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.