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The Transparent Translator – Is There Such a Beast

המאמר שלהלן, פרי עטי, פורסם לראשונה ב-ATA Chronicle, הירחון של אגודת המתרגמים האמריקנית, בגיליון אפריל 2007. קיבלתי רשות לפרסם אותו שוב, ואשמח לשמוע מכם הערות/הארות.

Translation, especially literary translation, has often been described in harsh and unflattering terms. Traduttore, traditore says the Italian proverb, and compares the act of translation to an act of treason. "Translation is the other side of a tapestry," said Cervantes and compared it to the "ugly" side of creation, the side which shows us the frayed threads and all the blunders. Umberto Eco even publicly stated what Cervantes only implied: "Translation is the art of failure."
But is it really the art of failure or the "ugly" side of a tapestry? Are we as translators bound to fail? Are we damned if we do and damned if we don't? Before I even attempt to answer these questions, I will just point out that besides belittling the act, Cervantes and Eco are both comparing translation to art. Whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly, successful or unsuccessful, it's still an art form, or at least a craft. Then why is this craft such an act of treason?
Today, at least in Israel, adequacy as oppose to acceptability is the prevalent norm in literary translation, but even so the two different schools of thought can often be seen emerging from the many debates on this issue in various forums. On the one hand, there are those who say that good translators are those who are faithful to the source text and leave out their values, politics, feelings and the like. In other words, a good translator is transparent. On the other hand, there are those who claim that total adequacy and faithfulness is unattainable, that the spirit of the translator will always be present in the translation – not just in terms of style, but in every choice we make as translators, due to the knowledge we have (or lack), our egos or the ideology that motivates us. But is it such a clear-cut dichotomy? Are we either transparent or visible? Is there no middle ground?
It seems to me that there is no unequivocal answer, just numerous questions. But let me give you some examples.
In translating travel guides (Lonely Planet), for example, one would assume that faithfulness to the original is paramount, due to the nature of the work. But what could I do when I reached a description of a Middle-Eastern restaurant in Beijing? The original text is as follows:
There’s a choice selection of merguez (spicy sausage) dishes as well as vegetarian fare like falafel and tabouleh. The restaurant is a touch too cavernous during the day, but it leaves plenty of room for the nightly belly dancers to shimmy between the tables. There’s a small bakery in the entrance where you can buy pastries with nuts, honey and rose water.
Everyone in Israel knows what merguez is, so there is no need for the parenthetical explanation; more importantly, everyone in Israel knows these nuts-and-honey pastries as baklava, and there is definitely no need to give them a full recipe. So in fact, in translating a travel guide where faithfulness to the source text – in description, detail and transliteration – is very important, the translator must actually “localize” the text and adapt the Hebrew translation to serve the needs of the target audience. So are we traitors or cultural liaisons? I guess it's in the eyes of the beholder.
What about fantasy and science fiction? It is well known that here, more than in any other literary genre, translators are allowed and even required to express their creativity and inventiveness, and in doing so to stray from the original. This genre is a breeding ground for neologisms that somehow always sound better in the source language and almost forced and stilted in the target language. An example of that would be Lobstrosities, from Stephen King's Dark Tower series, which sounds to me much more natural than זוועטנים [zva-a-ta-nim], a blend between זוועה (horror, atrocity) and סרטנים (crustaceans). There's obviously a shift here, since I did not use the word לובסטר (lobster), but am I unfaithful to the original? And if I were faithful to the original, would I, as the translator, have been more transparent? While my own neologism may be the other side of the tapestry for some, others might view it as a great solution. At any rate, it is a conscious choice made by the translator, and as my personal choice it is what sets me apart from other possible choices – it is, essentially, what makes this my translation.
Let's take a look at another example from the Dark Tower series. King plays a lot with the word char, which means death in a parallel world to ours. He introduces Charlie the Choo-Choo, a harmless children's book in our world and a real and homicidal monorail engine in that same parallel world. Later on he introduces the char-you tree, the "death for you" tree (its branches are used to build a stake and burn people). In Hebrew, I transliterated the first word צ'ר [char] and the name of the monorail צ'רלי הצ'ו-צ'ו [Char-lee ha-choo-choo]; the syllable לי [lee] also means "to/for me" in Hebrew, thus creating the phrase "char/death for me"). I called the tree צ'ר-לָך [char-lach], i.e "char/death for you". In my last choice, again I maintained semantic faithfulness to the original, but not stylistic faithfulness – I created an alliteration which does not exist in the original text. I could have chosen to transliterate Char-you (the same way I transliterated the others), but I chose to translate the word you and this choice adds a dimension which does not exist in the original to the Hebrew translation. Is this translation still the other side of the tapestry? I guess so. But is it the ugly side? I do not think so. Is it a faithful translation? Yes. Is it equivalent? Not entirely. So am I transparent or visible? That is indeed a good question, and one which is open to debate.
Much more obvious is the question of explicitation. There are different ways of doing this, and none makes the translator more visible than a footnote or endnote. In The Known World by Edward P. Jones, for example, the word "abolitionist" appears numerous times. In Hebrew this is a lexical void, so in every occurrence of the word I would have had to write something like מתומכי התנועה לביטול העבדות [mi-tom-chey hat-nu-a le-vi-tul ha-av-dut] (a supporter of the movement to abolish slavery). This long-winded explanation would have rendered the Hebrew translation very awkward indeed, so I decided to transliterate the word אבוליציוניסט [a-bo-litz-yo-nist] and explain with a footnote in the first occurrence.
Was I still faithful to the original by using a borrowed word and adding a footnote? Arguably, yes. Was I transparent? Well, obviously not. Is the Hebrew translation less seemly? Some would say, definitely yes. Others might think that the other option (of writing every time "a supporter of the movement to abolish slavery") is a greater evil and a much more awkward alternative.
Speaking of awkwardness, my last example is taken from the same novel, and pertains to dialects. Translating dialects is never easy, but translating them into Hebrew is something akin to modern torture. The Known World is full of black lingo in the antebellum (another lexical void) South:

"You gotta meet that mule in the mornin.”
“I know,” Elias said. Moses had not stopped walking. “I ain’t hurtin a soul here,” Elias said… Moses said, “I ain’t but two minutes off you, fella, and you seem to wanna keep forgettin that.”

Such a dialect was (and to some extent still is) very prevalent and natural-sounding. Even in writing, it flows in the original. Hebrew, however, is a language without dialects. There is slang and there is substandard Hebrew, but there are no regional dialects. Any attempt to create dialect, therefore, seems artificial. Even if one tries to be faithful to the original, nothing in Hebrew will sound as natural as the English. Moreover, the translator has to be very careful not to overdue it and make the characters sound ridiculous in the translation, because of its awkwardness.
My translation of this little excerpt is as follows:

"תָה צָך לוֹציא תָפֶּרֶד מחר על הבוקר."
"ידוע," השיב לו אליאס. מוזס לא טרח לעצור. "זה לא מפריע לאַפחָד שאני יושב לי פה," הוסיף האיש.
"אני תכף מאבד תָסבלנות שְלי, אבל נִירָה לי שלא כְפָּת ךָ."

In the translation, I tried to make the substandard Hebrew sound as natural as possible: slurring the words the way Hebrew speakers tend to, making grammatical mistakes which Hebrew speakers tend to make and so forth. I even read every sentence aloud just to be sure of the sound in Hebrew. So, in my work, was I faithful to the original throughout the novel? Yes and no. I am trying to recreate dialect in the target language, and thus convey to the readers the distinction between masters and slaves, white trash and land owners. However, I am fully aware of the fact that whatever choice I make, the Hebrew will never sound as natural as the original. So is my translation the art of failure? It seems so. Does the translation flow like the original? I guess not. Am I, the translator, more visible because of these futile attempts to create dialect in Hebrew? Yes, definitely. Should I have given up even before I started, and declared the text untranslatable? I don't think so. If all Hebrew translators did that, Hebrew readers would not be able to enjoy world literature, and for me that would be the greatest failure of all.


Notes:
– The quotes by Eco and Cervantes came from http://www.brainyquote.com/ quotes/keywords/translation.html.

– Quinn, Eilís. Best of Beijing (Lonely Planet, 2006).
– King, Stephen. Shlifat Hashlosha [Drawing of the Three] (Modan Publishing, 2001).
– King, Stephen. HaMechashef VeHaBdolach [Wizard and Glass] (Modan Publishing, 2003).
– Jones, Edward P. HaOlam HaMukar [The Known World] (Opus Publishing, 2007).

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מחשבה אחת על “The Transparent Translator – Is There Such a Beast

  1. הזדהיתי מאוד כמעט עם כל מה שתיארת. עדיין לא הזדמן לי לתרגם באופן מקצועי ספרות יפה (אני כרגע בתחום הלוקליזציה הידוע לשמצה…), אבל זכורים לי היטב הקשיים שבהם נתקלתי במהלך לימודי התרגום באונ' ת"א, כמו הניסיון לתרגם דיאלקטים. במבט ראשון, משפט שכתוב בדיאלקט תמיד נראה כאילו העורך/מגיה פספס כמה שגיאות הקלדה, ותמיד צריך לחזור ולקרוא אותו. ועכשיו למשל אני קוראת את הרומן Rayuela (משחק קלאס) של קורטאסר. נודע לי שעומד לצאת תרגום שלו מאת מלצר. כבודו של מלצר במקומו מונח, אך כמישהי שמבינה כמה רבדים של התרבות הארגנטינאית טמונים ביצירה הזו, שלא לדבר על אינספור "רפרנסס" שמצריכים הערות שוליים, אני סקפטית מאוד באשר לאיכותו האפשרית של התרגום. הייתי רוצה להאמין שלא אתאכזב, אך הסיכויים קלושים.

    פורסם ע"י נועה פלג | 23 בנובמבר 2010, 0:28

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