Translation as performance [Archives:2006/950/Education]

May 29 2006

Dr. Jitendra Narayan Patnaik
Visiting Professor
Department of English
Faculty of Arts and Education
Sana'a University
[email protected]

In 1970, the American PEN had promulgated a manifesto on translation with a nine-point programme and a Bill of Rights. This manifesto not only recognizes the act of translation as essential to the future of mankind, but also laments the lack of recognition of the crucial role of translators in human affairs. The manifesto says:

Who knows the names of translators? Who cares? Yet the names deserve to be known and it is necessary that we should care about them. It is absurd that they should be relegated to their own private no-man's land, with no court of appeal and without recourse to the usual benefits reserved for authors. They are the proletarians of literature with nothing to lose but their chains.

The manifesto, in effect, pleads for professionalisation and institutionalisation of translation as a serious academic activity, and asserts, what Goethe seems to have remarked, that “Translation remains one of the most important, worthwhile concerns in the totality of world affairs.” The significance of this assertion is of course quite obvious. Much of what we have learnt about Greek, Latin and other literatures have been through translations. Today, the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Buddhist scriptures have been held in high esteem all over the world because they are accessible to the non-native readers through translations into English and European languages. Imagine the state of Christianity today if the onerous task of translating the Bible into English by the collaborative endeavour of fifty-six learned men had not taken place about three centuries ago!

Can a theory of translation explain all the problems involved in translating various types of texts? Can the act of translation be governed by a set of rules? There are texts that are informative and sources of knowledge. There are also literary texts, texts of imaginative cast. And among literary texts, there are varying degrees of difficulty in translation, depending on whether the text is a classical one with archaic words and expressions or is a modern one. Whether we are involved in translating a discursive, informative text or a literary text, what is obviously expected of us is an adequate command of vocabulary and syntactic patterns of both the source language and the target language to do justice to the act of translation. But despite competence in both the languages, it is not an easy task to translate even a discursive, informative text. Translating a text into another language might involve restructuring of syntactic patterns, coining new terminology for technical words and grappling with strange analogies. In ordinary day-to-day transactions, each language uses a large number of metaphors that pose great difficulty in translation. Think of translating expressions like 'warm reception', 'cold disdain' and 'bitter feelings' as well as such words as 'illuminating' and 'enlightening'!

Translation is essentially a linguistic activity, an exercise in linguistic transformation characterised by a “metaphoric” process of selecting and substituting one word for another and a “metonymic” process of putting words in context, of combining various linguistic elements together. The task of the translator is thus an intense search for similarity and contiguity that would eventually transmit a meaning through interaction of the lexical, syntactic and phraseological levels of the text.

While translating a literary text, the question of meaning is crucial. In non-literary discursive texts, the relationship between name and sense is more or less stable. But in a literary text, language is not only an instrument of communication, but its definitive component. How does one translate expressions like Donne's “loud perfume” (Elegy IV) or Milton's “blind mouths” (Lycidas: 119)? Literature uses a large number of stylistic devices that transcend the purely referential and communicative aspects of language.

A literary text is basically an aesthetic artifact and its translation into another language necessarily implies transference of its aesthetic quality into the target-language text. Is it possible? One is reminded of the oft-quoted French adage that the act of translation is like a woman either beautiful or faithful, never both. Aesthetic evocations are grounded in the culture of a society, in its beliefs, rituals and material practices. Can these culture-specific resources be transmitted into the term of another culture? Perhaps such transferences are not possible. It is perhaps not possible to translate culture. And so when we are translating a literary text, we are producing another verbal artifact, which is neither transmission nor translation, but transformation, regulated by the lexical and grammatical paradigms of an alien culture.

This transformation is analogous to the actor using the language of the playwright. What the playwright writes is not what the actor delivers on the stage. In translating the script into performance, the actor in effect provides to it a significance which is not perceptible in the graphic construct. The job of a translator of imaginative writing is strikingly similar. He confronts a text of written words in a particular language and transforms it into another text in terms of the lexical field of another language. The text in the source language is transformed into a text which is circumscribed by both the resources and constraints of the target language. The translator's performance, his text emanates from the script, the original text. But it is the performance which infuses meaning to the script. In other words, the translator of a literary text is involved in the problematics of inter-textuality with the source text getting implicated in the spatial and temporal complexities of culture embodied in the target language.

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Roland Barthes speaks of inter-textuality as the basic condition of any text whatsoever. The literary text is not merely a sequence of words releasing a singular meaning, but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of discourses blend and clash. As Roland Barthes puts it: “The reader is the space on which all the quotations that makeup a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”, (Newton 1997). The destination of a literary text is its reader, and a translator is basically a sensitive reader in whom the multiplicity of discourses is focused and who, in turn, re-writes these discourses in another language. A literary text offers multiple levels of signification and the perception of its significance largely depends on the translator's socio-cultural position, his choices and inclinations. The translated version of a literary text is, in this sense, an inter-text, and translating a literary text is indulgence in inter-textuality. Texts are perpetual productions in terms of responses by different readers, and thus translation of a literary text can never have a finality. Each translated version is only one of the infinite possibilities into which a literary text can be transformed by readers of different generations, tastes and preferences.

Translation is essentially a communicative activity that seeks to convey information or evoke an affective state of mind across linguistic and cultural domains. While one may consider translation as a science in the context of conveying messages and information, it is essentially an imaginative act when considered from linguistic and cultural points of view. Translation of a literary text is, indeed, a complicated and mysterious process that eludes clear-cut theoretical formulations about techniques, strategies and methodologies.

Work cited: Barthes, Roland.

“The Death of the Author”. Twentieth Century Literary Theory. Ed. K. M. Newton. London: Mac Millan, 1997