Translation-treason conference

I recently attended a two-day conference at the University of Reunion on the theme of “Translation-treason: translation in multilingual and multicultural contexts.” Local and mainland French University professors and PhD students presented a variety of papers, and there were debates after every session.


Conference poster

In the first presentation Prof. Bernard Terramorsi compared the 1920s translation of a traditional Malagasy story: Roze manan draza fia (literally “those who have fish ancestors”) with a more recent (2010) translation. The 1924 translation was carried out by a Lutheran pastor, and Prof. Terramorsi showed how – consciously or unconsciously – the pastor’s western and conservative mindset led to mistranslations, in particular concerning the main character of the story who is an ampela manana’isa or ‘woman with gills’, and not a ‘mermaid’ (sirène) or ‘nymph’ (nymphe) as he translated into French.

This was followed by a paper by Patrice Uhl about the difficult translation of the arabic sequence in the Vth song by the troubadour William IX, and then “The respective affinities of German and French in fictive descriptions” by PhD student Sylvia Boyer. Anca Andreea Braescu Chetrariu gave an interesting presentation about the prolific French to Romanian translator Irina Mavrodin. Prof. Gwenhaël Ponnau then talked about re-translations. Why do we re-translate literature? Is it to erase a past translation/translator, whom we are opposed to? Can it be likened to a ‘competition’ between translators? How easy is it to retranslate a “canonical” translation? And is the most recent translation always the best?

13-century miniature of William IX

13-century miniature of William IX

I devoted a separate blog post to Georges Latchimy’s presentation axed on his personal translation of “Los Traductores” by Antonio Muñoz, which you can read here (in French). Next, Hajasoa Picard-Ravololonirina talked about structuralist descriptions of the Malagasy language, followed by Prof. Marie Brunette Spire who talked about (mis)translations in the first English to French translations of Israel Zangwill‘s Children of the Ghetto. She examined how linguistic and/or cultural ignorance as well as an ideological filter and conscious or unconscious prejudices can distort a text’s original meaning. Children of the Ghetto describes Jewish life, and some of the mistranslations she cited are translating ‘skullcap’ by bonnet; ‘minister’ by Ministre, and ‘best coat’ by veste de dimanche. The first day’s final paper was “Miss a word, change the world” by Laurence Gouaux-Rabasa, which coincidentally examined a somewhat similar theme to that of Prof. Spire: how Hinduism is expunged from the French translations of Indian-origin authors writing in English. She gave examples from Où irons-nous cet été ? the translation by Anne-Cécile Padoux of Where Shall We Go This Summer? by Anita Desai, and asked whether this negation is deliberate, or the result of an overly-superficial reading of the source text by the translator.

English: Israel Zangwill עברית: ישראל זנגוויל

Israel Zangwill

Work commitments meant that I missed the first two papers of the second day, which were “Comparable corpora and aligned corpus – A contrastive English ↔ French approach” by Issa Kanté and a study by Christine Pic-Gillard of  how Guarani and Spanish are (supposed to be) used bilingually in Paraguay. I arrived in time for Jean Volsan and Prof. Jean-Philippe Watbled’s presentation about translating the New Testament into Reunion Creole. They raised the valid point of language hierarchy – why are some languages seen as linguistically richer or nobler than others? Although Jesus didn’t speak Reunion Creole, he didn’t speak French or English either, so there is no reason for a translation into one of the latter languages to be superior to a Creole translation. Is the current situation of ‘Reunion Creole vs French’ perhaps similar to that of  ‘French vs Latin’ in the Middle Ages? Continuing the Creole theme in the afternoon Evelyne Adelin and Mylène Lebon-Eyquem looked at the use of Reunion Creole in the classroom. They showed that teachers need to translate French ↔ Creole in order for the two languages to be recognised as distinct.

Prof. Claude Brissac-Feral looked at the interpreting during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and whether it betrayed the victims’ commitments and sacrifices. Given the great discrepancy between the emotions of the witnesses and those interpreting them, how much of the impact was lost in interlingual rendition? Nathalie Peyrebonne gave a presentation on title translation – while it is part of a book’s main identity, it also often the text that is the least faithfully translated. Finally Prof. Michel Prum wondered whether “Traddutore, traditore” is a paronomasia for the French translations of Charles Darwin‘s work. Darwin’s first French translator, Clémence Royer, was a Lamarckian and thus ‘Natural Selection’ became Election naturelle. Translators Jean-Jacques Moulinié and Edmond Barbier also changed certain sentences that they found to be too radical.

Clémence Royer, 1865

Clémence Royer, 1865

While highly academic and often far removed from my day-to-day preoccupations as a professional business translator, the conference was nevertheless very interesting and thought-provoking, in particular concerning the issues of retranslation, language hierarchy, and mistranslation arising from cultural prejudice.

Taking turns conference

Translation-related events on Reunion Island are sufficiently rare for me to get excited about whatever comes my way – I can’t afford to be fussy!

Which is why one recent Saturday morning I found myself with a few dozen other people in an amphitheatre of the Faculty of Letters and Humanities of the local University for a “journée d’étude” (literally a “study day”, but this was actually only a half-day), called Le Tournant Traductologique, literally ‘the Turn in Translation Studies‘.

Organised by the Centre de Recherches Littéraires et Historiques de l’Océan Indien (CRLHOI; Indian Ocean Centre for Literary and Historical Research), the introduction was enough to put off the most faint-hearted:

“Indissociable du tournant pragmatique en sciences du langage, le tournant traductologique s’opère au moment où les théories et méthodes de traduction visent une modélisation sémiotique des transferts culturels au lieu de se cantonner aux opérations de transfert d’un texte d’une langue dans une autre. Ce changement coïncide avec l’ouverture du champ épistémologique de la traduction à l’ensemble des sciences humaines. L’accélération du phénomène dans les années 1980 s’explique en bonne partie par les effets de la mondialisation sur les modes de communication et sur les diversités culturelles. La traduction joue alors un rôle crucial dans le rapprochement des hommes, l’échange des savoirs et des cultures. Or, l’idée du progrès et de la pacification de l’humanité à travers la médiation de l’altérité n’est pas propre à l’époque contemporaine, mais elle prend racine au XIXe siècle en Allemagne. La réflexion suivante de Wilhelm von Humboldt résume en quelques mots la problématique à laquelle sera consacrée notre journée d’études : « Tant que l’on ne sent pas l’étrangeté, mais l’étranger, la traduction a rempli son but suprême. »”
Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Wilhelm von Humboldt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

{Inseparable from the pragmatic turn in linguistics, the turn in translation studies occurs when the theories and methods of translation aim for a semiotic modelling of cultural transfers instead of being confined to transferring text from one language to another. This change coincides with the opening of the epistemological field of translation to all of the humanities. The acceleration of this phenomena in the 1980s can largely be explained by the effects of globalisation on patterns of communication and cultural diversity. Consequently translation plays a crucial role in bringing mankind together, and in exchanging knowledge and culture. But the idea of progress and pacification of humanity through the mediation of otherness is not unique to modern times, but is rooted in 19th century Germany. The following reflection by Wilhelm von Humboldt briefly summarises the problems on which our day of study will focus: “As long as one does not feel the foreignness, yet does feel the foreign, translation has reached its highest goal”.} *

The morning’s programme

Participants were mainly doctoral candidates at the University, as well as several university professors.

For me one of the most interesting presentations was actually the first, by Laurence Gouaux, a critique of Rani Mâyâ’s French translation of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni‘s “Queen of Dreams” as it covered ‘my’ languages (French and English) and had an accompanying written document.

All in all a half day very different from my typical morning as a translator; very intellectual, but it allowed me to take an in-depth look at translation, and that can’t be a bad thing.

* The rest of the quotation continues: “but where foreignness appears as such, and more than likely even obscures the foreign, the translator betrays his inadequacy”. Taken from the introduction to Humboldt’s translation of Aeschylus‘s ‘Agamemnon‘ from the Greek. In German: “Solange nicht die Fremdheit, sondern das Fremde gefühlt wird, hat die Uebersetzung ihre höchsten Zwecke erreicht; wo aber die Fremdheit an sich erscheint, und vielleicht gar das Fremde verdunkelt, da verräth der Uebersetzer, dass er seinem Original nicht gewachsen ist“.