Translation versus Translation Theory
I was translating Modern Greek Poetry into English – partly for love of Greek poetry, partly for interested friends – for several years before it occurred to me that my translations might be worthy of publication. To my pleased surprise some of them were, so being a believer in trade unionism, as soon as I started earning money at it and had embarked, at an editor’s invitation, on a book-length project, I joined the TA.
A little later I attended my first translators’ conference, at (of course) U.E.A. I expected to hear translators reading from, and discussing the difficulties encountered in making, translations of particular works, and indeed there was some of that. But what there was far more of was people – I’m not sure if they were translators – giving long and complicated, though sometimes fascinating, talks on ‘Translation Theory’. Typically, these did not refer to individual works or even individual languages, except by way of illustrative example. Very interesting, I thought; but is it any more likely to make me a better translator than, say, a study of moral philosophy to make me a better person?
By the end of the first full day of that first conference my interest was fighting a losing battle with bafflement. What was this vast intellectual superstructure for? It didn’t seem to me likely to help in the actual business of translation, indeed I thought that the way it had been plonked down and built up over that business made it a hindrance. In the evening, over a bottle (or two or three) of wine I rashly said roughly this to some fellow drinkers. One or two nodded vigorously but said nothing, but some others got very heated, until one of them got really cross and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about and should shut up. As I was new to the business I suppressed the thought that hitting a raw nerve so quickly and easily suggested I might be on to something. From then on I did indeed shut up, and decided I had better read all I could find on translation theory, and attend (but quietly and deferentially) more translators’ conferences. I would also of course continue translating.
At the conferences and in the books I found, as before, much that was interesting but irrelevant, and much that was mere intellectual flight of fancy reminiscent of medieval schoolmen. There was a lot of talk about something all translators had surely already long known: the ways in which a word or phrase, when shifted into another language, carries only its ‘literal’ meaning but loses, or acquires quite different, associations for the reader; the related matter of how a phrase, when paraphrased into something that ‘ought’ to mean the same thing (whatever that is) can turn out to mean something entirely different. Sometimes talking and writing about this could get very convoluted; I heard some very tortured and often frankly faulty logic. Not one of the speakers or writers gave any evidence of having read the short works of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell in which the bases of these difficulties had, a century earlier and very lucidly, been exposed and explained precisely and concisely.
To his credit, perhaps the most famous of translation theorists, after reading a paper on what he called ‘residues’, agreed with me that nearly all he’d just said could be, and had been, explained by the older and more familiar terms ‘Denotation’ and ‘Connotation’; ‘I don’t think it really matters what you call them.’ He went on to tell me jolly stories of a famous jazz violinist to whom I’d guessed he was related.
Then there was the person who read a paper on the translation of jokes: like others I’d gone hoping to hear a few, but no chance: she sat firmly behind a desk from whose surface she never once looked up as she read the dull paper in a dull monotone. No jokes, and no hint on how to translate them. The essence of translation is communication.
It’s not always like that of course: sometimes things happen at conferences that are far from translation theory, and so more helpful. These are most often outside the conference rooms, but, staying with jokes, there was the workshop given by a lady who translates the ‘Asterix’ books, who set us to actually translating jokes. Best of all was the lady who had had the job of translating Monty Python scripts for Swedish Television. Significantly, she started – after playing ‘The Liberty Bell’ on her cassette machine – by saying that she ‘Knew nothing about translation’: she went on to prove, hilariously, that she knew a great deal about translation; she just didn’t know she knew it. That’s my point: one doesn’t need to.
I don’t go to translation conferences much now, and am more selective in the books I read about translation. Nothing I ever heard or read – and it was a lot – did anything to modify my original tentatively held idea about translation: that it is, above all, an intuitive process, and the gift for translation might be related to, but is distinct from, gifts for foreign languages. First you translate, then, if you like, you can theorize.
I don’t think translation theory is a complete waste of time except, paradoxically, for the practising translator. Translation theory is fascinating and gives us interesting ideas, some of which may be genuine insights into the ways languages work. It might even bring illumination to a translator who is puzzled about what he or she has just done – after it is done – but I think more than a small dose of it is likely to make him or her into a worse rather than better translator. I’m afraid this is already happening; sometimes in reading recent English translations of foreign novels I am brought up short by chunks of inelegant writing showing the marks of ill-digested theory.
The relation between translation and translation studies is like that between music and musicology. One can be a practising musician or one can be a musicologist, and indeed many people, finding they had only small talents for music making, have become fine musicologists. And some good musicians also do some musicology, but that this makes them better performers is doubtful. What is certain is that all the musicology in the world will never make you into a musician. As a famous opera singer said, ‘Either you got the voice or you don’t got the voice.’
©Simon Darragh 2009.
 I particularly recommend Frege’s Über Sinn und Bedeutung, which can be found in various English translations, usually with the title On Sense and Reference.