Parshley’s Sins

The core of our course in Translation Studies has been to explore the multitude of good that translation can do for world culture. We have also looked at how it is done, and what the particular risks and challenges are that face a translator in the monumental task of converting a work of manifested ideas from its native context into an alien culture. Nearly all of our discussions, I am now made to consider, assumed good faith on the part of the translator: that we were dealing with someone doing their best in a labor of love (or at the very least professional pride) to do the most sincere translation they could produce.

It is difficult to read the details of Parshley’s omissions and not conclude that he knew what he was doing – the ‘edits’ are too systematic, the omissions too damning. Part of my own assumption, regarding good faith on the part of the translator, is tied to the colossal amount of work that goes into a literary translation. In addition to the sheer man-hours necessary to complete a work of even modest scale (never mind one thousand pages!?!) there is a level of personal involvement between the translator, the author and the text that makes it hard to accept intentional perversion in the same way that it is hard to accept that incest is a crime that people commit. The abhorrence of such a defilement makes it hard to even consider.

Yet here we are. I am reminded of Mao’s CCP, Stalin’s Soviet Union, the continued abomination that is North Korea, the obscenity of ‘Creationism’ in the classroom, and the criminally impoverished ‘No Fear Shakespeare’. As much as translation can be the a force of good, to unite and illuminate, it can also be a force of terrible evil, corruption and darkness.

World Literature Reaction

Ngugi’s point that English isn’t an African language is, in the native sense, strictly true. I think in the broader sense, however, it must be said that English is an African language in the world today. There are Africans, born and raised in Africa, who speak English as a first language. It is illegitimate for anyone to approach those native Africans and tell them they are, somehow, not African. His more subtle point, that there is a difference between writing in a native African language and then translating it into English is different than simply writing it first in English is something I really agree with. I think this idea plays directly into the notion of each language having things it ‘must say’. Ideally the story would be written and read in its author’s native tongue, whatever that may be, but the reality is that very few westerners are going to take the time and effort necessary to learn a ‘minor’ – a charged word there – African language in order to better appreciate its relatively small library of works. Then again, if nobody writes in these languages, there will never be anyone who bothers to learn or understand them.

In writing that I am immediately reminded of Adiche’s commentary on the principle of nkali – the possession of power. In most spheres of media production the widely accepted fact that, in the world today, a work must be in English to be internationally available (and thus profitable) is the chief motivator for the spread and establishment of the Anglo-American cultural hegemony. I think that, beyond the obvious forces of capitalism, there is also a degree of inherent cultural condescension involved in that judgment: that success only in Africa (or even only in Asia, or South America) isn’t really success at all. That a work hasn’t really ‘made it’ until it’s been translated into English and recognized as ‘real literature’ by the western world.

Despite the obvious problems with the English hegemony over world culture, it doesn’t invalidate the contribution of native African authors who use it to tell their stories. Is it damning for the native languages of Africa to have its best and brightest default to English? Maybe. Is giving those best and brightest a voice on the world stage worth that sacrifice? I think it is. Achebe fundamentally changed the dialog about Africa with a novel written in English. Adichie and other new, young African writers have continued to champion the idea that Africans have culture and perspective that adds to and enriches the world with its contribution to the human experience. The world can’t just have ‘one story’ about Africa, ‘something had to be done’ and it continues to need doing.

Angele Addendum:

One of my first thoughts at Angele Kingue’s reading was: “I’m here to listen to a black woman speak, but what I’m actually hearing is a white lady mumble.” I don’t speak French, and while I’ve been assured it sounds wonderfully pleasing it doesn’t amount to much more than noise to my ear. This is due to the poverty of my education and I lament that, but it’s also true. Would I have had this reaction if Professor Gillespie had been the one to render it in English? Probably not, but I couldn’t help but relate my experience back to the discussion we had on Tuesday and the debate going on between African literati (such as Ngugi and Adichie) about the power of language. If I can’t understand the words being spoken I can’t really appreciate what a person has to say, no matter how beautifully they say it. Listening to another person, a person whom is almost never as interesting or charismatic as the actual speaker, deliver his/her necessarily compromised and often somewhat muted version is just never going to have the same rhetorical impact as the original. If we take a powerful black speaker and give her an uninspired interpreter, haven’t we robbed her of something?

We had already discussed the interesting phenomenon of ‘multiple personalities’ stemming from language switching in class, but I don’t think any of us took the matter quite as seriously as Angele clearly does. Her insistence that she cannot possibly be understood (herself, as a person) in English was obviously sincere, if a little off putting. That she could only really create in her native tongue was an idea I had a much easier time sympathizing with. I can’t imagine trying to really write prose in a second language. (All credit to Achebe!)

I also got something of a charge from the idea of non-lingual communication she did so much with in her novel. Botany as a kind of poetry, an outfit designed as a cohesive message. I think the latter is something that probably goes on more than I realize or can apprehend. I have enquired about the depth and breadth of female closets and parsed exactly enough of the provoked responses to understand that there is complexity at work there that rivals most syntaxes… While on the topic of gender I have to admit that listening to Angele’s version of a man to man conversation was revealing. While she was talking about women, while women were talking to women, the story had a rainbow of sights, smells and sounds – all of which were rendered in loose, near verse-like prose. The scenes she read with men were in rooms, in front of televisions, over beer and were about money, jobs and politics. In addition to the stark contrast in topic and scenery, there was a profound shift in tone and format: the two men took turns delivering huge bricks of wordy philosophy interspersed with astonishingly personal observations about either themselves or one another.

The candor between these two men, their willingness to talk so intensely and directly about their feelings – it only made sense to me if they were lovers. She skipped around the book somewhat, and I didn’t really have a lock on much of it, but I’m fairly sure the two men were not supposed to be gay. It occurred to me that if they had both been women, I wouldn’t have questioned the conversation. It then occurred to me that standards and expectations of manliness (or even male-ness, to use a less loaded term) are not globally uniform. Maybe French guys talk like this? Maybe that seeped into the African cultures French got injected into? I remember being surprised while I read Adichie’s Americanah that her Nigerian protagonist thought it was “irresponsible” for grown men to eat ice cream cones in public.

Small Oversight…

Chan’s article examines the affects of colonialism* on the Chinese language and the influx of ‘Europeanization’ on literature. It spends very little time actually looking at the period of time when China was actually under colonialism*, and instead most of its focus is instead placed on modern-day scholars who are attempting to resurrect some kind of ‘pure’ Chinese. These modern-day ancient-language enthusiasts deride the intellectual giants of the early 1900’s, like Lu Xun (the godfather of modern Chinese literature), for their abandonment of pure Chinese in favor of some bastardized version. This is interesting, as the authors of the May Fourth movement and the progressives of the Republican Era were the first generation of Chinese to see literature (as it is commonly understood) to be critical the national well-being. It was also only in the 1900’s that any attempt to achieve national literacy was made. For the vast majority of China’s 5000 year history, that these neo-purists like to invoke, nearly all of the population was illiterate. All but a tiny percentage, the top 1%, were unable to read the ancient, esoteric classical script used by Confucius and other purely Chinese historical writers. So how is it, exactly, that this ancient subset of the language evokes feelings of collective memory in people who have never known, whose grand-parents and great-grand parents have never known how to read it?

Oh, also, these same scholars neatly side-step the issue of the CCP and Mao Zedong’s violent impact on the language, despite the fact that the modern lexicon is made up of characters approved of by the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. He literally rewrote the language and cut out vast sections of its most under-utilized characters. The majority of the ‘impoverishment’ of the language that seems to be so decried here is the product of purely Chinese people.

Who is this new-old ‘pure’ language supposed to be for? What would it be used for, and why? How could ideas imported by the Chinese, into Chinese and absorbed by the Chinese kill off living parts of an active language?

*China was never, at any point, any country’s colony.

Where are you from, Walter Benjamin?

Mr. Benjamin has a lot of opinions about a lot of things, and feels very little compunction about making broad, sweeping statements without justifying them in any way. I admire that. I also disagree with him. Frequently.

“When seeking insight into a work of art or an art form, it never proves useful to take the audience into account.”
– This is plain wrong. Without some serious contextualization I never would have made any headway with my comprehension of Japanese Noh Theatre. It is only by trying to emulate the audience this stuff was designed for that I can even begin to appreciate what it tries to do.

“No poem is meant for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience.”
– What? Shakespeare wasn’t an artist because he wrote to sell theatre tickets? Court musicians and painters weren’t artists because they did their work on commission? Some of the best art ever created has been as part of business deals that involved very specific audiences being targeted by works tailor-made for their pleasure.

“[Translations] do not so much serve the work’s fame as they owe their existence to it.”
-Can’t it do both? And isn’t this directly undermined by the next sentence:
“In [translations] the original’s life achieves its constantly renewed, latest and most comprehensive development.”
-Being constantly renewed sounds like a service to me.

“It is clear that a translation, no matter how good, cannot have any significance for the original.”
-Is that clear? Especially with all this talk about a work’s fame, life and after-life I can’t help but feel that a work becoming trans-national and viewed through new cultural lenses does actually impact the perception of the original work quite a bit.


“Certain relational concepts gain their proper, indeed their best sense, when from the outset they are not connected exclusively with human beings. Thus we could still speak of an unforgettable life or moment, even if all human beings had forgotten it.”

“Accordingly the translatability of linguistic structures would have to be considered even if they were untranslatable for human beings.”

“Even in ages of the most prejudiced thinking, it has been presumed that life must not be attributed to organic corporeality alone.”

Is Walter Benjamin:
a.) An artifical intelligence sent from the future.
b.) An interstellar probe of alien manufacture.
c.) A sentient gas.

Making the Impossible… Undefined.

The dictionary of the untranslatable is interesting as a thought experiment, and curious to flip through, but I can’t help but ask myself: under what circumstances would this actually get used? And to what end? The translator working on the work still has to come up with something. Theoretical non-solutions work for Derrida in their philosophical implications but a dictionary is typically a working document for people in the field. This doesn’t seem to have such an application, or at least it isn’t one that I can readily detect.


On 366 Derrida asks “Is it not the first duty of the guest that I am to speak a language that is intelligible and transparent, hence without equivocation?” He’s speaking as the author, the guest, to his reader, the host, and espousing his duty as a writer to communicate in a way in which the reader can understand him. Yet he routinely uses twenty words to say what three would have made clear and couches each of his points in apologizes and addendums. Was he being funny when he suggested it was his duty to be comprehensible?

He goes on to say he chaffs at being relegated to one language – a single idiom – and explains that he’s always ready to leap from French to English. I wondered, right at the beginning with the Shakespeare quote and the translator’s note, how the multi-lingual aspect of this work is being handled. Quoting an English work in English then saying you have left it untranslated doesn’t make sense when addressing an English audience, but if we realize that the note was originally in French talking to French audience about this originally English quote which was being translated into French then its meaning becomes clear. Yet for our purposes, here in this paper, the English has been left as English and the French has also been translated into English except for a few exceptions. Multi-lingual works are so rare I hadn’t really spent any time considering what it would be like to deal with a translation that took a two-tongued essay and turned it into a one tongued essay. When Derrida uses French to talk about English, producing a French work riddled with English terms, and then we read his work as an English work riddled with French terms, the work isn’t just impoverished – it’s backwards, isn’t it?

Mac’n What?

Jakobson begins with an interesting look at Bertrand Russel’s strained idea of language comprehension and the ‘true meaning’ of things. The idea that “no one can understand the word ‘cheese’ unless he has a nonlinguistic acquaintance with cheese.” is a fun one to post-mortem, as even a cursory dissection reveals a whole host of ailments.

What is ‘cheese’? Jakobson toys with the notion that it can be defined as “food made of pressed curds”, which puts us fast on the spiraling slope of the ever-deepening path of word definitions. What’s a curd? I think more people in the modern world would have an easier time with defining ‘cheese’ than ‘curds’. Once we’ve defined curds, what then? Have we really come to understand ‘cheese’ yet? No. When I open a microwave pack of dried noodles and orange powder, is it fair to call that substance cheese? How much of what is going on in Kraft’s blue box that really has anything to do with curds?

But lets go one step further. If someone asks me what I thought of Marvel’s Avengers and I tell them ‘It was some epic blockbuster cheese’, am I suggesting that Iron Man has milked a cow? Did he find the secret to defeating the alien invasion somewhere in the hills overlooking Cheddar? No.

Jakobson briefly considers what a person from a ‘cheese-less culinary culture’, but doesn’t spend much time there. In Japan, ‘cheese’ is a word, taken from English, and if asked the local youth will tell you it means ‘that white stuff on pizza’, or ‘what you say when you take a picture’. However much I tried to explain that the white stuff they had available was not really cheese but rather a chemical coagulate excreted from tubes into plastic bags – it was cheese to them. And the second definition is just entirely valid, especially minus any connection to the original use of the word, which, in fairness, has absolutely no bearing on its use in that function at all.

Plato went at this idea millennia ago. The evolution of thoughts from those based on physicality towards the metaphysical is not only natural but inevitable. The digital age has brought us an endless multitude of ideas without physical analogs – language is not and has never been bound by them.

Susan Bernofsky: Pertinaciously Tergiversating for the nonce.

I couldn’t help but being interested in the translator of this work about translation, and wondering at some of her word choices. A quick Google revealed that Schleiermacher was older than America, old enough for his language to have been significantly different from modern English, if he’d even written in English. Ms. Bernofsky, however, is quite modern – she translated this in 2004.

Why, then, would she pick words like tergiversate? That word is underlined right now as misspelled, as the default dictionary does not include the term. It means equivocate, but she could have just as used ‘indecisive’ or some variation of the like. More annoying still was ‘for the nonce’, which just means ‘for the time being’. Why translate two hundred year old German into needlessly esoteric English?

I imagine to get the real answers to that I’d have to get fluent in German and then get academically proficient in romantic hermeneutics, but the actual material of today’s reading did provide me with some interesting notions. Was she trying to bring us to Schleiermacher to us, or are we going to him ?

An Enquiry Concerning Human Communcation

I couldn’t help but be reminded, midway through the reading, of David Hume, who effectively argues against the validity of inductive logic. That is to say, he is able to make the claim that all ‘proven’ science is, in fact, not really proven at all. Just because something happened the same way the first ten times it is done, does not actually prove that it will perform the same way on the eleventh repetition. The first time I read the paper my mind was quite blown: it was a revelation to understand such a truth. And yet… science, the proving of facts through trial and observation, has moved right along and proven itself invaluable to humanity.

Steiner lists a number of different authors, translators, theorists and philosophers who have a rainbow of opinions on how relatively ‘possible’ translation actually is. A number of perfectly valid arguments against true translation as an achievable possibility are made very early in (western) human history and have never been disproved. Indeed, as Steiner highlights, a number of philosophers have even gone so far to disprove the validity of human communication all together – Socrates famously though the written word was the end of real thinking.

Yet, here we are, thousands of year later, reading and writing yet. The importance of the written word to human culture cannot possibly be overstated, and the value of translation has exponentially grown with it. Would modern society be richer without Homer? Would the English speaking world really be better off if nobody bothered to translate Kant, Goethe and all the rest because they just couldn’t capture the whole of it? Of course not. At some point the debate over a field’s legitimacy after it’s already proven its utility seems to devolve into a dog chasing its own tail. What does Steiner’s discourse really argue, besides that he’s a very clever man?