Faculty in the Field

Traduttori Traditori?
Originals are not faithful to translations
by Laszlo Scholz, Professor, Department of Hispanic Studies

I am always surprised to see how little attention is paid to translation in our multicultural societies. In my field, Latin American fiction, for example, critics often speak about its essentially hybrid nature, but they very seldom provide details of the process that leads up to this.

Translation is often taken for a fishy business: translators are traitors, as my title suggests. "Poetry is defined as what is lost in translation," according to Frost. "The work of the translator is labeled as the most humble activity of the intellect," says Spanish philosopher and writer Ortega y Gasset.

People in today's high-tech world are often fooled into thinking that moving from one language to another is as simple as hitting the proper key while surfing the Internet. We all have seen those web programs that promise to translate between languages automatically.

But three decades of experience in the field have shown me that literary translation is always complicated, time consuming, and problematic. It can also be extremely rewarding, especially in the classroom. I am not referring to cases when reading assignments are checked by asking for "adequate" or even "faithful" rendering of certain foreign texts. Nor do I allude to pinpointing mistranslations, which always animate class reaction to textual analysis. I rather think of examples that help us understand literature in a wider context.

In Colonial Latin American literarature, Peruvian Inca Garcilaso de la Vega prepared a Spanish version of León Hebreo's Dialoghi d'amore in 1590. Why? Some suggest it was in preparation for Los comentarios reales, his major work. Today we rather think that Garcilaso used translation for entering the contemporary literary scene in Spain. He took no risks: he selected a work that had already been "handled" by the Inquisition, and he observed in his translation, as closely as he could, the rather strict ideological canon of the day. Once accepted into Spanish literary society, he tried to change the prevailing views of the colonizers.

Jumping to 20th-century Cuban literature, we often wonder why anthropologist Fernando Ortiz felt obliged to translate one of Pérez Galdós' late novels, El caballero encantado, from Spanish into Spanish. Was it to Americanize Peninsular Spanish? Yes, but also to reject panhispanic sentiment of the turn of the century. He used a drastic "cut and paste" technique in his version to show the preference of Spanish-speaking America for independence over Latin unity as orchestrated by the ex-colonizer. After independence, more than a century had to pass before Spain ceased to exert an overwhelming influence on Latin American literature.

Translations also help us understand the dynamics of literary influences. Just look at bare statistics. A 19th-century Mexican journal, El Siglo XIX, published 579 foreign authors between the years 1845 and 1896. Of those, 231 were Spanish, 148 Latin American, 134 French, 20 English, and only 12 from the U.S. Half a century later, we find quite a different picture in Sur, published in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. Between 1931 and 1950, the journal carried just 41 texts by Spanish authors, 180 by Latin American authors, 80 by French, 55 by English, and 35 from the U.S.

Within the classroom, translations can help steer students from minor textual or grammatical details to major social or cultural contexts. You only need a word like mak'tillo, meaning "young man." While considering an English equivalent term (the word stem is Quechua, the suffix is Spanish), one cannot avoid discussing the problem of mestizaje in Peru. Or we may read in class the Argentine short story Caperucito Rojo and review what linguistic options we have in English to tell the story of this Little Red Riding-Hood, who happens to be a boy.

I find especially rewarding that literary translations bring up theoretical issues for class discussion. I fully agree with Borges, who said that there is nothing more revealing than translation if we want to explore the essence of literature. In the case of a creative work, there is always an initial unknown element (call it intention, inspiration, unconscious, muse), whereas translation offers us a real, visible starting point, the "original." I use quotation marks here to indicate one of the most important lessons translation teaches us about literature: there is no definitive text, we have only versions, and as Borges says, originals are not faithful to translations.

So are authors, too, traditori? They are, of course, in many ways, especially if we go beyond, thanks to translations, a mimetic concept of literature.

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