Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Texan Fixin to Translate Theory

Ah’m fixin’ ta do some fence mendin’ cuz Ah mighta slapped a man or two while they was chewin’ tobacco. (For us Texans, that’s the English translation equivalent to “Soon I need to write a post of apology to some friends.”) The spaghetti sauce one of em was waiting for is in need of a little stirrin first. And another one of ‘em emailed me to doublecheck the recipe. That’s all Ah’m intendin’ here. For now anyways

--J. K. Gayle

What should we Anglo-centric people do when we’re accused of being, . . . , well, when we’re accused of being “anglo-centric”? I’ve said that Karen H. Jobes says that “the evangelical debates” over two differerent sorts of Bible translation have been “Anglo-centric.” And Steven J. Willett has said that Lawrence Venuti says “that Anglo-American translation theory has been dominated since the seventeenth century by the conviction that the translator should so efface himself, so conceal the labor of transference from source to target language, that the translated text reads as if it had been originally written in the target language.”

Jobes and Willett want us to go beyond the debates and beyond the domination. So do I. Given the presumption that something Anglo(-American) is the cause, can we speculate what that something might be? I hope so.

Jobes offers up “simultaneous interpretation of a bilingual quotation” as a kind of metaphor for a different methodology for Bible translation (without sacrificing any of the noble aims of either “dynamic equivalence” or “formal equivalence”). Willett suggests “foreignizing” as another metaphor, in order “to prevent the translation from supplanting the original, something a highly transparent version can easily do in a monolingual society like the United States.” Both Jobes and Willett are professional translators, and professors, so we expect them to practice what they profess. But there are others.

Vicente L. Rafael uses another metaphor for translation, the metaphor of “war.” Yes, you guessed it. That’s not good. The bad, says Rafael, is when translation serves “as an instrument of domination under colonial rule,” which “tends to promote linguistic hierarchy.” The absolutely horrible, says Rafael, is when the translator is a “terp,” an interpreter in a war, who must move “between languages and societies” while being “exiled from both” as “neither native nor foreign, but both at the same time,” with an “uncanny identity” that “triggers recurring crisis among all sides,” so that “it is a power that also constitutes their profound vulnerability.” Now, just as Jobes and Willett are not simply theorizing, neither is Rafael. No, he’s looking back at the ugly histories of the Anglo colonizers and in the news briefs of the current American government.

President Bush, for example, has asked the U.S. government to sponsor the training and recruitment of translators. Speaking to a gathering of university presidents at a conference sponsored by the State Department, to promote the $114 National Security Language Initiative, the President says: “In order to convince people we care about them, we’ve got to understand their culture and show them we care about their culture. You know, when somebody comes to me and speaks Texan, I know they appreciate Texas culture. When somebody takes time to figure out how to speak Arabic, it means they’re interested in somebody else’s culture.”

Rafael explicates.

Unlike the “somebody” who sets aside his or her first language in order to speak “Texan,” and so shows appreciation for Texans, this other somebody, for example, “intelligence officers,” learns Arabic or Farsi because he or she is interested only in the content of the other’s speech, listening for that “something” that could be anything, but might also be just the thing from which “we,” as non-Arabic and non-Farsi speakers need to be protected. In this case, translation occurs not in order to welcome and care but precisely to ensure us that the other stays where it belongs. . .

[T]ranslation is also a medium for hearing as well as overhearing what others say even if they did not mean to say it. It is in this sense a kind of instrument of surveillance with which to track and magnify the alienness of alien speech, decoding dangers, containing threats, and planning for interventions. Rather than dwell in the hospitality of the other, translation in this latter sense is unfaithful to the original, seeking to put the other in its putative place, apart from the self. Bush’s view on the learning of foreign languages, however crudely phrased, reflects a certain idea about translation that has a long history. Since the Spanish conquest and religious conversion of the native peoples of the New World and the Pacific, various projects of translation have always accompanied, enabled, and at certain moments disabled the spread of empire. As with the Spanish empire, so with the United States.

Of course, Rafael could have brought up the Roman empire, or Alexander the Great’s global domination. He’s talking, however, to English speakers, to the Anglo-Ameri-centric. This Texan hears him.

Can translation be better? Jobes and Willett work for that. And Rafael also says, Yes:

[When learning to translate in better ways,] one is required to recognize the singularity of each idiom, for example,Texan or Arabic, that makes one distinct from and irreducible to the other. It is for this very reason that speaking the other’s language necessarily means deferring to it, giving it primacy, and thereby keeping one’s own out of mind. . . It opens up a passage to the other in all its otherness, drawing near what at the same time will always remain far. Faithful to the original, it thus allows for the appreciation of and care for the foreigner whose very foreignness becomes an element of oneself.

Rafael is imagining what is realized. Lydia H. Liu, for instance, has studied the Chinese appropriations of the Anglo-Ameri-Euro-centric world as carefully as anyone has. She observes that “one does not translate between equivalents; rather, one creates tropes of equivalence in the middle zone of translation between the host and guest languages. This middle zone of hypothetical equivalence, which is occupied by neologistic imagination, becomes the very ground for change.”

That reminds me how an anonymous translator of sorts has helped out those of us who have picked up George A. Kennedy’s anglo-centric Comparative Rhetoric from the library here at Texas Christian University. In the margins of page 143 are penciled two Simplified Chinese characters to compare with the American author’s English (and his transcribed pinyin) for a couple of terms. But by page 162, the comparative scrawlings have stalled. How in Chinese writing is one to do justice to Kennedy’s English and Western perspectives here (on the topic of Chinese rhetoric). The Anglo-centric author writes: “The . . . author of a Chinese work that most approximates a rhetorical handbook was Han Fei-tzu, probably born about 280BCE, ‘the Machiavelli of ancient China’”? Well then. How does our Chinese translator translate that, if using penciled in marginalia, ephemeral simplified Chinese characters? There's stunning silence, of course. For might not a Chinese comparative rhetorician (because our anglo author won't) have to venture, rather, that Niccolo Machiavelli might have been the Han Fei-tzu of Italy?

And didn’t Machiavelli learn from Marco Polo who learned from the Chinese how to cook spaghetti? Ah’m still dealin’ right here in other folks’ translation theory. A friend wants me more cogently to illustrate (afra)feminist translation and how different it is. It aint much different from Jobes’s or Willett’s or Rafael’s (peaceful), or Liu’s theories and practices in translation. Then if Ah’m still too poor to paint the fences, Ah wont be too proud to whitewash ‘em.

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