December 3rd, 2011
Several years ago now, from memory when I was still working in Tianjin, I was on my way to Deshengmen to meet my wife, whence we’d head out to Yanqing for one holiday or another. She had, I think, a job interview, and so I had time to kill. I just happened to be in the Jianguomen area, so stopped in to the old John Bull pub to pass the time. The TV was tuned to one of the Tianjin channels and was broadcasting the opening ceremony of a Tianjin municipal sports meet. Teams were parading around the athletics track, each led by a beautiful young woman carrying a sign bearing the name of the district or work unit the team represented.
This was in the period when John Bull – the pub, at least, but obviously not the building that housed it – was being allowed to crumble into the dust like some ageing, long-forgotten, even by his family, and now thoroughly neglected athlete. Memories of the glory days were still very much alive, but visitors were increasingly rare and more desperately craved, and in any case, memory alone is not enough to iron out the wrinkles and creases and grease the worn out joints of the ageing body of what once was an athlete. There was one other customer in the place to occupy the Filipino bar tender (now, isn’t that illegal? And in any case, even though I can see the need for staff who speak English and other foreign languages in a bar in an embassy district, why the hell would you hire people who can’t speak a word of Chinese to tend bar in China?! But that’s a different rant), a North American. Not an old chap, but a shade more weathered than myself. Living in Shijiazhuang, he said. Popped into Beijing for a bit of a break. Translator, he said.
“You know, I can’t figure out what these signs they’re carrying are supposed to mean.”
I pointed out that a good half of them were the names of Tianjin’s various districts, and the others were fairly clearly the names of work units. He didn’t quite seem to understand. What I couldn’t understand is how he could see a bunch of signs bearing names like “河西区” or “河东区” and not realise they must be the names of districts (区, after all, means district, region and similar things, and is the word used for the urban subdivivisions of a city translated into English as ‘district’) and other signs bearing words like “公司” and “集团” and not realise they must be the names of work units of various kinds.
Could this guy really be a translator? Or was he trying to make his proofreading job sound fancier than it actually was? Or was he one of these people so desperate to not be associated with the foreign teacher stereotype he just decided to make something up?
Robertson himself describes a process wherein his Swedish girlfriend gives him a literal line-by-line translation into English, then reads the Swedish to him to give him “the cadences,” after which he created “relatively free” versions in English.
This approach to translation is not uncommon among poets (W.H. Auden gave us his versions of Icelandic sagas in much the same way).
Can Robertson and Auden be described as translators? Or are they poets drawing inspiration from the poetry of another language and culture, poetry which, through their (apparent) unfamiliarity with the original language and culture they can’t fully understand?
Fortunately the article goes on to say:
All the same, what often frees the student to offer better translations is a deeper knowledge of the language he is working from: a better grasp of the original allows the translator to detach from formal structures and find a new expression for the tone he is learning to feel: in this case, however, every departure from strict transposition is inspired by an intimate and direct experience of the original.
All this to arrive at the obvious conclusion that while expression and creativity in one’s own language is crucial, a long experience in the language we are working from can only improve the translations we make.
Well yes. How can you really translate a language without being intimately familiar with it? As I’ve recently had cause to tell me students, it’s about the ideas not the words. Words are merely vehicles for moving ideas from one brain to others. The more familiar you are with the language the better able you are to fully understand the ideas encoded, and therefore express those ideas in the language you are translating into.
And then I got to wondering if I’ll ever be satisfied with my knowledge of Chinese. The answer is no, and that’s probably a good thing. Satisfaction is one of the reasons people plateau, and when it comes to knowledge, hitting a plateau means going nowhere. What’s the point in that?
… and then my brain went wandering off in various other directions…