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All in a Name
by Eleanor Goodman. Translator.
Jun 29, 2015

Translations seems to occupy uneasy territory, with some believing that it is a mechanical action that can be accomplished with software, and others believing that it is a creative act equal to any other original composition. Of course, translation is neither wholly creative nor wholly derivative, in the sense that a new creative work does not spring from a vacuum but is necessarily made from elements of its antecedents.

First we should define exactly what we mean by ‘translation.’ Are we talking about translating a car repair manual or banking information? That is to say, a work that did not engage the many rich tools of expression in the original language, and whose object is intended to directly convey straightforward information. Or are we talking about a piece of literature, a work that necessarily engages in a creative conversation with its native language, pushing against linguistic and other boundaries to build a world in and of itself? In the former case, software or a website like Google Translate may someday prove to be sufficient (although they have not yet). But in the latter, more interesting, case, mechanical translation is hopeless against the tools authors employ: rhyme, rhythm, puns, metaphor, irony, implication, humor, tone. These are things that are created by language, not conveyed by it. Not only computers but also unskilled human translators will find themselves unable to mimic these elements in the target language.

Perhaps it is old hat to say that literary translation involves two primary skills. Given what sometimes passes for translation, however, it bears repeating. One must have not only an accurate understanding of, but also a sensitive feel, for the original language; and one must have a flexible, keen ability in the target language. Only the rare individual can bring both of these skills to the table. In the case of Chinese to English translation, because the languages are so far from each other structurally and expressively, the bold translator is presented with agonies and opportunities in the fertile ground between these two linguistic arenas.

As T.S. Eliot has it: ‘Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.’ Mature translators adopt what is on offer in the original and adapt it to produce something as forceful, as alive, in the target language. Sometimes this involves abandoning the structure of the original, daunting though that may be. This is a fundamental difference between the two categories I set out above. When a car repair manual presents instructions as to how to change the oil, it would be a mistake to change the specifics or modify the context. Doing so will subvert the intention of the original in a way that makes the translation problematic. But a literary work has more inherent flexibility—it is built out of a material that flexes in many directions. If the text is any good, it is multidimensional. That is not to say that one can take infinite liberties with a literary text. Obviously not. Such ‘translations’, including famous ones like Pound’s Cathay, slip into the territory of imitation, borrowing, or the vague category of works ‘inspired by’ other works. But a translator who is armed with all that the target language has to offer can and must take leaps of faith. In the end, the translator must accept that there are successes and losses in any given moment in a translation. It is very rarely a question of simple equivalents.

Take a straightforward, but tricky, example. In the Taiwanese novelist Chu Shao-Lin’s book Swallow Dance, one of the main characters is nicknamed Young Dragon. He is a dancer, and the name fits his profession, with its implications of powerful, graceful movements filling the air. The name is also a pun. The dancer is deaf, and the way the name is pronounced—longzi—is a homophone for ‘deaf man.’ It is the kind of correspondence that exists in the scope of one given language and most often cannot be replicated exactly in the target language, especially when those languages are as diverse as Chinese and English. So the translator goes through a painful process of decision-making. The simplest solution is just to use the pinyin, that is to say, to name the character Longzi. But then of course both the pun and the associations are lost. Another solution is to call the character Dragon or Little Dragon. But the name isn’t a name in English: it’s clunky and will stick in the reader’s craw each time she comes across it. Then there is the literal route of naming him Deaf—a move that is sure to turn readers off.

As with most problems, there is no perfect solution. Whatever the translator chooses—short of naming the character Jim and forgetting about it—will sound a bit strange in the target language. But strangeness, for a serious translator, is not necessarily undesirable. The point, as I take it, is not to produce a translation in which everything has been domesticated to the point that it reads a smoothly and blandly as advertising copy. Literature is challenging and literature from other cultures and languages even more so. Weirdness can only be taken so far—it’s a balancing act—but insecure translators (or inept ones) will aim for a kind of linguistic innocuousness that files down the teeth of the original. This is an injustice to the work in question, as well as to readers.

In this case, the solution I came to was to call the character Def. That hopefully keeps some of the implication of the original, as according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, def is slang for ‘excellent.’ For some readers, there will also the musical resonance with Def Leopard, appropriate because the character proves to be a bit of a rebel. Regardless of whether the reader picks up on the association (consciously or unconsciously), at least the name maintains the homonym (def/deaf). It is a stab in the right direction that maintains the integrity of the original, which is ultimately the aim of the translator.