Whenever I go on abroad I can’t understand the language that is being spoken around me. Well, I once went to America, but in spite of all of the USA’s cultural exports, I suspect there was a cultural fluency I was still lacking (I have heard the USA and UK described as being ‘divided by a common language’). In the 21st century, having only one language sometimes feels like illiteracy. In China this is exacerbated by the fact that there are multiple languages; written and spoken Chinese are more autonomous than in some other languages and there are many dialects.
Recently I have had the experience of having my writing translated from English to Chinese. Relinquishing control, seeing your words hidden behind a code that you can’t yourself crack, is difficult; but the prospect of expanding my readership is really positive and exciting. Ideally, you can sit with the translator and talk about ambiguous sentences and words. I feel that the translator should have a co-writing credit; ‘collaboration’ may seem a little bit strong but I think it is appropriate. You have to trust that the final product has the tone you intended. Sometimes when I write I make jokes with words, I expect this will not translate.
This week I attended ‘Translators Talk’; a fantastic event that was part of the Shanghai International Literary Festival 2013. The contributors opened my mind to the idea of translation as an art form. There are obvious links to fine art, especially as we often use the word ‘language’ to describe an artist’s style. We also use the word ‘interpretation’ to describe a range of curatorial practices that communicate the meaning of artworks; very different to the ‘interpreters’ in the spoken word field, who act as a lightning-quick conduit between speakers of different languages.
We might naively consider translation of literary texts to be a straightforward process. In reality, there could be thousands of ways to convey the text in the ‘target’ language. Translators can spend days thinking of the ways that one sentence could be written. They might still be thinking about it while at the shops, having a swim or trying to get to sleep. Their own cultural knowledge, writing style and creativity all plays a part. A ‘google translation’ will not explain a ritual that is culturally-specific and unfamiliar to the reader, and it will not communicate tone.
As you might expect, there are many contemporary artists who have explored the idea of translation. Glasgow-based Oliver Braid, currently on a residency in Marseille, France, is ‘google translating’ his thoughts as a way of expressing the awkwardness that arises from communicating complex concepts in a new language and place (read his blog here). Neither English nor French people will really understand Braid’s blog, as to use google to translate it back to English generates nonsense. And for this year’s dOCUMENTA 13, Chinese artist Song Dong made an artists’ book from multiple translations of one ‘untranslatable’ Chinese sentence (two pages of this book are pictured).
Paul Gladston prefaces his book, ‘Contemporary Art in Shanghai: Conversations with Seven Chinese Artists,’ 2011, by saying “as anyone familiar with the making of translations/transcriptions of recorded conversations will readily acknowledge, recorded speech is often repetitious, contradictory, elliptical and grammatically incorrect. As a consequence, transcriptions/translations of recorded speech more often than not require careful editing so that they can be made readable while adhering as closely as possible to the traces of what was actually said.”
While I agree with Gladston with regards to printed text in a book, sometimes I think it is good to preserve some of the local grammar and idiosyncrasies. I am not the first person to be charmed by ‘Chinglish’. Just today I saw a sign at the University that said ‘Be disciplined and law abiding, not chaotic and lawless’: I presume this isn’t communicating the exact sentiment of the Chinese sign, but, then again, maybe it is? The point is to refine translations can be to erase evidence of the original tone and thought processes.
Back to the literary festival talk; the panelists highlight two other potential pitfalls with translation: exoticisation and forcing the text too much into a new cultural context. It takes considerable skill to navigate these two traps without falling in-between and being understandable to no-one. The challenge is to balance accuracy, elegance, readability and faithfulness; and to always keep in mind the target audience. The translators also urged that you should only translate source material that you really love and care about.
They also made the point that as more and more people become bilingual, a greater degree of sophistication in translation is demanded by the audience. The same could be said of a more sophisticated art audience demanding a sophisticated interpretation. In fact, many of the points that the panel made about the act of translation are also true of curation. To a certain extent we could define the curation and interpretation of contemporary art as the act of handing the viewer a cipher to help them crack the code.