to read/listen to the actual languages, translations and subtitles will have to do. Better than nothing, I suppose - it would be a much taller order for me to try and learn other languages. English and French are the only ones that I can comprehend - also a terribly ignorant way for a travel writer to be. No wonder I specialize in U.S. travel. :-)

Mira said...

Ink - an hour? Sheesh.

I think I have some papers to write in the fall....errrr....maybe we can work out a deal. ;-)

Anne, I agree, it's fun to connect. Writing is so solitary....we need translation through blogging!! (I fit it in to the piece. Ha!)

A misinterpreted wave said...

Ink, I really like this piece, and can relate to a few of your examples of language and literary works.

One of my main experiences is with internalised translations. That is I feel things inside me that I try to communicate to others. I've tried to paint them, but the connection isn't there. I never learnt an instrument, so can't use that medium, but I can write.

It is hard though, to get what is in my head out onto a piece of paper. Sometimes language is so limiting, the right words are just not there.

To answer your question, what do we gain from translation? I would say an insight into the translator. The original writer has to translate ideas, thoughts, feelings into something that others can understand, just as a translator needs to try an capture the essence of what is written. However, they offer their own version.

Thanks for sharing, and glad I found this through Nathan's blog :)

Ink said...

I admit, when I posted this I took out a couple superfluos lines. :) And the one I sent Nathan might have been missing a paragraph... ah, short deadlines. Motivation and bane all at once.

And there's a lot of great translations out there right now. I have a penchant for Japanese and African writers, as you can guess from the post. And some of the foreign writers will write in English, too, so you get the new stories without the intermediary of a translator. Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is a great example of this.

And I do think all writers, in a sense, are translators. I think we all have a vision of the stories clear in our head... and then there's the tricky task of trying to make these stories visible through the word, present them in a way that a reader can absorb at least a decent facsimile of our original vision. Difficult! Fun, though...

Livia said...

Hey Bryan, thanks for your answer on Nathan's blog!

Ink said...


No problemo.