… in translation.
What’s Lost and What is Found?
by Shelley Keningsberg
Every year, UWRF brings together writers and readers from all over the globe to convene and commune around books and ideas. Because of that diversity, part of the thrill of this literary festival is that chance to hear, meet, be inspired by writers whose first language may not be the language we ultimately read them in. Nor, the language they speak in at the festival.
And, that made me think about the whole idea of translation and interpretation. So, with so many books on offer this year from the rich and vast Bahasa Indonesia storehouses (particularly the work of Pramoedya Toer, the writer being honoured at this year’s festival), it’s a good idea for us to think about just what it is that interpreters and translators do and how complex it is. And how it can serve the writers and in turn the readers. It’s likely that many of the books on offer at the festival may well be read in both their original and in translation.
A common association with interpretation or translation, is that of professionals taking words or writing in one language and transforming it — holding its integrity and meaning, but putting it into in a language other than the original. It’s a subtle, complex and (for too long) much underrated skill, but there’s so much to admire about the dedication and rigour needed to be a really good translator. And it’s interesting to consider the challenges they might face in trying to be conduits for another’s creation, but having to be creators themselves to even get to be doing this work in the first place.
So, what happens … in translation. What’s lost and what is found? How complex is it and, if there is a risk of things being lost; of things not being understood, why do we translate literary works? Talk to a translator and they’ll tell you about the challenges (and, they say, the thrills) of trying to get into the mind, the thought processes, the style of another writer and be skilled enough to represent them in another language.
This made me think more, (and here I ‘declare my hand’ as a professional editor) of the translating or interpreting that editors might do as they work with writers to help get their books out into the world. Of course, we don’t move from one language to another (much) but we do, often, have to interpret what the writer has wanted to express when there’s ambiguity or a lack of clarity or, sometimes, just an inelegant way to have put things.
Rendering, mentioned in the definition, brings to mind a type of drawing or sketching. And to get this right, translators or editors need to be very in tune with the intention of the writer, their vocabulary, their style, the story they want to tell as well as bring in something of their own creative effort to make it ‘sing’ as beautifully in the second language as it does in the original.
Why does it all matter anyway? It’s because it’s these efforts that bring us stories. And it’s from stories that we read or hear or watch that we draw our meaning. It’s one of the ways we make sense of the world…and it’s the most powerful element in so many relationships. Story is said ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ (often attributed to journalist Finley Dunne commenting on the effect of newspapers). It has a power to help us find meaning or wake us from the torpor of no meaning.
The more stories we hear, from all over the world, the more willing we are to feel connected and, then perhaps, compassionate. The more we see the universal in our particular story the easier it is to make meaning of our place and our relationships — to people and things on the planet.
In a review of a recent book dealing with ancient religious texts being translated into English, Leon Wieseltier, the reviewer says: ‘All translation is interpretation, since it is a choice among meanings; but translation is not the same activity as interpretation. A good translation of a troubling text will preserve the reason for the trouble, and thereby leave open the gates of interpretation’.
A great historian of philosophy, Etienne Gilson, who served on the French delegation to the San Francisco Conference in 1945, was said to have rejected a French translation of the United Nations Charter because it erased certain cunning ambiguities in the original, observing that ‘One must translate the text in all its obscurity: The fidelity of the translator must include a commitment to honoring the density and the alienness of the original. The translator must not preempt the mental toil of the reader’.
So, the work of the translator becomes an invaluable conduit from one world to another; from a set of ideas and expressions in one language, embracing the vast range of writing over different genres and styles, to another. And, with … and with the UWRF only months away, we’re in for treats in many languages, and styles and with many characters. But one thing’s for sure. Stories will be told.
For more about The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival visit: www.ubudwritersfestival.com