Faculty in the Field
Originals are not faithful to translations
by Laszlo Scholz, Professor, Department of Hispanic Studies
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
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
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.