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.

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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.

Books about Reunion and worldwide literature

A recent exchange with Ann Morgan, who’s currently reading her way round the world, got me thinking about Reunion Island books in English. As far as I’m aware, with the exception of ‘Bourbon Island 1730’, the list I came up with contains only books that I have been written directly in English and not translated. In fact as far as I know there are no English translations of books by well-known Reunionese authors like Daniel Vaxelaire or Axel Gauvin, although the latter’s books have been translated into German.

Books about Reunion I haven’t read myself (but which are all on my Bookmooch wish list!):

  • Reunion: An Island in Search of an Identity by Laurent Medea
  • Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Metissage by Françoise Verges
  • Island Born Of Fire: Volcano Piton de la Fournaise by Dr Robert B. Trombley
Cover of

Bourbon Island 1730

Books I’ve read myself:

I’ve written reviews of all of the books above.

Also: Bonnes Vacances!: A Crazy Family Adventure in the French Territories by Rosie Millard which is about a 4-month tour of the DOM-TOMs Rosie made with her husband and four young children to film a documentary series for the Travel Channel (“Croissants in the Jungle”). Its final chapter covers Réunion (briefly); see my review here.

In the introduction I mentioned Ann Morgan who is currently reading her way around as many of the globe’s 196 independent countries as she can, sampling one book from every nation. (She’s also recently included a Rest of The World wildcard section, hence our exchange about Reunion Island). However as she asked herself: what counts as a story? Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state? While in some respects she’s still answering that question she had to lay down her terms and so decided to limit herself to all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own e.g. memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage, but not non-narrative poetry and plays.

It got me wondering about which countries I’d already read literature from, and after a quick tour of my bookshelves (and my memory!) this is the (non-exhaustive) list I came up with, in English and French:

Cover of

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

  • Canada – Where White Horses Gallop – Beatrice McNeil [Author/Setting]
  • Central African Republic – Princesse aux Pieds Nu – Evelyne Durieux [Author/Setting]
  • Burma – The Piano Tuner – Daniel Mason [Setting; Author is British]
  • China (Yunnan) – Leaving Mother Lake: A Childhood at the Edge of the WorldYang Erche Namu [Author/Setting]
  • Czech Republic – L’Insoutenable légèreté de l’être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] – Milan Kundera [Author/Setting]
  • Cuba – Our Man In Havana – Graham Greene [Setting; Author was British]
  • Democratic Republic of Congo – The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver [Setting; Author is American]
  • Denmark (& Greenland) – Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow – Peter Høeg [Author/Setting]
  • Egypt – Woman at Point Zero – Nawal El Saadawi (translated by Sherif Hetata) [Author/Setting]
  • French Polynesia (Tahiti) – Breadfruit: A Novel – Célestine Hitiura Vaite [Author/Setting] [August 2014 – I read the French translation L’Arbre à Pain by Henri Theureau]
  • Germany – The Book Thief – Markus Zusak [Setting; Author is Australian]
  • Haiti – Island Beneath the Sea – Isabel Allende (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) [Setting; Author is Chilean American]
Cover of

“Island Beneath the Sea”

Samarcande

Notes:

  • I’ve arbitrarily excluded the UK, France and the USA as I’ve read so many books from these countries I’d have trouble choosing just one!
  • If I’ve read several books from a country I’ve generally just listed my favourite.
  • I’ve also taken liberties by listing some non-independent regions (e.g. Rodrigues, Hawaii, Tibet, Tromelin).
  • I excluded some books (such as Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, or William Boyd’s African novels) that take place in unidentified countries.
  • I also excluded books (such as Elie Wiesel’s Night) whose action takes place in several countries.
  • If I’ve read a book in French but an English translation exists I’ve added the English title in brackets [].
  • I’ve included books not written by natives of the country in question.

My conclusions:

  • I have vast swathes of the planet where I haven’t read any literature from, for example South America or the Pacific! Places like South East Asia or Central Asia are patchy too. Although I list Paul Coelho and Isabel Allende the books of theirs that I read were not set in their native countries. And despite living and travelling for three years in Asia I’ve mainly read Korean books (North and South) but very little from the many other countries we travelled to in the region. I need to broaden my horizons even more.

What about you? Do you enjoy reading books from other countries? Do you have any books to recommend? Is literature from your native (or adopted) country easy to find in English?

P.S. Here’s the link to Ann Morgan’s blog: A Year Of Reading The World. Other reading around the world blogs I’ve come across are: Reading the WorldThe Rushlight ListWorld Lit Up and Around the World in 180 books (specialised in children’s literature).

You might also like: A few books with linguists as characters.

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“.