thinking out loud about translation

I’ve been reading a lot in translation recently. Mainly in a valiant attempt to resurrect my dangerously moribund Malay and Indonesian language skills, I’ve taken to reading original literature with English translations as a crib. But as my proficiency creeps back slowly, I’m increasingly plagued by the poverty of many Malay/Indonesian-English translations I’ve been reading.

Caveat: I am no translator, and my thoughts may strike more competent translators as facile. But the trouble seems to me to be that because Malay and Indonesian have (in comparison to English or Chinese) a relatively rudimentary grammatical structure and lexicon, translating the components of an Indonesian sentence directly into English, even in a way that’s sensitive to overall meaning, can end up sounding stilted and awkward in a way that the original is not. Consider Pramoedya in translation:

Aku sendiri berasal dari etnik Jawa, dan begitu dilahirkan dididik untuk menjadi orang Jawa, dibimbing oleh mekanisme sosial etnik ke arah ideal-ideal Jawa, budaya dan peradaban Jawa.

I myself am of Javanese ethnic origin, and so I was educated from birth to become a Javanese, guided by the social-ethnic mechanism toward Javanese ideals, culture and civilization.

This is pretty much a word-for-word translation, slavishly deferent to all the components of the sentence, which are rendered meticulously into English. A perfectly fluid Indonesian sentence becomes gauche. The act of translation, I think, is closer to one of creation than of transcription. But because of that, so much care has to be taken: I also think it’s a fine line between representing an author’s thoughts and high-handedly improving on them. If I were to translate the above, I’d probably go for something like

I myself am ethnically Javanese, and so I was taught from birth to become Javanese; I was driven towards Javanese ideals, culture and civilization by the mechanisms of my society and ethnicity.

but even here I am perturbed by the use of the term “mechanisms” of society and ethnicity; I feel it’s an ambiguous and not particularly useful term, and one which Pramoedya subsequently doesn’t elaborate on. The word is inescapably in the text, though. The corresponding Indonesian term is mekanisme; the bad phrasing is inherent in the writing. How much can a translation “fix” this? is the translator entitled to omit the word mechanism altogether and replace it with something that conveys the sense of what he is saying, but in a better way? Perhaps: “I was driven towards Javanese ideals, culture and civilization by the pressures of my society and ethnicity” — but the Indonesian word for pressure is nowhere to be found in the text. Is a translator’s loyalty first to the text or to its meaning? to the original language or to the language in which the text is to find its new home? And is there room for forgiveness and mercy? should a translator embarrass or vindicate the author?

I’m not sure how I feel about academic translation just yet, but I am more sure that translating poetry is an art for which the product is an entirely new creation, whose outlines may be at best tremulously prescribed. There seems to be a gradient of clarity: perhaps meaning becomes clearer and more solid the more words there are to circumscribe it, e.g. through prose, fiction, exposition, political speeches. But I think that ultimately, it’s a perilous world between languages, and it seems one’s only hope is to learn as many of them as one can. (This prescription is, like most sound advice, more easily dispensed than followed. Alas).

and whilst on the topic of perilous language worlds, I am off to Paris for Christmas and New Year. there shall probably be library & bookshop tourism. I’ll likely not be able to post often in the coming couple of weeks, but I imagine most of the world grinds to a turkey-and-stuffing standstill around this time of year anyway.


3 responses to “thinking out loud about translation

  • jim

    I was reading, the other day, “Jabberwocky” – translated into German. I had similar thoughts.

  • Gawain

    “apparatus”? (not pretty, i agree, but an established usage — if mainly in the Frankfurt school English).

    this reminds me btw. that i have been wanting to post a gem on Malaya. Perhaps I should dust it off now. it’s only a small trifle, but trifles always please, and this one is especially pleasing. i’ll dedicate it to you. πŸ™‚

  • Rachel

    @ Jim: I assume you have seen the Jabberwocky-in-Translation page, where one can find translations of that marvellous poem from languages as far-ranging as Chinese to Klingon? πŸ™‚

    @ Gawain: I love gemlike trifles! look forward to it greatly.

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