Friday, October 19, 2007

Willis Barnstone on (Y)OUR Translation Approach

I have tried to chart--reductively, yet perhaps clearly--basic principles and problems of translation [on pages 25-29], suggesting a few variations in this connecting maze. Precisely because of the interconnections of these principles and problems, because, as in all literary theory, science and art merge, there will always be controversy renewing the art, confusion leaving it in darkened labyrinths, and illumination resolving its enigmas dogmatically. Absolutes may be proclaimed, but those absolutes will soon be translated into other absolutes. And although people will try to impose a single way, there can never be one conquering normative approach to translation.

In this study the translation paradigms will strongly depend on two early sources: translation of the Bible, with its frequent goal of literalism and absolute fidelity, asserted but rarely practiced; and classical translation, with its free-minded Roman poets and rhetoricians who chose to re-create, to paraphrase Greek letters into their Latin tongue. The Roman method was to dominate the practice, if not the pretensions, of secular translation from the Middle Ages, when antiquity strongly re-entered the West, until the early twentieth century.

The two paragraphs above are from page 29 of Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice. Clearly, he’s outlining approaches to translation and is noting two early and rather persistent approaches: “Bible translation” and “Roman translation of Greek poetry and rhetoric.”

Barnstone translates both the Bible and Greek poetry and rhetoric. But I suspect Bible translators are more reluctant to include him in their society of Bible translators although, I think, Barnstone fairly understands their concerns.

I’d like to see Bible translators and Greek classicists and Greek rhetoricians today talk more together about our approaches. Can we muse about whether we’re rather dogmatic, for instance? Might we be brave enough to confess our translation-approach lineage? Could we find ourselves on Willis’s chart? Here’s the abbreviated version from page 25:

  1. Register, or translation level

a) literalism

b) middle ground

c) license

  1. Structure, or degree of source text in translation

a) retaining structure of source text in target text

b) naturalizing structure of source text in target text

c) abandonment of original structure and creation of new one

  1. Authorship, or dominant voice

a) retaining voice of source language author in target language

b) yielding voice of source language author to translator’s voice in target language

(And Barnstone sidesteps what most translators of most approaches sidestep: the absence of women in our histories of translation. But that's another discussion.)

10 comments:

John said...

I am probably between a) and b) in all three categories. I like to retain where possible, but I'm getting better at asking: but does retention create an equivalent rhetorical effect?

I want to be firmly in 3. a). That's an asymptotic goal.

ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com

Peter Kirk said...

I would go for 1 b); 2 b); 3 I'm not sure what is meant here, in principle a) if this is not about retaining source language structural features.

J. K. Gayle said...

In the post above, I've linked to books.google.com's view into Barnstone's pages. That might not be easily accessible to all.

Peter:
3 I'm not sure what is meant here, in principle a) if this is not about retaining source language structural features.

Here's a bit more from Barnstone on 3 (in his expanded outline / comment on pp 29-9):

"3. Authorship
a) retaining voice of source language author in target language
i. translation in the service of the author, who remains primary
ii. voice of the original author remains as intact as possible
iii. voice of the translator is suppressed (in deference to author)

b) yielding voice of source language author to translator's voice in target language
i. translation in the service of the translator, who becomes primary
ii. voice of the translator is dominant
iii. voice of the original author is overcome by the voice of the translator

As in the issue of the authority of the original structure and language, we may suppose that the translator who fully respects the original authorial voice in the source text would take a position with the literalists, or at best with those on the middle ground. The translator who takes up the baton and plays his or her own composition, however, must be with the licentious imitators in b3. But it is not necessarily so. As in our discussion of reproduction of source structure, there are conflicting points of view, with the result that a translator may very well fully disregard source structure in favor of native, yet just as fully suppress his or her own voice."

Hope that helps. If we're still not clear, I'll email Dr. Barnstone to ask him what we need to know.

Richard A. Rhodes said...

Unfortunately, I have a problem with this approach to classifying translations. If forced, I'd have to say I "favor" 1.c) license, 2. c) abandonment of original structure, but 3. a) retain the voice of the author.

The problem to me is that you do what you have to do to make the translation sound to target language speakers the way the original sounded to the original language speakers, whatever that entails. Questions about wording and structure are simply irrelevant.

When languages are as close as Greek and English, there is a lot of structural overlap, and even wording overlaps. This deceives us into thinking that literalness or structural equivalence mean something.

Try translating from Ojibwe sometime. Attempting to match wording or structure is a fool's errand.

It's not an accident that most of the folks on Better Bibles Blog speak languages that are linguistically very, very different from Greek or English.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I would evaluate my preferences as 1a, 2b, and 3a. That pretty much explains why I use the ESV these days. (Despite the ESV's gender exclusivity — they could have made at least half an effort to do better!)

I am also intrigued by John Hobbins's remark about not leveling the literary qualities of the source texts. I would be interested in reading a translation that comes closer to John's ideal. Does Alter's translation of the Penteteuch manage to use different literary styles for different genres within the Penteteuch?

I prefer translations which aren't the work of any one translator … but translation by committee probably leads to the dreaded leveling. As ever, round and round we go!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

p.s. Some day, I'm going to master the spelling of "Pentateuch".

J. K. Gayle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. K. Gayle said...

I’m going to qualify this, but my strong preferences are for 1a (literal register), 2a (structure of source text in target), and 3a (voice of source text author in target). With you, John (and Stephen), I couldn’t agree more with the caution about not “leveling the literary qualities of the source texts.” Hence my ostensibly conservative leanings towards the register, structure, and author voice of the source.

And yet I agree with you, Rich, (with your opposite “favor”ings on 1 & 2 mainly because of your preference for 3a). Here’s why. The source (whether Greek or Ojibwe) always requires interpretation, and always has what C.S. Lewis labels “second meanings.” Kenneth Pike calls this “N-dimensionality.” Others call it “word play,” which delightfully ambiguously is both playfulness and also wiggle room, whether the source author intends that or not. The author’s voice varies radically, as does her or his register and structure. The native listener or reader (and native or foreign translator) has to “hold onto” the rigid restraints of quality of the author in register, structure, and voice.

I also agree and disagree with you, Rich, about something else here. First the agreement. Like you, “I have a problem with this approach to classifying translations.” It’s so Aristotelian, isn’t it? And Barnstone’s pigeon-holing, his own tagmetics (my neologism) forces him rightly to hedge as “reductively, yet perhaps clearly,” going after a description of current practices rather than a prescriptive grid. Pike would regularly muse aloud to his students about whether phonetics and IPA and such was a kind of emics. I think he’s on to something: Aristotle’s forceful method (like “etics” as “emics” and a binary Chomskean approach) leaves a lot out of what persons do with language.

I much prefer Lydia He Liu’s conception of translation as appropriation or translingualism: in which “source” and “target” are refigured as “guest” and “host” only “equivalents” in our “neologistic imaginations.” (I conveniently label that non-Aristotelian and “feminist.”) And I appreciate what you must do with Ojibwe and what others at Better Bibles Blog grapple with beyond English like Greek.

But I disagree “that you do what you have to do to make the translation sound to target language speakers the way the original sounded to the original language speakers.” A case in point is what bilingual English/ Cherokee writer Elias Boudinot/ Gala-
gi?-na Watie does by translating differently for English and for Cherokee readers. He seems to use his translations (even translations of the Bible from Greek) to appropriate Christianity much differently for the people of the Cherokee Nation than the European American missionaries conceived. (Pequot William Apess has similar kinds of appropriations). Here’s some research on that: http://staff.tcu.edu/kgayle/essays/talking.notes.handout.links.htm

Going back to Greek, it’s the stability and the evolution of the language, from Homer, Hesiod, and Sappho, through the New Testament texts, that’s interesting. It’s how very differently classicists and rhetoricians and Bible translators approach Greek in translation that seems unnecessary. I think we should learn from one another. Sincere thanks for the dialogues!

Richard A. Rhodes said...

J. K. Gayle said...

I’m going to qualify this, but my strong preferences are for 1a (literal register), 2a (structure of source text in target), and 3a (voice of source text author in target). … And yet I agree with you, Rich, (with your opposite “favor”ings on 1 & 2 mainly because of your preference for 3a).

Kurk,
I think there is a tendancy for people to get themselves into trouble because they're educated and they think that means they know things about the nature of language. But almost all such notions are, in actuality, deeply mistaken. One of these assumptions is that structures are 1) meaningful, and 2) universal in some way, and that if you carefully maintain as much of the structure as possible you will have a translation that is more accurate in some way. But the problem is this, the kinds of meanings that are expressed structurally are, for the most part quite subtle. Structures mostly tell you how pieces of a text fit together, and the principles of text organization vary dramatically from language family to language family. (This is one of the big ways related languages a similar – note I’m saying similar, not the same.) It’s exactly this familial similarity that deceives us into thinking that we can translate from Greek structure into parallel English structure and somehow retain more of the original meaning. Nothing could be further from the truth.
And BTW the position that there is a meaningful notion of literal register is logically incoherent. This was the point of my post from last year on translating Ἰουδαῖοι as the Jews.

But I disagree “that you do what you have to do to make the translation sound to target language speakers the way the original sounded to the original language speakers.” A case in point is what bilingual English/ Cherokee writer Elias Boudinot/ Gala-gi?-na Watie does by translating differently for English and for Cherokee readers. He seems to use his translations (even translations of the Bible from Greek) to appropriate Christianity much differently for the people of the Cherokee Nation than the European American missionaries conceived. (Pequot William Apess has similar kinds of appropriations). Here’s some research on that: http://staff.tcu.edu/kgayle/essays/talking.notes.handout.links.htm

This makes my head spin. You say that you disagree with the notion that the translator does what a translator has to do to make the translation sound to the target audience the way it sounded to the original audience, and then cite a case which I would say shows exactly what I mean by saying that. (I’ll have to post on this point sometime.)

J. K. Gayle said...

Dear Richard,
You are more educated than I. So I think I hear what you’re saying. There is a tendency for people because they’re educated in a particular area to disparage other people who see the same things differently through a different lens. For the educated, there can be these troubling notions of the others as having “actual, deeply mistaken” naïveté or illogical misdirection (whether by faulty assumptions or incoherence). We linguists tend to carry this against each other (for example, when a Pikean – not many of us around these days – might accuse a Chomskyan for sitting in the armchair of education far too often). But we English studies types (whether compositionists, literary critics, literacy studies scholars, or rhetoricians) tend to disparage linguists especially when misunderstanding them as mere structuralists. And we rhetoricians like to think of the more prominent philosophers as being stuck with mere rhetoric and being too smart to recognize it. Moreover, we feminists, getting tired of being mislabeled and misunderstood, will occasionally pretend like we’re one of the more educated people in our academic agonism and will forget the personal nature of language. If boundaries of disciplinary space don’t get us in trouble, then notions of our specialization’s firm history will; no educated person likes Derridean desconstruction when post-modern time aint on our side.

If that in general doesn’t make your head spin, then an example offered, in particular, that seems to deconstruct itself will rev things up more. Rich, I do get (at least) one point from your post last year. The assumption is out there, and the argument coherent. There, you emphasize:

“Because no two languages are alike, telling people what's actually there can be every bit as misleading as putting something in that doesn't appear in the original. What looks the same can be mean something quite different.”

And that’s my point about the very educated Elias Boudinot: he was misleading maybe unwittingly misleading (because his English-only readers got one thing; his Cherokee-only readers got another thing altogether; but his [Greek-]English-Cherokee readers with him as author understood his language act in translation). It’s the interlation or the stereotexting that the educated Mikhail Epstein talks about. The structure (Boudinot’s and Epstein’s) in their language exists in the heads of the “insiders.” This is what makes the educated Kenneth Pike so clever. He talks about “talked about reality,” (and other neo-tagmemicists so long ago about “psychological reality”), for what other kind is there? But talk comes from directions at least: the insider’s (“emic”) perspectives, and the outsider’s (“etic”) perspective. Then there’s this weird warp of structures that persons (“persons above logic”) make: the structure can be like a particle or like a wave or like a field. We know this stuff, and an educated George Lakoff (living by metaphors) would say for some insiders it’s like women and fire and dangerous things (although Lakoff always must translate into English from Dyirbal, using these untranslatable “outsider” and always “more educated” structures).

So let me confess: my education level rarely rises above either the literal register of Goldilocks or the structure of the letter “A” although I’m a “man” created equal. (May this spare me from that structuralism of the meaningful and universal sort. Check me on my children’s Goldilocks in an earlier post).

Really, it’s head-spinning to me have to describe that original structure of the letter A to ESL students in class (or to get my ESL teacher colleagues to say what IS the original, with respect to the shape of that first unit of the alphabet; sometimes, I’ll ask them: “in American English in 2007, how would you convey the structure of the letter “a.”). But, you see, I’ve already used several different structures here: at least “A.” and “a.” but also /A/ and /in A/. If I wrote by hand, then every time it’s a different structure. If I used a different font, then it’s a different structure altogether. If change the font size or color, then it’s again a different structure. But somehow native English speakers and educated outsiders “get” the radically relative but rigidly restrained “structure of the letter A.” (We don’t even have to get into a literacy and orality debate yet, although the phonetics and phonemics of A are just as fun.)

And, a “man” created equal. What educated men came up with that language? “all men” not the least of which follow a good man’s “law of leasts.” “We” “hold” are weird structures in English. “These truths” sounds so structured. “to be” so ontological or Shakespearean and (ugh) literary. “self evident” now there’s pre-educated assumptive logic. But “we” might remember that “we” comes first, above structure and before logic. “and are endowed by” in passive voice structure. We haven’t even brought in theology yet; “their Creator” and “with” plus more leasts: “certain in-alien-able rights”. And men and women with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both educated and uneducated, have the sentimental audacity to declare “all men” to be of equal American and English language structure with “all men and women.” Then Abraham Lincoln stretches the “all men” structure further on a bloodied battle field. Then Martin Luther King Jr. brings in “color” in a letter from a jail. How does insiders and outsiders “hold” structure in language?

I look forward to reading your next post on this.

Sincerely,
Kurk