This article was first published here.
To translate written work, especially colourful prose or poetry, is
an exercise both punctuated by glee and fraught with anxiety. The
ethical pitfalls of translation are many, and synonyms somehow never
quite enough. If one resignedly steamrolls alliteration and meter, the
yells they emit could be transliterated as anything from “ouch”, to
“aïe”, to “āi yō”, depending on one’s perspective. Meanwhile, nuance
flees the scene, and nobody notices.
The Italian language has a pithy saying on the subject: “Traduttore, traditore” – translator, traitor.
It reflects the pessimistic but noteworthy idea that the act of
translation is inherently doomed to fail, for nothing can ever be
translated with perfect precision.
Reclining in her faux-leather desk chair, the philosophy professor looks smug. Does ‘translation’ even exist? Her eyes seem to say. How can any word, any perception, or any one reading of a text have a direct equivalent in another tongue? And how could you identify it anyway, trapped as you are within the framework of your own perceptions and experiences?
Yet to engage in such a debate is a challenge for another day,
another office; another bottle of vodka. Though it has its esoteric
merits, the argument that no translation can ever be ‘perfect’ risks
obscuring important practical considerations: that translation is
necessary in a globalised world, and that translating in order to learn
more about other cultures and their literary wealth is a positive
Nevertheless, assuming the attitude that translation both does and
should exist, we are already faced with several issues. For example, how
loyal must a translator be to an original text? What responsibilities
do they hold?
In an argument which harks back to the aforementioned philosophical
point, critics and translators alike have argued that translation is not
a dry affair which shuttles back and forth between languages, but
rather an act of creation. Consider stylistic qualities of texts, such
as alliteration and rhyme: a translator would have to be inventive in
order to convey a sense of an original text’s style as well as its
meaning. A nursery rhyme or a tongue-twister, to use very basic
examples, would suffer if translated too literally; no-one cares about
that random woman’s seaside vending enterprise at the best of times, but
that ‘she sells shells’ is even less interesting in a language which
loses the consonance and assonance of the English anecdote. Similarly,
no Anglophone would bother repeating the entertaining (no really, it’s
adorable) French tongue-twister, As-tu été à Tahiti? – “Have
you been to Tahiti?” – in English for fun. Clearly, there must be some
degree of creative licence in translation if an original’s nature is to
be emulated effectively.
Nevertheless, to see translation as a creative act does have its
problems. If one takes too many liberties in translation, translation
could turn into adaptation – and if a translator has been entrusted with
a text to translate, they do have an obligation to respect the original
Granted, questions surrounding ownership and originality are further
complicated by the fact translators are, naturally, encouraged to
translate ‘well’. To evoke the philosophy professor from the third
paragraph, however, what is ‘well’? Should a translation be permitted to improve on the original?
To compare a translation’s merit with that of an original is highly
subjective. That said, it is possible to analyse the two primary
components of all texts – style and content – and consider how these
might be improved via translation, and whether doing so is ethically
acceptable. On the one hand, translators have a responsibility not to
manipulate texts, even so as to ‘improve’ them, simply in order to
represent them accurately. Yet one can still find glimmers of ethical
translation innovation; turns of phrase which respect the original by
adding flair, but in no way changing the meaning. A personal favourite,
for example – a piece of genius I still recall from childhood – is how Harry Potter’s French translator, Jean-François Ménard, fused the words ‘choix’ (choice) and ‘chapeau’ (hat) to make the French version’s Magic Sorting Choixpeau. Such a pun is in keeping with the books’ tone, and thus a valid stylistic choice.
A more recent example of inspired translation is that of Deborah
Smith, who was co-awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for
translating Han Kang’s prize-winning novel The Vegetarian.
Judges deemed the prize to be “equal” between author and translator,
considering the book to have “found the right voice in English” and to
have thus been made accessible to Anglophone audiences to an unusually
accurate degree, in both style and content. As with the case of
Jean-François Ménard mentioned above, this example shows how a
translator can perform their job without obscuring or overshadowing the
text with which they’ve been entrusted.
However, in terms of content the debate thickens considerably.
Naturally, it seems unlikely anyone would condone changing characters or
storylines in a translationYet making such decisions is not always so
simple. Take H. Rider Haggard novels, for example: enormously popular
back in the heyday of the British Empire, they would now be considered
ludicrously offensive for their blatant racism, sexism, and classism.
Should we alter the content, and thus our understanding of Haggard, by
toning down the racial slurs and the punitive deaths? Similar questions have been asked about Enid Blyton novels, still widely distributed, and those of Agatha Christie, the best-selling author of all time.
To alter these works, whether by translation or modernisation, would
go beyond stylistic tweaks. Whole characters’ identities could need
rewriting to fit today’s standards (it can be hard enough ), and to take
such liberties with an author’s work seems absurd, or at the very least
Orwellian. And yet what should one do, if translating an otherwise
exceptional novel in which a protagonist makes repeated racist or
homophobic jokes, for example – which, in that culture, era, and social
context, may actually have served to consolidate his popularity and
(supposedly) the reader’s good opinion of him? Does one simply footnote
such incidents, and use them to discuss cultural and historical
differences, and changing ideologies? Or does one adapt the joke, and
translate the author’s supposed intent (i.e. the joke makes the
character popular) so as not to jar a progressive modern readership?
Personally, I believe translating a work should ideally be
unobtrusive: it’s not the place of the translator to change the tone of
the original and thus influence readers’ interpretations of the text. We
can’t ever fully know an author’s intent, but we can be as faithful to
informed interpretations of it as possible. Besides, translation is
widely perceived as an objective act, even though this is hardly the
case. The common belief that a translation is accurate means a
translator therefore has a great deal of responsibility, for their word
will literally be taken to be somebody else’s. Translators are
facilitators above all: they should consequently aim not to betray their readers’ expectations of loyalty to an original.
Yet in spite of these various quandaries and ethical limitations,
translation needn’t be considered the underwhelming ‘study in beige’ of
the writing arts. As mentioned previously, it can be creative without
being presumptuous, particularly if an integral part of a text’s quality
is owed to a memorable writing style. In these cases, it can be a lot
of fun to read translations; after all, one never knows what cleverness
might have been unearthed through using a set of parallel tools, and how
different translators might have interpreted the one text. What
innovations might there have been in translating Shakespeare, and might
these translations have developed over the years along with our readings
of his works? How about Finnegan’s Wake? Or Jabberwocky?
No matter how self-effacing or otherwise a translator may be – and
regardless of whether they intend to reflect or to recreate texts –
there is at least one point on which we can be hopeful: that there will
always be as much to be gained, as to be lost, in translation.
Saturday, 30 September 2017
Thursday, 31 August 2017
Artwork courtesy of Bossy Magazine
There's an entertaining moment in A Room of One's Own where Virginia Woolf breaks off from berating male authors in general, and hones in on a few in particular. One of them is Rudyard Kipling, who she declares "has [not] a spark of the woman in him".
For those in need of a refresher, Rudyard Kipling is the author of The Jungle Book, along with plenty of other writing you've not encountered via Disney. He was enormously popular and critically well-regarded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. Since then, however, he has gone a little out of vogue: writing tends not to age well when it reflects an imperialist era and mindset most would rather forget.
Woolf's criticism of him made me laugh. Granted, I haven't read enough Kipling to condone gender-based criticism of his works with certainty. I do recall his famous poem 'If', however, and excellent though it is, I can also imagine it turning around and saying from beneath its fedora, "it's not my fault you don't need 'woman' to spell 'mankind'".
Now, I'm not bitter - but I do like to write back.
What? He left himself open to it.
Iffy, by Rosalind Moran - with the (grudging) help of Rudyard Kipling
If you can hold onto hope when all around you
…Are holding bigger pay checks than you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
…Then spot when they take their ideas from you;
If you can wait but tell yourself you’re climbing,
…And speak the truth, without sounding cross,
And tiptoe around as you find good timing,
…To dare share a few of your thoughts with your boss;
If you can dream – but not expect too much;
…If you can think – but not in a threatening way;
If you can meet with men, and with subtle touch
…Make them think you’re impressed by each word that they say;
If you can bear to contribute to conversation
…While knowing you’re liked only when you agree,
Or see yourself cheated by legislation,
…Which taxes essentials a luxury fee;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
…And graciously give someone else all the credit,
And listen to old men discussing abortion
…While young ones post rape jokes about you on reddit;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
…To age gracefully, without aging a bit,
And deny yourself food, though there’s nothing in you
…And be makeup-free, naturally gorgeous, and fit;
If you can dress for dinner and keep your virtue,
…But show enough skin to be tempting to touch,
If you smile through all of the cruelties which hurt you,
…And always say “sorry” a little too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
…With a two-minute chore from your multitask world,
You’ll have 83 cents in a world full of dollars,
……And – which is more – you’ll be a Woman, my girl!
This poem was originally published by Bossy Magazine here. They publish some interesting pieces - take a look!
Thursday, 27 July 2017
The tyger. Only a mother could love it.
Re-imagining famous poetry has become a source of great amusement to me. Many a happy afternoon has been spent taking long walks during which I resolve to think about my Honours thesis, only to inevitably find myself cackling away and dashing home to scribble out a parody of The Raven.
Yet sometimes the parodies are thought up deliberately, coming about through a desire to write something for a friend: a rhyming birthday card, perhaps, or a silly limerick during a time of stress.
A few months ago, a very dear friend was telling me about her work on plant diseases and biosecurity. She made the mistake, however, of mentioning that her co-worker had written a whole rap about Xylella fastidiosa (raising the bar for co-workers everywhere, quite frankly) and challenged her to write something in return.
I've never been one to do my friends' homework, and considering I've laughed at this particular friend's wit for years, I don't think she needed my help. Nevertheless, her plant disease du jour, fireblight, wandered into my mind and began a singsong loop in its own honour: "Fire, fire, burning blight..."
Beyond a brief and insincere apology to William Blake, what more is there to say?
Fire, Fire, burning blight,
In the forests of the night;
What data or criteria,
Could frame thy cruel bacteria?
And why with distant shoot and apple
Did thine sickness choose to grapple?
On what wind did thou ensnare
The health and beauty of the pear?
And what malice, and what art?
Doth make thee tear young fruit apart?
And doth thine pathogen love grief
When oozing forth on wilted leaf?
When the stars threw down their spears
(And NZ imports stopped for years)
Did fireblight smile its work to see?
In browning leaves on blighted tree?
Fire, Fire, burning blight,
In the forests of the night;
What data or criteria,
Could frame thy cruel bacteria?
This poem was originally published here, along with an article I wrote to give a brief explanation of what fireblight actually is. One learns something new every day!
Wednesday, 28 June 2017
All photos taken on-campus at the National Taiwan University.
Let your atlas spill open; pore over the contents and remember
In the times before cartography, all skies could see was water
The tides could not be news without the sticks and rocks to measure them
A sea cannot be said to turn if fish don’t swim against it.
Uncurl your feet. Let the branch of your spine
Arch back into shape as you move up the mountainside
They closed their eyes to what’s arising – so will you
The crowd waves wasted seagrass arms as you focus on the summit.
Unlace your shoes. Let your soles grow hard
As you follow bitumen ribbons draped like tatty hillside accessories
Your grandmother used to yearn – just want to get away from it all
Yet the skeleton’s gone quiet and you wish she’d rattle the bones.
Nothing but vertical gardens to mould the cheeks of buildings
Nothing beyond the jungle of some architect’s grand design
Something’s opened the door to the dollhouse and evicted all the people
Sapiens lie low now but the sappini grow tall.
This poem recently featured in a small creative magazine published through my university. A fun opportunity to play with homonyms!
Wednesday, 31 May 2017
七星潭,花蓮,臺灣 / Seven Star Lake, Hualien, Taiwan
Hopefully it's something nice. While the average Australian knows how it feels to be mercilessly dunked while swimming in the ocean, for example, everyone still seems to be a fan of swimming at the coast. Some of us (though not me, alas) even learn to ride the waves instead of being dragged by them along sandbars.
Personally, however, I'm not sure whether my ocean-based connotations are 'right'. Sometimes I wonder whether bilingualism has wired my mind into a permanent tangle, lines of associations as crisscrossed as basketweave.
When I was little and learning to write, sometimes I would use French words in the place of English words and vice-versa, believing they shared the same meaning; cross-linguistic synonyms, essentially. Granted, this often didn't make much difference, ocean being océan, for instance. Yet for a short time, waves were 'vagues' - des vagues - and sometimes I wonder whether this mixture of language has changed the way my mind personifies the sea.
Part of me likes to think of it as a dotty sort of creature (though not merely in the sense that it is dotted with fish), sloshing around the boundaries of landmasses like some vacant, faintly drunk individual hovering at a party's edges. Creeping forward, tapping a shoulder, and then panicking and retreating at speed. Prone to the occasional outburst, but mostly pretty easy-going, smooth-sailing; not harboring malicious intent. Vague.
The 'vagaries' of language-learning themselves technically come from the Italian word vagare, meaning to wander - not unlike what waves and currents do, incidentally. Language links can seem endless even when they have no etymological foundations. Minds can be gifted at spotting coincidental similarities.
My experiences of bilingualism are undoubtedly common. Indeed, perhaps it is an inherent quality of bilingualism, when people learn multiple languages and concepts at the same time, that this leads to different meandering paths of connotations and understanding.
I confess I don't - while I'd love to learn more about bilingualism and the formation of concepts and connotations, I imagine such a field is highly qualitative and difficult to measure. It could take some research to find a study offering answers to these questions.
In the meantime, therefore, I'll simply wave away vagaries, slap down a coaster, and stir ripples in my mug of tea instead of writing my thesis.
I hope you enjoy the pictures of vagues!
Saturday, 29 April 2017
Two roads diverged in a parody poem.
Near Vaduz, Liechtenstein
Slightly less near Vaduz, Liechtenstein
The Netherlands - can confirm it is a nice place to get lost
Tidbinbilla National Park, Australia
Home (or thereabouts)
The Road Mistaken
And sorry I could not see a third
To bypass alleys, long I stood
And peered down one as far as I could
Through smoky haze where shadows stirred;
Then took the other, as just as foul
And having perhaps the better claim,
For though it was glassy everywhere;
And dead rats marred the passing there
The two were really about the same,
And both that twilight equally lay
In concrete glory filled with cracks
Oh, who needs a third track anyway?
I’m not too good to walk this way,
And perfectly able to watch my back.
I shall be telling this with a smile
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged where I stood, and I—
I took this one with dauntless style,
And it has made no di—
This poem was originally published here. It is a deliberately arrogant parody of The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, and certainly not to be read at anybody's graduation.
As for the photos above, they are snapshots of a few places I have lived or visited. One positive of being perennially optimistic about time and distance means that you end up walking a great deal and stumbling across many curious trails. This can even entail accidentally walking across half of Liechtenstein in the rain. I highly recommend it.
Friday, 31 March 2017
My habit of writing about relatives is getting out of control. As is the case for most people, however, my family possesses several eccentric characters who lend themselves deliciously well to the page.
There was the great-grandfather who accidentally got the whole family excommunicated from the Catholic Church, for example, when he drank a bowl of holy water upon waking from a coma during his own last rites. Why the priest chose to interpret this as sacrilege instead of a miracle remains a mystery to us all. Then there was my mother who, as a young child in Ghana, took a snake to school for show-and-tell. More entertaining still is the fact it was her own mother who suggested she do so.
As for my grandmother, however – the aforementioned giver-of-the-snake – I don’t really know where to begin. Knowing whether or not I should begin is even difficult in itself, for my grandmother was an author in her own right and long remained determined she would tell her own story. An early death from breast cancer put paid to that ambition, however, and many of her achievements remain in obscurity. It’s a pity: she lived some pretty spectacular adventures.
I can’t imagine my writing about her adventures will do much for their obscurity-related status. That said, there can be something satisfying about sharing a story in the hope it could cheer or inspire some other person, particularly one outside of my immediate family. Besides, perhaps reading about my grandmother and her avant-garde, nomadic, husband-eschewing travels could inspire others to break the mould in their own way. I think she’d approve.
The picture above is a shot of my grandmother at the beginning of what became a three year trip riding a scooter around Africa in the 1950s – and the beginning of a lifetime moving between West Africa, the UK, and Australia. It’s a long story, and one my mother and I hope to tell in greater length on another platform someday, but this short article about her adventures is a start. I originally wrote it in Italian, meaning that version is somewhat more eloquent, but the English translation gets the job done too.
Who is the rebel in your family?