Monday, March 30, 2009

Staying on or Straying from the Cultural Path

Daisey Cheyney in Helsinki Times

The trials and tribulations of the translator:

(a) The distortion factor

A linguistic construction can have an array of meanings and translation is no way as black- and-white as swapping a word from one language to another. Translations have long been viewed in a less than positive light. Even the canonical Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes likened reading a translation to “looking at the Flanders tapestries from behind”, a distortion of the original.

Factors such as historical spirit, wordplay and cultural bias and the extent to which a translation may be distorted are intrinsic to how ‘translatable’ something is. In particular, if the concept requiring translation is heavily culturally specific, the originality of languages such as Finnish can be a challenge for translators.

“Translating from a very foreign language is slow and painful,” says Herbert Lomas, a Finnish to English translator, who has been honoured officially for his services to Finnish Literature. Keith Bosley, another prolific translator whose extensive work catalogue includes the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala and numerous Finnish poetry anthologies, describes how translatability can differ: “For me ancient Finnish is more translatable than the French poet Baudelaire, even though my French is much better than my Finnish.”

Aspects such as style and register are inseparable from meaning and it is this inseparability that makes it challenging. The maintaining of certain aspects often occurs at the expense of others.

(b) No time:

Complexity differences are not only a challenge when translating classical literature across languages or for a modern audience. This is illustrated by the Piraha tribe from Brazil, whose language has no exact words capable of describing number or time, nor any distinct words for colour. To most, the very idea of a vocabulary lacking such a fundamental part of our lives seems unfathomable. Other examples closer to home include the Sami’s elaborate vocabulary for reindeer and types of snow. ‘Ruka’, the Russian equivalent for ‘hand’ stretches from fingertips to elbow as opposed to fingertips to wrist. The Finnish word ‘jalka’ doesn’t distinguish the foot from the leg.

Abstract words, particularly words to describe emotion, are notoriously challenging. Consider Greek, that has several different words for ‘love’, each with a different nuance, or the German ‘futterneid’, a word to describe the feeling that someone else’s food is better than one’s own. Variations in the number of words in a particular domain between two languages reflect cultural facts.

(c) Preserve or destroy?

If the target language lacks a particular concept or adequate vocabulary to describe a particular concept, what can a translator do? If the concept is an intrinsic part of the plot, then excluding the concept is not an option, so the translator will aim to approximate and contextualise any cultural, historical or geographical references. The art of translation and what constitutes a success is little understood. Is a successful translation one that is measured by the similarity of experience between the readers?

There are a few main points that translators undeniably agree on. Transferring the spirit and energy of the original takes precedence over a mechanical approach. All linguistic devices need to be considered to ensure that the omission or transfer does not detract from the experience.

“Translating is not as easy as a lot of people think. It’s maintaining the format, the register, the terminology and so on,” says Greek to English translation student, Frosso Skontiniotou. He goes on to explain how idiomatic expressions and metaphors can be a challenge: “Every writer has their own style and this might not be clear to the translator and therefore the transfer of the style to the target audience may be difficult.”

Identifying the culturally-specific element humour can be a challenge in the original language, let alone transferring it into another language altogether. As English to Finnish translator Kersti Juva, whose literary classic translations span from Shakespeare to Dickens, explains: “Humour is a very elusive element in literature. The most difficult task is to detect the humour in the source text; if a translator misses a joke there is no hope of it appearing in the translation.” The general principle for translating cultural nuances is ultimately equivalence, something that may or may not be possible. As Bosley so succinctly puts it: “You can’t turn a bar-mitzvah into a confirmation.”

(d) Domesticate or foreignise?
There are two strategies available to deal with ‘non-translatables: foreignisation or domestication. Translators aim to produce something readers can understand without unnecessary effort, but whether to foreignise or domesticate appears to be a point of much debate. According to the British Council web site, there is more consensus today about the need to maintain the foreign essence in form and content, and foreignisation is seen as a means to fertilise the native literary ground.

Different stategies are adopted with varying results, and success is not always guaranteed. For example, in the English translation of Stieg Larsson’s book trilogy Millennium the spending habits of the principle character are domesticated. Although events take place in Zurich, the currency described in the book is Swedish krona! Considering that the audience is like ly to be outside Sweden, a conversion to Swiss Francs may have been a more suitable choice for the translator.

(e) Crossing the border

Over 60 per cent of all translated literature is done from works originally written in English. This figure contrasts sharply with the paltry one to two per cent of literature translated into English.However, according to the Finnish Literature Society translations from Finnish into other languages are an area that is continuing to flourish. A growth that may be a result of the Finnish publishing sectors increasingly commercial stance as well as Finland joining the European Union in 1995. The target language of the translations from Finnish is predominantly German with over 184 titles translated between 2002 and 2007. A possible explanation for this is that translated books impressively account for over half of the German fiction market. Of these, the most successful genre was mystery, in particular the crime writer Matti Yrjänä Joensuu.

The Kalevala is the most translated Finnish publication to date, with over 200 different adaptations in over 60 languages. Many of these are translated from existing translations, meaning the text may have become curiously distorted through successive translations. The resulting effect of being ‘twice removed’ one might compare to Chinese Whispers, the game in which errors accumulate during the retelling.

It is all too easy to pick holes in a translator’s work or become pedants over whether the translator has created an exact equivalent reading experience. I say we should be thankful to the under-recognised translators for sharing what is more often than not a labour of love. The odd lapse in judgement or hiccup in accuracy is surely a small price to pay for the exposure to such a multitude of cultures, access to which is not confined to geographical location. Translations help to enrich the development of world cultures, something that can only be deemed positive. Without them we would seem to be headed for cultural isolation.

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