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南桥的博客

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Translator's Block  

2010-02-26 07:58:19|  分类: English |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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A Translators Block - 南桥 - 南桥的博客

在学校创作班做的一次关于文学翻译的发言。

A translator is a wordsmith.

The Gospel of John starts with “In the beginning was the Word.” I heard that it meant “logos” in the original language, but I like the English translation of the “word” which conveys at least part of connotations of the original one. From Genesis you probably remember how God made the world with his spoken word. He said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. He didn’t start by creating the Department of Public Works, Indian Point Power Plant, and General Electric to lay the groundwork for illumination.

In the beginning the word is tied with creation. In the beginning the creative people are the wordsmiths of various sorts. The village sage. The traveling storyteller. The minstrel. Times may have changed, but our reliance on words to make meaning of the world has not changed. I once read a book by Daniel Pink in which he says that in modern boardrooms, people are not much different from men living in early caves. Today, we still wait for the wise man to come and tell us stories of what’s going on, what’s happening to us, how we compare with other folks. It looks like that we humans are busy with two things mainly: make money and make meaning, the former for survival, the latter to make survival worthwhile.

Enough of my philosophizing. I hold a day job as an instructional designer. I love the job. But I have another passion, translation. Sometimes the two jobs are not all that different. When I help a professor design an online course, I am helping to translate a face-to-face course into one to be offered online or in an online-offline hybrid format. Principles for translation sometimes apply to instructional design as well. Both require the use of dynamic equivalence. In both cases I work with content experts. Translation makes me a better instructional designer. Translation also puts me in the presence of the most creative people in the world: writers. I had always wanted to be a writer myself, to write stories and characters into being. I grew up in a small village. The furthest place I had traveled before going to college was the county town about 30 miles away. As you can imagine, I yearned to see what’s beyond the horizon. Good literature showed me what the outside world was like.

Yet I was not creative enough to become a writer, so I put myself on sale in the market of professions, and I became a literary translator instead. What does the cliché say? If you shoot for the moon, at least you can land in one of the stars.

I am not saying that a literary translator is less important or less valuable. It is one of the toughest and most rewarding pursuits in the world. The earliest translators were actually deeply spiritual and highly respected people. In China, one of our first translators was a monk, Xuanzang (玄奘), also known as the Dang Dynasty Monk (唐僧), as fictionalized in the Chinese classic Journey to the West. He translated Buddhist scriptures into Chinese after his travels to India. Translation used to be one of the noblest things to do, a calling, a mission, a spiritual journey. People used translation to share wisdom from different lands. When Christianity spread to the corners of the world, missionaries often found that if they cannot translate the Bible into a native language, they cannot accomplish any mission work. Some missionaries even go so far as to invent a written language for the aboriginals in order to translate and teach the Bible.

In spite of its historical significance, literary translation is not the most profitable job in the world.

I did some commercial translation before. It seemed to pay pretty well. Translating for media is not bad either.  I also did translation for management consultants, including some  top consulting firms in the world. There I translated letters of proposals, progress review reports, bios of consultants, etc. It’s almost cruel to do this to myself. Many letters of proposals follow exactly the same templates. You sometimes hear these firms say that their clients can benefit from their “global knowledge base,” which sounds rather fancy, but basically that means their consulting work consists of copying a report from a Korean project and using it in a similar Chinese project -- and for that they charge clients half a million dollars! None of these jokers will get a passing grade if somebody uses plagiarism detection applications such as Turnitin as our professors do with student assignments. 

That said, I wouldn’t say that doing commercial translation is all bad. Sometimes it is just bad writing that irritates me. When I translate such bad writing, I risk turning into a violent person. Once a friend of mine asked me for help translating a commercial for a company. The writing was so bad, so full of grandiose nonsense that it caused me to have very bad thoughts. I wanted to personally seek out the writer and persecute him with some torture of my own invention, which would involve hanging on the tree and the use of whips. Or send him to the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Cannot Write Good.

But, being the nice guy that I am, I didn’t go far along that path. Instead I took a safer alternative. I asked the friend never to do this to me again. She did better than that. She never writes to me any more. 

While working for the consulting company, I couldn’t tolerate the thought of these mediocre people writing horrible Chinese or English that I had to turn into good Chinese or English. Six months later, I said, enough is enough. This is killing me. This is a waste of a good portion of my life that I could be using for a better purpose. 

That’s where literary translation comes in. When we do literary translation, we get royalties, typically in the neighborhood of 60 RMB (10 Dollars) per thousand words nowadays in China. As you can imagine, it is hard to become Bill Gates or Warren Buffet this way. Things are not better elsewhere. You don’t see people waiting in long lines and jostling and fighting and bribing to become translators. Most Chinese books were translated first into French, not English. One of the Chinese-English translators at Paper-republic (a Chinese translators’ web site) explains that France has a better welfare system in which a translator can afford to spend 5-10 months working on a book. The worst that could happen to a translator is that he or she lives on unemployment benefits. That’s what you call a love of arts and humanities.

So I said that was good. I just managed to reduce my income by at least 9 times and I got myself something much more nerve-breaking to do. As you can probably imagine, literary translation is much harder than commercial translation. In the case of commercial translation, the only person you have to please is the boss or whoever contracts you. In literary translation you get readers and critics everywhere. The rewards just don’t measure up to the effort and intellect required for the work.

In the beginning I couldn’t get it. I complain about it sometimes. I remember I once wrote a rant about the translator’s royalties in a blog post called “It is easier to be a pig farmer than a literary translator.” Somehow I caught the attention of one of the leading translation scholars in China and he left a comment in my blog, prefacing it with a statement that it was the first comment he ever made on the Internet. In those days, the Internet seemed to be a shameful place filled with junkies. He must have felt very strongly about the subject to go to this length. He wrote: Mr. Fang, don’t you think that it is rewarding to be having a dialogue with literary masters in the world? That is an “Aha!” moment for me. He changed my perspective in the way I look at literary translation. We are not talking about making money here. We are talking about engaging in conversations with masters. I may have felt this way myself, but sometimes you want to hear it being verbalized to attach importance to it, to “anchor” that kind of importance, so to speak. 

Now, the money problem aside, literary translation is different in the sense that it is an art, not a drill. It is an art in the sense that painting is an art, when an artist is painting a model sitting on a bench, or an apple on a plate. It is an art in the sense photography is an art, when you try to take a beautiful or striking moment you see and you share it with somebody else. It is an art in the sense calligraphy is an art, when you spend years trying to perfect a way of representation.

Translation may seem to be an art of imitation, but they are judged by very similar criteria to those a writer is judged by. Eventually, people expect to read works of literature through the translation. Anything short of that will disgrace the translator. Few people blame the writer, but they blame the translator, and they are very creative with their sarcasm. Recently I heard that China has an Award called “Award for Translation that Sucks”.

I am not dying to be nominated.

People judge translation harshly possibly because it is more difficult to pass judgment on writing. It is easier to zoom in on a sentence and pass a judgment and thereby making yourself look smart. If the translator has an awkward sentence in the middle of a paragraph, it sticks out like a sore thumb. If the translation is good, translators disappear into the text. Good translators are the invisible men and women of the literary world. If translators are conspicuous, taking the center of the stage, the translation has very probably failed. You can be sure that the critics will say nasty things. It is like what people sometimes say about plumbers. If they do a good job, nobody notices. If they mess up one thing, then there is (beep) everywhere. In a way, translators are measured by how transparent they are, and how quiet critics are.

Translation is an art of equivalence. Chinese thinker and translator Yan Fu, proposed three criteria that are still used today in judging translation: faithfulness, smoothness, and elegance. In most cases, I acknowledge the validity of such criteria, but sometimes they are irrelevant. For instance, if there is a character who does not speak proper English in the story, how do we make his speech elegant, I mean the Shakespearean kind of elegance? Can a translator translate a dialogue in the Dumb Waiter (by Harold Pinter) the way he or she would translate a dialogue from King Lear or Macbeth? Probably not. Why would someone translate a sailor’s talk in a bar into elegant, grammatically correct Chinese that Lin Yutang or Lao She might be speaking?

It gets really difficult when the author makes use of a particular kind of vernacular. For instance, how do we render dialogues in southern English, with all the “y’all”s, and long drawls? It is sometimes impossible. The Chinese language, or any other target language, has an altogether different linguistic landscape that does not map American English region by region. People in Southern China speak many local dialects, most of which I don’t speak. Even if I do, I wouldn’t use it as many readers would find it hard to follow. So it is only possible to render it into a more generic dialect that deviates only slightly from the Mandarin, so that most people will understand. For instance, we could probably get away with using Northeastern Chinese for Southern English. People may call that geographic disorientation. I call that dynamic equivalence. Even with such treatment, the mapping is only an approximation. Otherwise Google could do it much better than we humans could.

Another kind of equivalence has to do with writers’ style. I find this to be the most challenging. All writers are fundamentally idiosyncratic. Some are more so than others. When I translated Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, I often found uncommon comparisons, for instance, comparing an Arizona landscape with a dysfunctional TV screen, or little towns in the outskirts to “poop” from a bigger city. I had to translate it the way he wrote it, with full knowledge that some readers would think that it is just my Chinese being strange.

I am giving two examples below from my recent translation experience to illustrate what a translator’s job is like. One of them is a paragraph describing a traffic accident from Let the Great World Spin.

“Yet the plain fact of the matter is that it happened and there was nothing we could do to stop it—Corrigan at the wheel of the van, having spent all day down in the Tombs and the courtrooms of lower Manhattan, driving north up along the FDR, with Jazzlyn beside him in the passenger seat, her yellow high heels and her neon swimsuit, her choker tight around her neck, and Tillie had been locked away on a robbery charge, she had taken the rap, and my brother was giving Jazzlyn a lift back to her kids, who were more than keyrings, more than a flip in the air, and they were going fast along the East River, hemmed in by the buildings and the shadows, when Corrigan went to change lanes, maybe he hit the indicator, maybe he didn’t, maybe he was dizzy or tired or out of sorts, maybe he’d gotten some medicine that slowed him or fogged his vision, maybe he tapped the brake, maybe he cut it too hard, maybe he was gently humming a bit of a tune, who knows, but it was said that he was clipped in the rear by a fancy car, some old antique, nobody saw the driver, a gold vehicle going about its everyday applause of itself, it caught the back end of his van, nudged it slightly, but it sent Corrigan into a spin across all three lanes, like some big brown dancing thing, elegant for a split second, and I think now of Corrigan gripping the steering wheel, frightened, his eyes large and tender, while Jazzlyn beside him screamed, and her body tightened, her neck tensed, it all flashing in front of her—her short vicious life—and the van skidded on the dry roadway, hit a car, hit a newspaper truck, and then smashed headlong into the guardrail at the edge of the highway, and Jazzlyn went headfirst through the windshield, no safety belt, a body already on the way to heaven, and Corrigan was smashed back by the steering wheel, which caught his chest and shattered his breastbone, his head rebounding off the spidery glass, bloody, and then he was whipped back into the seat with such force that the metal frame of the seat shattered, a thousand pounds of moving steel, the van still spinning from one side of the road to the other, and Jazzlyn’s body, only barely dressed, made a flying arc through the air, fifty or sixty miles per hour, and she smashed in a crumpled heap by the guardrail, one foot bent in the air as if stepping upwards, or wanting to step upwards, and the only thing of hers they found later in the van was a yellow stiletto, with a Bible sitting canted right beside it, having fallen out of the glove compartment, one on top of the other and both of them littered with glass, and Corrigan, still breathing, was bounced around and smashed sideways so that he finished up with his body twisted down in the dark well by the accelerator and the brake, and the engine whirled as if it still wanted to go fast and be stopped at the same time, all of Corrigan’s weight on both of the pedals.” 

Let me pause here and say a little bit about my craftsmanship as a translator. Obviously it is a very difficult part to translate. What do I do? Here is my technical process for rendering it: I stare at it for three minutes. I get an ice cream. I stare at it for another three minute. I get myself a cup of tea. I translate a few sentences. I pull my hair. And I let out a sound of frustration, often loud enough to cause my two parakeets to say things.

That’s what I would do at home, late at night. As a matter of fact, I translated the paragraph without the benefits of ice cream. I was translating this paragraph in the Barnes and Noble bookstore, a sanctuary for translators. I brought my family along, which is my idea of quality family time, with two kids reading books in the kids’ section, and my wife using their wireless Internet connection to check some of her web account. They all love Barnes Noble, and generally, books, which is the fringe benefit of having a translator as a husband or father. As for me, I could literally live in Barnes and Noble for a month just like the guy living at the airport in the movie Terminal (starring Tom Hanks). Anyway, I was sitting in one of the comfy couches, got so caught up in it, that when my son came here from his reading break, I gave him my iPod so that he could play Tap Tap Revenge 3 while I plowed ahead word by word, feeling the fatigue, shock, and pain of Corrigan.

It was getting late and the bookstore manager had announced that there is only 5 minutes left before they close. My lady was staring down at me. My kids had put on their coats. All stood above me. So I had to drag myself back to the car with the gang. I was back in the car, still not recovered from my translation. I clutched at the steering wheel, full of thoughts about what Corrigan has been going through. It was traumatic to be immersed so deeply in this scene. I had to talk. I talked with my wife with as much accuracy as I could about the crash, gesturing wildly. In order to make such talk make sense, I warned her about travel safety in the future, wearing safety belt and look before you change lanes and all that. She nodded, saying that it is bad for Jazzlyn not to wear the safety belt, without knowing exactly the kind of scene I had been witnessing, almost visually, via words. It’s unsettling! Good literature does that.

I used Google Translate to do my first batch of translation to make my glossary consistent. When Google saw this paragraph, separated only with commas, it treated the paragraph as one sentence. And I can completely understand why the author wrote it this way. You feel like you are hearing someone describing the scene in one breath. The writing has the kind of intensity required for the scene being described. It puts a series of vivid pictures, a succession of movement right in front of my eyes. I visualize it. I feel I am part of the scene as if I am a witness. Just because of this, translating it is a dark experience. I almost feel like writing it myself. I can feel the author working in me getting these sentences out.

It is in such writing that a good author haunts a translator. There are many moments when my kids wave in front of my eyes and ask me at dinner table: “Dad, what are you staring at?” “Nothing.” As a matter of fact, I was just flipping a sentence back and forth in my brain, a sentence that had been giving me a pain in the neck a few minutes ago.

Everyday there are times I get stuck by paragraphs like this. I can also get myself stuck by a phrase, a concept, a mental picture, a word, or even the pronunciation of a word. There is always something. I call these moments as a translator’s block.

Sometimes, I have no idea what the author is talking about. What do I know about cricket? What do I know about woman’s clothes at the beginning of the 20th century? What do I know about a revolution in Africa in the 1950s? What do I know about a romantic encounter between Pearl Buck and the poet Xu Zhimo in the first half of the last century?

Yet everyday I have to find out about a small detail that involves some knowledge about such topics. If you don’t know, fine, go figure it out somehow. Ask someone who might know. So I constantly ask people, especially my Western Civilization professor Barbara Penney, one of the most knowledgeable persons that I know. I also search with Google, Baidu, Wikipedia, Douban and what not. Sometimes I even watch a particular cricket game between, say Pakistan and South Africa in 2004, from Youtube to see what was really going on. Such research takes up a lot of time, so much that the weeds in my yard are getting the upper hand of the Bermuda grass. Fortunately, I am becoming very knowledgeable. I have a rich repository of useless bits of information. I know a ton of weird little facts about all sorts of things. I wonder why I don’t go to a TV show called Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

It also helps if we know or can contact the author to see what he or she means exactly. I have written to Peter Akroyd, Annie Proulx, and Joseph O’Neal at different times, and all of them were helpful in providing me with good explanations. Mr. O’Neal was just wonderful with answering questions. He wrote back in less than half an hour with all answers to my 15 or so questions. I haven’t figured out what to do with authors who are dead. It may help to find biographers or researchers or relatives. For instance, I got myself acquainted Dr. Carol Johnson, whose doctoral dissertation is about Betty Smith, the author who wrote one of the books I translated: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. 

In some other “translator’s block” moments, I know perfectly well what the author means; yet the trick is to find the equivalent in Chinese. For instance, in Let the Great World Spin, I was stuck on the phrase “her reigning calmness.” when Adelita was staying with Corrigan in the hospital. I know what each of these words means. I know together what they mean, but I felt powerless to convey that in Chinese. So I stared at the words. They stared at me. I was stuck. I thought there’s got to be something somewhere that describes exactly the same thing, if you think of our five thousand years’ worth of words. Yet a translator’s brain does not function like a search engine. There isn’t a quick way to search for a phrase that describes exactly what is being described in the source language. I know, however, there is going to be a day when I stumble upon something in Chinese that would be perfect for this phrase. These are moments when you see translators jump out of showers shouting Eureka!

There are also expressions that I would call “untranslatables”. For instance, “Solomon wanted to hire a nurse, but she refused. She said she would snap out of it. But the word was not snap, more like slide. A word Joshua had liked. I will slide out. ” It was almost impossible to find the exact equivalent Chinese for “snap” and “slide” while keeping 1) the action; 3) the reference to recovery; 3) the alliteration. Fortunately there is a Chinese phrase that may produce a similar effect on readers’ minds: “病来如山倒,病去如抽丝” (Sickness comes as quickly as a mountain tumbling over, and it leaves as slowly as unwrapping a cocoon thread by thread.), so here we go:

所罗门想请个护士,她拒绝了。她说她好起来如山倒。可是如山倒谈何容易?说是如抽丝更像一些。这个说法约书亚会喜欢。我会像剥茧抽丝一样复原的。

Another example: “The breakthroughs. The breakdowns.”

My first version: 有时候出现突破。有时候出现故障。In this version, my translation captured the meaning of the sentence, but what I lost was the beauty of the language. So I changed it to:

有时出现突破柳暗花明。有时出现故障山穷水尽。(Sometimes there were breakthroughs like a new road has opened up after an apparent dead end. Sometimes there were breakdowns as if you’ve come to a dead end.)

This still does not sound right. Logically, you expect to see a dead end first and then a surprising corner you can turn, or twist in your situation, so I changed it to:

有时出现故障,山穷水尽。有时出现突破,柳暗花明。( Sometimes there were breakdowns as if you’ve come to a dead end. Sometimes there were breakthroughs like a new road has opened up after an apparent dead end.)

The additional parts I added in the translation were taken from an ancient Chinese poem. These lines in the poem have turned into idioms describing breakthroughs and breakdowns. So I tried to make amend for what I lose in not being able to capture the alliteration by adding another kind of beauty to the expressions. I wish I did not have to do this. As a matter of fact, I do this kind of equivalence very rarely. I wouldn’t, if I can translate it more literally.

Sometimes, however, the original language may cause you to fail one way or the other in rendering. When there is a word play involved, there are painful tradeoffs we have to make. The bottom line is, we try to create a similar impression on the reader in the target language as the impression we get ourselves reading it in the original language. However, we do this with extreme caution, because you lose the faith of readers if you take too much into your own hands. You get too close to the target language and you risk making people wonder: is that really what the author said? How would McCann know a Chinese phrase so well? Well, maybe he found it from a fortune cookie in a New York restaurant. That would be a lame excuse, though.

These difficult phrases are good phrases in terms of writing. They tell one so much. Typically we say that Chinese is concise, while English is precise. From McCann’s writing I felt that English too, can be concise. It, too, can wrap so much meaning or imagery with a well-chosen combination of expressions. People always say that a picture is worth a thousand words. As a translator, I often found the opposite. A word, or rather, a good combination of words, can be worth a thousand pictures. That’s exactly what director Ang Lee said about Annie Proulx when he directed the Brokeback Mountain.

You creative writers, go ahead writing what you have to write. Answer your calling as I answer mine. You can forget about the pain you can give to the translators. I may suffer as a translator, but I won’t mind it all that much as long as it is good literature.

This brings me to another topic about translators. Translators are also readers. We are the most intensive readers. We do not get to skip or skim. We do not pass a scene about shopping or football because we don’t like it. We have to deal with each sentence, each word, each nuance, each joke, each irony, each pun, and each word play. We get to appreciate what works. We also see what sucks. Sometimes only a translator knows when something doesn’t work. If someone writes the word “brother” without ever mentioning whether it is an older brother or younger brother, I become furious. In Chinese, we have two phrases for brother: “Ge Ge” for the older one, and “Di Di” for the younger one. A writer may argue that it doesn’t matter in the American culture in terms of sibling seniority, yet it is not good literature because you fail to present a clear mental picture about the person being an older person or a younger one. You are guilty of vagueness. In this sense, it does matter. If someone writes “cousin,” I just explode, what do you mean there, my elder brother, when you say “cousin”? Is it a boy or girl at least? Is the cousin older or younger? Is the cousin on mother’s side of the family or father’s side of the family? You see, in Chinese we have eight words for “cousin.” I have to choose one of them. Unless you give me some clarification somewhere in the context, I am not responsible for any linguistic sex change surgery your cousin might go through. It’s just you being vague.

I have a lot of such things that I guess I could share with writers, but I cannot afford to do it now. I have a dream, that one day, I will have so much free time after my day job, my translation and my writing assignments that I can write a book called A Translator’s Guide to Good Writing. Not that I am a good one myself, but at least I can provide a different perspective.

You might ask: Why would you care? Your job is translation. Yet we do care. As I said we are readers after all. We cannot be good translators without being good readers.

To transform translation into reading, I do something that most translators would not do. I do not read the complete book before I start to translate. I have to have something to sustain me through the long process of translation. Translating after having read the book is like watching a Hitchcock movie the second time. The suspense is gone. I have to have a big question hanging in front of me to keep me moving. Everyday I renew my translation asking myself “What’s next?”

Of course I lose something by not reading the complete book first. I risk having some inconsistencies and errors during the translation process, which I fortunately can correct while proofreading it. Also I could be researching a topic for nothing, as I would have known what was going on if I had read the whole book. But I wouldn’t trade anything for the joy of a curious reader. As an extremely intensive reader, I get to do couch traveling to places that the authors described. London. The Hague. Berlin. Paris. Oklahoma-Texas Panhandle. Brooklyn. Bronx. 

In other words, if we enjoy it, translation gives us a second chance at life.
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