Thursday, December 6, 2007

Around Equivalence (in Translation)

At the end of this long post, I’m going to define “translating feministically.” Most people think that “feminism equals ___________,” and I’ll just risk losing readers who could care less.

But please hold on. Several in the blogosphere are discussing another issue, not unrelated (and I’ll link to those at the end of the post). I write mainly, here, on that other issue.

Here goes:

One huge issue for translators, perhaps the biggest, is equivalence. Does “pan” in Spanish equal “bread” in English? Does “pan” in English equal “Padella” in Italian? Does the Italian pun “traduttore, traditore” have a good equivalent in any other language? Is “Dynamic Equivalence” in translation theory equal to lesser forms of equivalence such as “Formal Equivalence” or “Literary Equivalence”? Does it all equal Greek to me?

For Aristotle, in the science of knowing things, equivalence was the first thing. Is the rock equal to the bird? No. Clearly one is inanimate and the other is an animal. But is the parrot equal to the sparrow? Yes. Both are animals; both are birds. But are these two birds equal? No. One is an expensive mimicker; the other is a cheap chirper. They are equal in class but not equal in order. (Are barbarians equal to Greeks; are women equal to men; are slaves equal to masters? Is a barbarian language equal to the Hellene? Is rhetoric equal to truth? Is a translation equal to the original?)

And, we could say, Aristotle’s essential principle of equivalence is equal to Noam Chomsky’s linguistic principle of equivalence. Chomsky IS equal to a linguistic scientist, we could add. So he asks these questions: Is a subject equal to a verb? No. The two different parts of speech have two different sets of features. Their features are, clearly, not equal. Is “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” the equivalent of a Sentence? In English, in terms of the feature of “grammatical,” the answer is Yes. In terms of the feature “meaningful,” the Sentence is not equal to a sentence. Are homo sapiens equal to other species? No. The feature of grammatical Sentence separates humans from other animals.

So, we humans might continue to ask equivalence questions:
Does Science equal Art?
Does linguistic Science equal linguistic Art?
Does translation Science equal translation Art?

To answer the first question above, Alan Lightman came to visit the university where I study and work. Lightman is an acclaimed scientist, whose textbooks have been used in our Physics department. Lightman is also an acclaimed artist, whose novels have been on bestseller lists. To be sure, Lightman the scientist is equal to Lightman the artist. But the same Lightman says this authoritatively: Science writing is not equivalent to Artist writing. Scientists play the equivalence game; they find the features of the thing and Name it. Scientists use their heads, says Lightman. In contrast, Artists play the belief game; they want those in the art gallery or in the concert hall or in the cozy chair in Barnes and Nobles with a Starbucks coffee in hand to suspend their own previously conceived categories. The artists want those appreciating their art to Unname, if you will. Artists use their hearts and their stomachs, says Lightman. Therefore, Science does not equal Art, when the contrastive feature or the essential difference is Writing.

Fair enough. But Lightman the Artist has a problem. Several of his novels have been translated into some 30 different languages. And I get to ask Dr. Lightman the question at the Q & A session: “If you could read the best translations of your novels [and before I can finish, he says he hasn’t], then would you expect the translators to have been Scientists or Artists? That is, should the translators use their heads and precisely name in the target language those words as equal to the source English words? Or should the translators be Artists who use their hearts and stomachs to unname the source English words as various different, not necessarily equal-in-form or equal-in-concept, target language words?”

How would you have answered this question? Lightman, without batting an eye, responds: “both.” It’s the correct answer, but he is saying, don’t you see, that he wants translators equally to be scientists and artists. As a scientist talking with us, he has to say Science is NOT equal to Art. But as an artist who wants his novels to be read, and appreciated, he believes he can say, with equal credulity, that Science IS equal to Art.

Can Lightman have his cake of Science-and-Art Difference but eat it as Equivalence too?
A good, pure scientist like Aristotle, would answer: NO!

(This might be equal to saying, “You can’t eat your cake and then have it too,” which is how I’d reverse the difficult saying to make more English sense. But, for Aristotle, I’d be playing and saying too much with language.)

For didn’t Aristotle warn us all of difficult sayings (in the Rhetoric, Book III, Chapter 5, Verse 6)?

ολως δε δει ευαναγνωστον ειναι το γεγραμμενον και ευφραστον:
εστιν δε το αυτο,
οπερ οι πολλοι . . . ουκ εχουσιν, . . . ωσπερ τα Ηρακλειτου
τα γαρ Ηρακλειτου . . . το αδηλον

What is written ought to be, on the whole, equally both easy reading and easy listening.
This is, in fact, an equivalence,
which much writing does not have, including the writings of Heraclitus.
For Heraclitus’s writing is unclear.

Now, to be clear, Aristotle is picking on the punctuation problems of Heraclitus. But we do remember other Heraclitean difficulties that are not the equivalent of easy reading and easy listening. Here’s the famous example (never mind Herclitus’s Greek writing itself or it’s bad punctuation):

“You cannot step into the same river twice.”

For translator Brooks Haxton, this is not equal to his translation. Haxton's translation goes like this:

The river
where you set
your foot just now
--is gone.
those waters giving way to this,
now this.

But Haxton is looking for English that is equal to the Greek. Fortunately, his publisher agrees to show Herclitus’s Greek side by side with Haxton’s English in Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. So Listen to Haxton write clearly (like a Scientist) in English about his translation choices:

“My rephrasing tries to clear away distractingly familiar language from a startling thought. It seems unlikely to my mind that the ancient authors who refer to this idea [such as Plutarch, translating it the now-familiar way] quote Heraclitus exactly” (page 96).

So listen again to Haxton wanting (like an Artist) for you the reader, the listener, to get a severe “startling.” Is Haxton really after exact equalness between the Greek quotation and some familiar English? No. If the punctuation problems distracted Aristotle’s eye, then the familiarity of language should not distract our ears. Rather, Haxton has to clear away certain equivalences in our heads, so that we also get something in our hearts and in our stomachs too.

There is a way around, or a way through, this huge issue of equivalence. I really do think it can be clear. I really do think Lightman is brilliant, that he can insist we use our heads and / or our hearts and / or our stomachs in translation. The crucial issue is personal perspective and willingness to change.

Let me say that again, just to be clear. The crucial issue is dynamic subjectivity.

Let me say that again three more times. Rather, in three different ways, let’s hear the same thing from Jacqueline Jones Royster and from Lydia He Liu and from Kenneth Lee Pike. I’ll paraphrase so that it’s me, not them, saying exactly what they say. They’ve changed me!

Royster writes an incredible history of black women in the United States. She entitles it, Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. (The same-stream-changing-stream allusion to Heraclitus here is purely accidental on my part). The incredible thing is Royster writes not only as a mainstream scholar but also as one of her own subjects, one of the literate, socially changing African American women in the traces of the stream of history. This book is equal in impact to one of Royster’s much shorter works, her article, “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” In the essay, Royster notes that many scholars of black women are not all black and not all women; and yet she argues that the subjective perspective is the only one that really counts if we are to talk across the different disciplines and / or to listen to those who are not necessarily scholars.

Lydia He Liu also writes social history, but of Chinese who have appropriated the modernism of the West. Her works include: Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China, 1900-1937 and The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations (Post-Contemporary Interventions) and The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern Worldmaking. One might say Liu’s research is the equivalent of post-colonial studies, but was China ever a colony of any Western empire? No. And Liu, who is Chinese writing in English in a superpower in the West, notes that the subjective history of the Chinese gives them much agency in deciding what is equal and what is lesser. Even Liu’s own conception of translation takes on this subjective perspective. She rejects the notion of “equivalence” as anything more than an imagined ideal in translation, in which the “target” language must be “equal to” the “source” language. Deconstructing this whole modern construct of objective “translation” and “equivalence,” Liu asks which language is to be favored? Thus, she reconstructs subjective “translingualism” in which the “host” language and the “guest” language do best by interacting together to effect change and permanence.

Kenneth Lee Pike discovers what it’s like to be an insider and an outsider. These two are not equal. And Pike says and demonstrates that either the subjective insider or the would-be objective outsider has varied perspectives. Personal perspective, says Pike, is not equal to calculating logic. No, person is above logic.

Pike has been reading creative and artsy and difficult scientists like Albert Einstein. First, such physicists observe that Light has the properties of a wave, as it travels in vibrating frequencies. Second, such scientists also observe that Light has the properties of particles, since it appears to have mass with its energy. Third, such physicists likewise observe that Light has properties relative the field of other things, to space and to time, and it helps us formulate and extrapolate useful notions like the Theory of Relativity. Fourth, such physicists say that subjective perspective (i.e., whether it’s wave or particle or field; and where one stands or rides) makes critical differences in the observer and in the observed. These three alternative perspectives on the properties of Light (i.e., wave or particle or field) are not equal perspectives. And the subjective perspective of the scientist, whichever is chosen, actually changes the scientist.

In Pike’s terms, the “emic” insider perspective and the “etic” outsider perspective are not equal. To become an insider, one has to change. And one really can learn.

(Wave: “Green” is not equal to “blue” in my English until it’s “xanh” in my Vietnamese; or a fading “green” is what has been happening to my socks as the color is getting washed out over time. Particle: “Green” is the color that my roommate in college could not see on the squares of his red and green plaid shirt; he is colorblind. Field: “Green” socks do not go with those pants, Dad – is what my children sometime have to tell me kindly, because I am fashion-blind. By starting as an outsider, a Vietnamese learner of English can learn “green,” and a college roommate can mark the corresponding “green” checks, and I can work on being less nerdy with style of dress. The real fun or the real disturbing thing, depending on your perspective, is that my observing changes me. Your observing changes you. Pike the linguist, and his colleagues, Richard E. Young the rhetorician and Alton L. Becker a linguist and teacher of freshman rhetoric, certainly understood this when they co-wrote Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. None of the three ever looked at his own specialization again without reconsidering it or himself in light of the others.)

The crucial issue is dynamic subjectivity. Whether any two things are equal (in dynamic equivalence or otherwise) is always subject to what the person holds them to be. And to let go of that hold is -- invariably, humbly, ambiguously -- to discover and to change.

Translating feministically is discovery and change. It is to name (as a scientist might), but to name such unnamed things as misogyny and slavery. It is to mark the subjective positions of all going inside or out. It is to be part of the we who hold these truths to be equal, that all men and women are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. It is to regard (as an artist might) the body, as the embodiment of my beliefs, those things I can’t help but believe because of my body. It is to imagine my language and the language of other’s I’m translating as carried metaphorically by where my heart goes, where my mind goes, where my soul goes, where my strength goes. It is to care for the other’s language as equally as I care for my own.

Related conversations:

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