David Bellos, translator and teacher of French and Comparative literature at Princeton University, suggests that translation is another name for the human condition, a statement that proposes that the act of translation is inherent in the experience of living and learning. He makes this claim in reference to the elements of misconception and categorisation that at times inundate translation. Putting it forward as an act that is ever present and involved throughout other disciplines, this essay seeks to explore translation as a process useful to many subjects. The essay first addresses the role of translation and proceeds to examine the benefits of adapting translational activities in schools, suggesting means of using translation in teaching and concluding with an exploration of translation as onus.
Keywords: translation—poetry—teaching—creative writing—languages—learning
(T)he practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different—we speak different tongues and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life. Translation is another name for the human condition. (David Bellos 2011: 324)
Behind the name
If we take Bellos’ claim regarding translation as a synonym for the human condition, it is interesting to consider the ways in which translation is encountered. As a school subject it tends to be available at university level where it is linked to language learning or the profession of interpreting. ‘Translate’ and ‘interpret’ are two different words across many languages (Arabic, Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, Sanskrit, to name a few) rendering the crafts as two separate disciplines that involve different skill sets. They are crafts with a seemingly evident result; that of the conversion of meaning from one language to another but the method, practice and process of translation requires and develops skills that could be applied across a range of academic institutions. ‘The concern is with general cultural processes rather than with finite linguistic products.’ (Pym 2010: 148) Yet translation as a skill present in, or even useful to, other disciplines in both primary and secondary education is not communicated broadly. This essay will heuristically address ways in which translation could indeed be applied and incorporated into other subjects and, in turn, will look at reasons why the skills involved in translation are useful on a broader scale. The essay will culminate in questions regarding translation as it stands as a cultural enterprise, examining responsibility and the concept of ‘duty’.
It is, as all subjects, both self-contained and applicable across diverse subject areas. Integrated learning is gaining increasing ground as a means of connecting curricula and encouraging less segmented approaches to disciplines. Half a century ago, Claude Lévi Strauss, moving toward an objective of interdisciplinarity in his essay ‘Structural Analysis in Linguistics and Anthropology’ states ‘neighbouring disciplines, inspired by each other’s example and aiming at renovation, have a special duty to collaborate' (1963: 32-64). This notion of duty is fundamental to both the practice of translation, the purpose of translation and the role of any subject in furthering itself and others.
The American Literary Translators Association has noted a shift in perception of Translation Studies, identifying it at the core rather than the outskirts of hermeneutic study:
Increasingly, academic programs in language, literature, creative writing, and linguistics have come to recognize work in literary translation as serious intellectual and creative activity and a legitimate form of research and scholarship. In many ways, translation is seen as central to the study of these text-oriented disciplines. (ALTA 2010: 1)
The subject is branching outwards now, a ‘central’ element in text-oriented disciplines, rather than a sub-grouped ‘other’ on the periphery. Translation as a discipline or act implies movement—an extension of curiosity as well as capability across a metaphorical boundary. It involves transfer and decoding. Andrew Chesterman, in his essay ‘Interpreting the Meaning of Translation’, explains the origin of the word and highlights the different significances of the term.
The words denoting translate, translation in Standard Average European (SAE) languages derive from roots in Latin and Classical Greek. The basic notion is that of carrying something across, from Latin transferre or Greek metapherein. […] Curiously enough, the Finnish verb kääntää also has a slang meaning, ‘to steal’. So translating can perhaps also be seen as a kind of theft, a change of owner-identity, of belonging-ness. This reminds us that the classical god of translators was Hermes, who was also the god of thieves. (2006: 5-6)
Chesterman’s underlining of the connotations of the noun and verb ‘translation’/’translate’ suggest transferral and shift as well as the use of the symbolic theft to represent exchange of information, knowledge and ideas. It also invokes questions of belonging-ness—an important observation—prompting the study of origin, influence and movement amongst knowledge. In reference to poetry in particular, David Constantine has noted that ‘[in] earlier schools of poetry, translation was a requirement’. It is useful to trace origin across disciplines and to trace also the connection of influence. To use an example from foreign poetic influences, Constantine retraces the origin of the sonnet:
[Wyatt and Surrey] translated other sonnets from Petrarch and wrote sonnets of their own […] so arriving at the form of the English sonnet, which Shakespeare would exploit to perfection. Thus Wyatt and his young friend Surrey, two hundred years after its florescence in Italian, between them translated the sonnet into English poetry—and there it stays (2013: 38)
The discipline stimulates a study of knowledge travel. The above example takes a playwright whose work makes up an important part of English literary heritage and the English language. Yet the beginnings of Shakespeare’s poetic tradition had begun centuries earlier. Poets in particular (such as Keats, Cary, Byron, Milton, Chaucer) translated foreign works in order to formulate their own styles and forms.
Translation Studies incorporates diverse theories and methods in addition to disputed notions of what translation actually constitutes. Roman Jakobson’s 1959 essay put forward three kinds of translation to provide clearer definitions.
We distinguish three ways of interpreting a verbal sign: it may be translated into other signs of the same language, into another language, or into another, nonverbal system of symbols. These three kinds of translation are to be differently labeled:
1. Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.
2. Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language.
3. Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems. (Cited in Pym 2010: 150)
These modes have been listed here in order to outline varying types of translation, all of which serve different purposes and which the essay will later address in terms of application in schools. Currently, translation practice acknowledges the use of varying translation methods depending on what is to be translated. The translation of a manual or recipe will focus explicitly on units of information, which have more exact correspondence with objects and nouns and require, consequently, a more mathematical enterprise. Anthony Pym’s inclusion of all language use within translation incorporates all communication into reverberating semiotics, creating translation as a medium for meaning, active in the construction of meaning:
That is, once you decide that translation is a process rather than a product, you can find evidence of that process virtually everywhere. Any use of language (or semiotic system) that rewords or reworks any other piece of language (or semiotic system) may be seen as the result of a translational process. (2010: 150)
The inclusion of all language application as constituting translational processing has led to new waves of attention to translation studies as a discipline. This has come a long way from the attention paid solely to the end result of a translation, rated on ‘fluency’ in the target text and which formerly disregarded the enterprise and decisions of the translator during the translation. What happens between the languages is now at the focal point of the craft.
Any form of exchange or ‘theft’ addresses a power structure whilst the act of ‘carrying’ and sharing implies collaboration. In trade and business, negotiation is paramount and it is this skill that is particularly well developed through the craft of translation. The skills that translation requires and involves include the efficient transfer of knowledge, the objective study of a cultural, linguistic or sociological standpoint, the ability to communicate the sense or function of a document, paraphrasing, rewriting, and analysing it, and the aptitude to present information in an alternative semiotic form. The skills of negotiation and compromise filter into the initial etymology of ‘interpreting’ which was born as a medium for enacting transactions between languages. André Lefevere explicitly notes the slipperiness of language and the exploits expected of a ‘faithful’ interpreter:
interpreters that helped strike a good deal were good interpreters, no matter how they might have distorted what had actually been said. Traces of this early attitude toward interpreters still lingers in Horace’s famous phrase ‘fidus interpres’ as used in his Ars Poetica, where the fidus does not mean ‘faithful to the original, or even to the wording of the original’, as it has been interpreted in the light of subsequent developments, but rather something like ‘dependable, someone who won’t let you down’. (1998: 15)
Regarding the exploits and mastery of language such a skill is effectively employed in other professions. The cryptic skill involved in exacting legal work, for example, may be reduced to flair for language, for the manipulation of words and the deliverance of reworded sentences. This stimulates familiarity with one’s own language, resulting in proficiencies adaptable to many professions. To use the example of the legal profession, the cross-discipline of such a task needs no explanation: the translator is required to have legal training, and a lawyer dealing in international relations would require at least one second language. Translation used in education offers beneficial skills as, irrespective of language learning, the ability to negotiate language is of huge importance. Students’ vocabulary is broadened through translation. This occurs in translation proper from a foreign language but is equally the case in translating from older English, from historical documents, scripts, or in rewriting.
Furthermore, through the translation process one reaches a deeper understanding of one’s own language. The interaction with the words of the foreign language expands one’s native language. To produce equivalencies for certain metaphors in the source language, the translator may have to find words in English that are normally not part of general usage. (Schulte and Biguenet (eds) 1992: 8)
Working towards pedagogy of translation that begins in early years of education is a challenge to teachers and students who have not approached translation as a means of teaching or studying. Whilst fears regarding lack of knowledge of a second language naturally pose as an obstacle, it is necessary to underline that the competences required to translate are relevant to communication as a whole.
In terms of introducing translational practices into other disciplines and incorporating alternative means of processing information into translation studies, it is useful to address units and processes that interconnect subject areas. Symbols that need to be ‘read’ in the broadest sense of the word need decoding and cross-disciplinary research brings forth new practices. George Steiner suggests that semiology ‘addresses itself to every conceivable medium and system of signs.’ (1998: 436) In the wide spectrum of interpretation, Steiner aligns music with decipherment; as that which can communicate and is able to be translated.
Both the verbal sign system and the system of musical notation are codes. Both have a grammar, a syntax, a wide diversity of personal and national styles. Both have their history. Musical analysis is a ‘metalanguage’ as is formal logic. […] Music is a language, but in saying so we use ‘language’ in a peculiarly unstable sense. We may be using it either at the most technical semiotic level (both are ‘sequential rule-governed sign systems obeying certain constraints’) or in a sense almost too large for proper definition (both can ‘communicate human emotions and articulate states of mind’). (1998: 445)
Umberto Eco provides an example of the translation process as a mathematical equation: ‘A Linguistic Substance 1 that conveys a Content 1 is transformed into a Linguistic Substance 2 that conveys a Content 1a where Content 1a is > than Content 1.’
LS1/C1 → LS2/C1a where C1a > C1 (2003: 134)
Machine translations decipher code and computers are programmed to read code. Foreign languages, English, Music, Mathematics, and Information Technology share translation, in varying forms of decipherment, at their core. Code, essentially, means nothing until it is broken, until it is read. Foreign languages are jargon until their systems are broken down and transferred into native significance. ‘Foreign’ and ‘native’ in this context refers to the unfamiliar and the pre-learned. Each subject, each principle, creates codes of intimacy and intellect familiar only once they are broken. To simplify, the periodic table means very little until students know which letters represent which elements. Art can be interpreted on personal, informal grounds or it can be deciphered by artists and art historians who are aware that stillness, dots, symmetry, minimalism, all signify various things in themselves. Image can be read and traced back to its nation of origin, its artist, its period of history and its influence. The truth of translation is that it is present, relevant and encoded in every act of communication and understanding. It is an invisible factor in all disciplines and ought not to be relegated as specific to foreign language learning. Even within that realm, methods and theories of translation tend not to be studied until university level.
To avoid any absolute pedagogy of translation that revolves solely around foreign language learning, teachers can look at text in the English language that needs updating, re-interpreting, rewriting, or transmuting into another format. To use a literary example, the glossary to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provides modern offspring of deceased words. This is an act of translation; a text is carried through history and preserved for readers to access in a different period of time. The past is not something we may easily access without language as a bridge. In terms of pedagogical techniques that do not address foreign languages, the English language has a wealth of translational material.
The past of that language is lengthening, its foreignness deepening. From Anglo-Saxon, through Middle English, as far as Shakespeare our poetry’s past is becoming a more and more foreign country. That is why translations done by poets of texts now remote in their own tongue—Beowulf, Gawain, Pearl —are so valuable. (Constantine 2013: 41)
In order that such texts and such ‘Englishes’ not seem so increasingly distant, students can encounter translation through the medium of their native language, resulting in an element of foreignness that is familiar enough to begin getting to grips with what translation means and involves before, if at all, moving towards texts from foreign languages and therefore from intra to interlingual translation. This takes lessons down interesting routes into the etymology of words, their meaning(s) in different periods and contexts and acquaints them with a history of their own language. Scholarly debate into the meaning of a word or text relies on the ability to isolate an interpretation in a historical period. To focus on literary translation, in the first instance text is translated from the writer’s mind and then ‘translated’ by readers, in the sense that the interpretation of words is to some extent always a translation, and re-translated through generations when words change as the world around their reader changes. Hans Georg Gadamer claimed ‘Reading is already translation, and translation is translation for the second time’ cited from Schulte and Biguenet (1992: 9) in regard to what they term ‘the essence of the act of reading in relation to the translation process’ (1992: 9). The equation of what a word means results in a quasi-algebraic formula involving what we know to be the present-day meaning, what we believe to have been the meaning centuries ago, and what we can only suppose a writer intended a word to mean. Shakespeare’s puns exploit meaning, dancing around what the playwright knew would be heard by various members of the audience. Indeed, different actors interpret certain lines in opposite ways, as do editors. Scholars have quarrelled over the meaning of Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy, insisting on the apparent sarcasm, or lack of, in the following:
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake. (Act 1V. Scene IV. 53–56)
Whether or not this passage is sarcastic points to Hamlet’s state of mind and his degrees of sincerity when alone. It can act as a foreboding omen of Hamlet’s intentions or depict his well-reasoned argument against unfounded ambition. Mark Jay Mirsky suggests that while the words imply ‘self-criticism’ they ‘belie the admiration they express’ (1994: 65). The interpretation depends on the listener or reader (including the theatre-goer’s reception of the actor’s interpretation) and not solely on the word itself. The word is the first element, as it were, in a chain of reactions and each word changes form, depending on its receiving environment. Students obliged to select a meaning of a word in a new context have to decide exactly what that word suggests and would need to defend their decision, based on their understanding. They are translating and must then justify their translational practice. Closer, more critical reading is therefore necessary and results in a heightened awareness of native vocabulary. These examples are intended to establish the fact that translation between two languages is only one occasion of the process.
Classroom debate as a means of arguing meaning or discussing significance is an interpretational activity and involves the probing of meaning as a concept as well as meaning in tune with many other disciplines—historical meaning, cultural context, psychological viewpoint, religious outlook and subjective interpretation, and widens the understanding of students by bringing them into context with multiple ‘others’. David Constantine has argued that understanding as a principle:
means recognizing and acknowledging what outside us is deeply and perhaps unalterably foreign so that in the light of it, and in lively dealings with it, we may better understand what we are ourselves, what is truly our own. Most of what I have to say about translation has to do with that: the making of self-identity in relation to others. (2013: 36)
The flexibility of meaning is fundamental here. In the learning environment, students attempting to write, rewrite, translate or transmute language need to be aware of their autonomy with regards to their reception of and intentions towards a text. I identify meaning in four forms, which students are able to address.
1. Past meaning—significance to the reader of a past era would either mean little to a modern reader or whose meaning has changed entirely.
2. Static meaning—A constancy of meaning, irrespective of context (i.e., most nouns, certain verbs).
3. Fluid meaning—A changeable, interpretable significance.
4. Opaque meaning—Words that, until they are contextualised, have no independent meaning or whose meaning is intentionally unclear (puns, idioms, idiomatic language, proverbs).
The ability to question and control meaning is useful for students to develop and explore. One means of doing this is through the reading, re-reading and rewording or translation of poetry. Students at all levels may encounter foreign languages, archaic English and poetry with similar preconceptions and concerns. They are three areas of study that take students out of the comfort zones of their own language. The use of poetry as a tool for translation within language and literacy lessons at all levels is useful as a means of allowing students control over a foreign language or indeed their native language that they may not otherwise feel they have. Translation in language lessons, where this takes place, does not offer as much scope for interpretation and variation. When pupils translate text, it cumulates in results that are either right or wrong. If poetry translation were included more in such exercises, issues of the creative transfer of language would be addressed and the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ monotones of language acquisition could be dulled down. Interpretation is a valuable, interesting route and eases students into languages through a process of assuming authority over their translation. Translation is used to test students’ foreign language capabilities whereas I suggest that at certain stages it be used in order to stimulate native language competences.
Where students struggle with creative writing due to inhibition or otherwise, translation provides a means of dividing authorship. There is more leeway to defend a linguistic choice and justify use of a word or phrase, where in translation as a linguistic discipline it again peters down to a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ response. Tick or cross. David Constantine, in his book Poetry, has discussed means of conducting a poetry-translation workshop with no knowledge of a foreign language. This is done in stages, the first being to read the poem aloud and listen to the sound of the words before they have any associative meaning. There is often meaning in sound and meaning in the way these sounds are grouped together. Poetry, more than non-fiction or prose, generally places more emphasis on the relation between word and sound. Constantine goes on to describe the appearance of the poem—again, a medium that pays higher attention to the visual appearance of words—and notes simplicities such as the presence of a title, the number of stanzas, the length, the punctuation. Students can gauge the speed without understanding the words. A glossary or notes on the poem and peculiarities of the language in which it is written may then be distributed.
Group work, especially in early stages of such workshops, is preferable because the inhibitions that circle poetry and foreign language learning make the initial contact more suitable for groups. There is no need for lack of knowledge regarding the foreign language to be an issue, even on the part of the teacher, and a dictionary can also be on hand. This is translation, a group decoding and collectively debating meaning. In creative writing lessons, it can also lead into individual work, as partially rewriting another text is one means of stimulating ideas. Numerous activities can follow on from the outline that Constantine has provided. Groups may present their work and discuss reasons for the varying different poems that resulted from the workshop, examining the extent to which interpretation has differed. The groups could then proceed to rewrite the translated poem in another medium, or enact it through movement, describe what is written in different words, or adapt it into a modern version if the original language is perhaps archaic. Any activity that stimulates the group to be inspired by language and to feel in control of the language they are asked to study is productive. More advanced study results in students translating their own versions or writing a version in a different style of language.
Towards incorporating translation
The interrelation of disciplines is still encountering obstacles in schools but the concept of learning a subject via another bridges gaps in teaching and learning methods. CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), which is increasingly implemented in European countries, is the practice of learning a subject in a different language (i.e., Italian students studying science in English), is one means of merging disciplines and has proven success rates as noted by an EU report of this year:
CLIL is taking place and has been found to be effective in all sectors of education from primary through to adult and higher education. Its success has been growing over the past 10 years and continues to do so. (EU Commission 2013)
The issues in incorporating translation in countries where foreign languages are given increasingly little attention is self-explanatory. The use of adapted translation skills is one means of incorporating language learning but with a dominant focus on the native language in the classroom. Regarding translation and the incorporation of language learning, UK schools have made languages an optional rather than obligatory decision at GCSE level whereas in Germany, for example, content and language integrated learning has been part of their schooling for three decades. Are Anglophones too comfortable with English? And should other languages not be learned simply because we do not ‘need’ them? It is a truism that speakers of other European languages will, increasingly frequently, encounter English in the workplace or, at some levels, adopt English permanently in the workplace. It is necessary to learn English. But the European Commission is suggesting that a further two languages be learnt by students in addition to their mother tongue in light of a 2012 survey on attitudes to language and translation in the EU.
The survey reveals that Europeans have a very positive attitude towards multilingualism:
- almost all Europeans (98%) think that mastering foreign languages is useful for their children's future; 88% see it as useful for themselves
- almost three quarters (72%) agree with the EU objective that everybody should learn at least 2 foreign languages; 77% think that improvement in language skills should be a policy priority
- 67% see English as one of the two most useful languages for themselves. Among the others most frequently cited as useful are German (17%), French (16%), Spanish (14%) and Chinese (6%).
(Eurobarometer Survey 2012: 1)
The practicalities of learning certain languages outweigh others. This survey reflects what Europeans deem to be useful and the languages selected are prompted by practicality. Necessity is not, of course, the only motivating factor to do anything and languages bring a wealth of different perspectives to those who study them, even if on an economic or practical scale they do not require acquisition. As Jost Trier claimed, ‘each language structures and organizes reality in its own manner and thereby determines the components of reality that are peculiar to this given language.’ (Cited in Steiner 1998: 90) The importance of learning a foreign language need not be associated only with financial gain or business efficiency. Languages may be freely learnt out of human curiosity. The fact that ‘everyone else speaks English’, dismisses whole worlds of stories, outlooks, beliefs and histories that exist in other ‘language worlds,’ as George Steiner has referred to them. Steiner additionally addresses the importance of the fabrics of language being transferred.
One need only converse with Japanese colleagues and students, whose technical proficiency in English humbles one, to realize how profound are the effects of dislocation. So much that is being said is correct, so little is right. Only time and native ground can provide a language with the interdependence of formal and semantic components which ‘translates’ culture into active life. It is the absence from them of any natural semantics of remembrance which disqualifies artificial languages from any but trivial or ad hoc usage. (1998: 494)
‘The semantics of remembrance’ is a particularly arresting term. If, in language acquisition, students emerged from classes equipped with not only linguistic accuracy but also with cultural familiarity and awareness, the student would speak with the proficiency of a native. Native proficiency often refers to fluency and grammatical correctness. However, it subconsciously insists that speakers carry the linguistic culture forward, hence the semantics of remembrance. Differing Australian and American idioms and even varying regions within Anglophone countries reflect the instinctive nature of language to mirror its people and its territory. Language differs both because its speakers differ and because, humanly, they don't differ enough, and rely on linguistic variation to uphold territorial, local identity and preserve regional memory. Idioms, jokes, puns, customs and traditions are all learnt on native soil because, currently, only the superficial outer shell of language is studied in school. Enter translation, and the fabrics and internal structures of languages come into their own. Talgeri and Verma describe a word as being ‘essentially a cultural memory in which the historic experience of the society is embedded’. (1988)
In this brave new world of computer science and technology, one area of transferral that remains decidedly vague is that of linguistic translation. Creative language evades computer translation; it is one element that rejects machine transmission, and it bewilders technological programmes and equipment. It relies on and encompasses that sublimely human of human conditions. Structured language with constricted signification and limited codes of reference, such as manuals, appears within seconds via machine translation. Poems and novels slip through the net and, comfortingly, depend on human will and collaboration to be understood. In an increasingly globalised world the insistence that we are all equal should not be misconstrued into the fact that we are all the same. The semantics of remembrance are installed in living people and in texts that survive the passing of time through translation and revival. One of the crucial factors in and, arguably, one of the major problems within international discourse is not linguistic ability but cultural familiarity. The implementation of translated foreign texts and literary works in schools would aid the degree to which different nationalities comprehend one another’s backgrounds and beliefs. It would, additionally, incorporate such works into educational syllabi and curriculums.
Translation proper and what is to be gained
In returning to the idea of the finite end product and the infinite process of translation, it is necessary to underline what is to be gained from the procedures and practice of translation, regardless of the end product. Translating literature and reading translated literature is an active means for writers to extend their own fields of influence. In addition, readers of translated works or foreign-language works come to realize how much of their language and mentality is grown at home and is not a universal norm. Guy Deutscher provides a wonderful example of the delicate alterations of the world, as our language would have us see it. Deutscher explains how an English translation of a poem by Heinrich Heine, ‘fails so decidedly because it glosses over one grammatical feature of the German language, which happens to be the basis of the whole allegory, and without which Heine’s metaphor is castrated.’ (2011: 195)
The German poem depicts a pine tree in the cold North dreaming of a palm tree in the warm sand. But what even this sentence has failed to communicate is that, in German, the pine tree is masculine and the palm tree is feminine.
Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam A pine-tree standeth lonely
Im Norden auf kahler Höh’. In the North on an upland bare;
Ihn schläfert; mit weißer Decke It standeth whitely shrouded
Umhüllen ihn Eis und Schnee. With snow, and sleepeth there.
Er träumt von einer Palme, It dreameth of a Palm Tree
Die, fern im Morgenland, Which far in the East alone,
Einsam und schweigend trauert In mournful silence standeth
Auf brennender Felsenwand. On its ridge of burning stone.
(Heinrich Heine, 1797–1856) (Translation by James Thomson, 1832–1882)
An intricate level of sexual longing laces the German poem and is lacking in the translation. If an English translation does gender the trees, and there are translations that have done so, the reader is in no doubt that the sexual nature of the poem is the presiding feature. In the original, it is implicit. If, as Deutscher suggests, thought processes may be affected by certain aspects of a language, ‘could it be that the feminine gender of the German Palme affects how a German thinks of a palm tree even beyond the artifice of poetry?’ (2011: 197) Discussing gender influences and what he terms ‘a prison house of associations,’ (2011: 215) however, Deutscher assures Anglophones that his: ‘mind may be weighed down by an arbitrary and illogical set of associations, but my world has so much to it that you entirely miss out on, because the landscape of my language is so much more fertile than your arid desert of ‘it’s’. (2011: 215)
The vital element, then, in order to arrive at the heart of meaning is not solely to learn another language in order to translate it, but to learn to think in one. The process of focusing on the meanings of words around the world and the cultural habitats that filter those significances contribute to a curriculum; students are frequently not taught to interpret their own language. Side effects reverberate from blending these schools of thought. Writers apply ekphrasis to find inspiration in another form of art. Artists may ‘paint’ a piece of music, inventing the meaning of the piece or exploring the composer’s intention. Composers ‘write’ musical scores that interpret moving images and words. Buildings may reflect the political climate at the time they were constructed. The study of any discipline inevitably invites the study of another. Translation incorporated in language lessons is a rewarding means of connecting a person’s ability to speak that language with their potential to translate it. Translation does not always feature in language lessons, as it is beyond the discipline. Languages rarely feature in creative writing and literature lessons, as they are beyond the discipline. And so ensues the path of future deprivation to both fields. Engaging students in other outlooks and beliefs through linguistic acquisition and translation would produce not only culturally aware translators and linguistically capable students, but would contribute to human remembrance of different cultures and their individual realities.
Translation as onus
Texts in translation are a matter of responsibility. In major languages, in terms of the number of people who speak the languages around the world, the responsibility to translate works is larger and yet happens less. Poetry that is translated into English stands to gain a lot more than an Anglophone readership. As a lingua franca, English is also a middle ground via which other languages gain access to foreign works. English is not the only lingua franca; David Bellos has noted that:
French continues to play a significant role as a conduit for global translation from less widely spoken languages. […] German also remains a crossroads for literature from little-studied languages. […] Japanese was the relay language for translations of Russian literature into Chinese. (2011: 212-213)
This can mean that a book arrives in a third language without the translator reading the original. But many of our major texts have emerged on the other side of second translation. The Bible, for one, was translated from Latin into English, not initially from its original Hebrew.
Edith Grossman highlights responsibility, drawing attention to the fact that:
One of the double-edged canards about the Nobel Prize is that no writer who has not been translated into English can hope ever to be considered for the prize in literature, because English is the one language that all the judges can read. (2010: 27)
If English is to inhabit this global position as a dominant lingua franca, and that is perhaps unlikely to last forever, the onus is on Anglophones to ensure that literature from other languages is known and read. In the act of translating and that of reading translated literature, we are admitting that perhaps elsewhere in our world, someone has expressed something worth knowing. We demonstrate a form of respect in acknowledging that, quite possibly, our own language has not said all that there is to say. We pride our own language in assuming it has the capacity to channel this otherness, and we illustrate human curiosity in exploring meaning beyond what our own history of thought stimulates. Translation can provide schools of thought and other realities of being that our own language had not yet addressed, or would never have engaged in.
A final stimulus is the enrichment that the English language stands to receive as a bi-product of translation. The language itself is enriched by writers’ contributions to it. Writers who read works in translation extend the gene pool of their own language, extracting thoughts and concepts as they travel through these translated works and perhaps even translate foreign works themselves. Translating challenges one’s language; it requires that the translator know his or her own language intimately and master it completely in order to carry over an unfamiliar notion or sentiment. The translator’s mind must accommodate an ‘other’ and transmit this ‘other’ through the vehicle of his or her own language. How much richer the translator’s language stands to become, how much more adept.
To cross the border of language a word must lose its outer shell, must become void of the language that wields it and what remains must be the core of meaning. The process has abundant benefits in terms of how students view language. Somewhere between the first and second language exists a silence whereby the word is stripped of its skin and the meaning is universal, and belongs to both tongues.
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