A Culture of Translation — Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

In Translation, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

“To say of translation—as is so often said—that ‘the original meaning is always lost’ is to deny the history of literature and the ability of any text to be enriched by the new meanings that are engendered as it enters new contexts—that is, as it remains alive and is read anew.”—Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

In their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky explore the importance and complexities of translation in a world where English is becoming increasingly dominant. Below in an excerpt from their introduction, “A Culture of Translation”:

Today, the English-language translator occupies a particularly com­plex ethical position. To translate is to negotiate a fraught matrix of in­teractions. As a writer of the language of global power, the translator into English must remain ever aware of the power differential that tends to subsume cultural difference and subordinate it to a globally uniform, market-oriented monoculture. Weltliteratur is no longer (and may never have been) politically, culturally, or ethically neutral. At the same time, the failure to translate into English, the absence of translation, is clearly the most effective way of all to consolidate the global monoculture and exclude those who write and read in other languages from the far-reach­ing global conversation for which English is increasingly the vehicle.

Nevertheless, contemporary discussions of translation’s role— particularly in the English-speaking world—sometimes attest to a stance that barely differs from that of Dante’s Virgil, mourning for a lost prelapsarian oneness and concomitant frustration with the affliction of linguistic diversity. This attitude, as David Bellos observes, portrays translation as little more than “a compensatory strategy designed only to cope with a state of affairs that falls far short of the ideal.” All transla­tion, in this view, is invariably an inadequate substitute for an original text that can only be legitimately apprehended in the purity of its origi­nal language.

To say of translation—as is so often said—that “the original meaning is always lost” is to deny the history of literature and the ability of any text to be enriched by the new meanings that are engendered as it enters new contexts—that is, as it remains alive and is read anew. The ability to speak and be understood, to write and be read, is one of the great desid­erata of the human spirit. Meaning is a slippery fish, but all of us—and translators and writers more than most—prefer to live in a world where people make an effort to be intelligible to one another. This makes it hard to deplore the global rise of a lingua franca. Communication is never easy, but having a common language unquestionably makes it easier. The problem arises when those whose lives are made more convenient by the predominance of this lingua franca forget translation’s vital role in most sorts of intercultural communication. A view of translation as loss and betrayal—the translator’s presence a “problematic necessity,” as one of the contributors to this volume, Eliot Weinberger, once saw himself described—stubbornly persists, supported at one extreme of the intellec­tual spectrum by those who would have everyone read works only in their original languages, and at the other by those who would have ev­eryone read and write in a single, global language, thus potentially ad­vancing what Michael Cronin has described as the “dystopian scenario of the information-language nexus [that] would see everyone translating themselves into the language or languages of the primary suppliers of information and so dispensing with the externality of translation.”

1 Response

  1. As a translator from Burmese into English, I “understand” this article very well.

    I don’t read Mandarin nor Russian, and were it not for Howard Goldblatt and Constance Garnett,the worlds of Mo Yan and other Chinese writers, and of Tolstoy and Chekhov would be closed to me – think of that. I know Burmese who have read Shakespeare only in Burmese translations.

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