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Reflections on Translation
By Susan Bassnett
Multilingual MattersCopyright © 2011 Susan Bassnett
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Language and Identity
Probably the best way to begin thinking about questions of language and identity is to start with oneself, with the problematics of one's own identity. This is precisely the strategy employed by the great critic George Steiner, for example. Writing about himself and his multilingual background, Steiner tells us that he has no recollection whatever of a first language, a mother tongue that took precedence over other languages acquired in babyhood. 'So far as I am aware,' he wrote in After Babel, 'I possess equal currency in English, French and German' (Steiner, 1975: 120). Tests of his ability to perform differently in these three languages, have, he claims, revealed no significant variations of either speed or accuracy. He is a trilingual native speaker, in whose life English, French and German have held equal sway, with the Austrian-Yiddish, Czech and Hebrew of his family hovering somewhere close by.
Steiner's story is a common one in many parts of the world, where children grow up speaking several languages with apparently equal ease. Indeed, as the global influence of English spreads and spreads, even more people are becoming bi- or multilingual. What is interesting about Steiner's case, however, is that he uses his own experience in order to raise some fundamental issues with his readers. Does a polyglot mentality operate differently from a monolingual one he asks, do all his languages really exist on the same level, or are they somehow stratified, and if so, is one language lower down in the strata, more profoundly located in the body somehow? He raises question after question, culminating in the most profound question of all:
In what language am I, suis-je, bin Ich, when I am inmost? What is the tone of self? (Steiner, 1975: 125)
In his attempt to engage with this fundamental question, Steiner chooses to examine the complex processes that occur in translation, when a text passes from one language into another, and I shall follow his example. But first, I want to tell the story of another person, and what kind of questions she has pondered throughout her life as a person with more than one language in her head.
This child was born to monolingual parents, but taken at an early age to another country where she quickly learned to speak a second language. She happily used both languages equally until she saw something interesting: she saw that not everybody around her could use two languages, and that she might be able to use that fact to her own advantage. She has no memory of this at all, but her mother has told her how she would pretend that she could only understand Danish with English speakers, or only English with Danes, and that she could be caught out only by someone else who had equal command of the two languages, someone who, like her could change in mid-sentence and slide between both languages, in and out like a serpent from its lair.
Time passed. The child left Denmark and moved to another country. Here the memory of the Danish began to fade, but was speedily replaced by another language, by Portuguese in fact, a totally different language altogether. The girl has strong memories of these years, and can remember conversations, stories and books that she could only have encountered in Portuguese but which are remembered in English. And then came yet another country, yet another language, and by now the child was old enough to be studying ancient and modern languages in secondary school, learning Latin or French through the medium of the fourth language she had acquired in her short life, a language in which she often dreams, even though she has lived in England for many years now.
As you may guess, this is my story, a story of a different kind of multilingualism, in which languages exist differently in my head than Steiner's do for him. For each new language acquired in childhood pushed out the previous one, with the exception of English that stayed constant in the home. Years later, studying Danish formally at university in an attempt to regain it, I spoke with an Italian accent, and every new language learned from childhood, be it French, German or Spanish has been learned with an Italian, not an English accent, because Italian was the language that acted as a bridge for me, the medium through which I began formal study of languages ancient and modern after so many years of acquiring languages from other children or from servants or by osmosis from the world around me.
Some years ago I met a dialectologist who was interested in my English pronunciation and persuaded me to allow her to record me speaking so that she and her colleagues could analyse the patterns of sound. After a few weeks she came back to me, with virtually a linguistic biography: the team had picked up the Italian, the Portuguese, traces of American English (my husband's influence), vowel sounds from the north of England (my parents) and finally, miraculously, traces of a Scandinavian language. After 20 years the Danish had not died away, it had merely been submerged somewhere, making its way slowly back to the surface in a couple of particular phonetic elements.
George Steiner asks what the tone of self is. It is a question that follows logically from his own multilingual experiences and from his personal and intellectual history. My starting point, however, is different. I have never asked myself that question, because I have always seen the various languages in my head as rather like the skins of an onion: peel them away and you have nothing left. Steiner's world view is based on geology, on strata and sedimentation. Mine is a liquid metaphor: languages flow like currents, linguistic tides have come in and gone out for me, my languages are in constant motion. At different times in my life, different languages have been important, sometimes because I spoke them, at other times because I desired to learn them, at still other times because my life led me into contact with them. But what has always been central to my thinking about languages is that languages articulate the culture in which they are used, and so any examination of language needs also to take into account the broader picture.
Let me give a trivial example: social practices vary from culture to culture, expectations vary and what is permitted varies. Think for a moment how different cultures even in Europe talk (or not) about the body. When asked how you are in English, you must not tell the asker. In Middle England the standard greeting goes even further: 'How are you? Alright?' people say, or even just 'Alright?' as though willing you to say anything different and potentially disturbing. Yet in Italy, one can talk happily about medical problems, even sharing information on symptoms and cures. And Italians seem to talk a great deal about digestive problems: livers, for example, or kidney problems. Americans talk about allergies all the time, often attributing mysterious symptoms to allergies, whereas Russians would attribute similar symptoms to changes in pressure. What this means, of course, is that one can have different kinds of conversation about different topics in different languages. I always talk about my health in Italy; I never do likewise in England. Does this mean that one undergoes a kind of personality change when one changes languages? The evidence leads to such a conclusion. For languages not only have different structures through which reality is articulated, they have different vocabularies, different traditions and different histories.
Attitudes to multilingualism also vary considerably. In previous generations, multilingualism was seen as desirable and as the proper aim of any educated person. Queen Elizabeth I spoke and wrote in several languages and was still translating classical texts in her 60s. Byron and Shelley, as educated young men of their time, travelled through Europe changing languages as they went, their confidence bolstered by firm foundations in Latin and Ancient Greek. In contemporary India, multilingualism is desirable and necessary, as it is in Hong Kong, where so many people move between Mandarin, Cantonese and English on a daily basis. But in the 20th century, in the English-speaking world especially, attitudes to multilingualism became complex and troubled, illustrating another important dimension that we must never forget: languages are rarely equal, reflecting the hegemonic position of certain cultures. Our very terminology of 'majority' and 'minority' languages reflects this. Some languages are seen as important, some not and their survival often depends on that perception of difference.
In the United States, where the all-embracing figure of the Statue of Liberty personified the melting-pot philosophy, immigrants were encouraged to shed their past and acquire English, the language of their new country, of the future, of progress and of modernity. Significantly, early research on the intellectual progress of bilingual children in US schools suggested that bilingualism was basically bad. Bilinguals performed less well in IQ tests, unsurprisingly since, as we now know, the tests were designed for monolingual speakers, the second languages was seen as interfering with intellectual advancement and in some extreme studies bilingualism was viewed almost as a learning disorder. Happily, we have moved on a long way from those early perceptions of the value or valuelessness of having more than one language, but residual traces of that attitude still remain. The battle over the desirability of Spanish as a second language in US schools, for example, is by no means completely over, and there is a powerful argument that claims that children need to learn the language that will be advantageous to them later in life rather than a language that is marginalised. In Britain, the battle over standard English is similarly one that arouses strong feelings on both sides. The Newbolt Committee report of 1921 declared that class divisions were perpetuated by the existence of different varieties of spoken English, a different state of bilingualism if you like, but bilingualism nevertheless:
Two causes, both accidental and conventional rather than national, at present distinguish and divide one class from another in England. The first of these is a marked difference in their modes of speech. (Newbolt, 1921)
The second difference was 'undue narrowness of the ground on which we meet for the true purposes of social life' (Newbolt, 1921). The Newbolt Committee contrasted the pride of French artisans in their native language and culture with the lack of a sense of national pride in their English equivalents and expressed the wish that all classes might be united in a common love of English language and literature in the future. The road to a united society was felt to lie with linguistic consensus.
But the divisiveness that the Newbolt Committee discusses derived not from a very clear linguistic policy, one that had sought to establish a dominant form of spoken English over all other variants. This hierarchical view was also in line with a wider language policy: that of seeking to impose English over other languages in the British colonies. And just as the history of colonialism and imperialism has been dominated by attempts to impose the language of the conquerors over the conquered – think of Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, Russian in former Eastern Europe, German in the Austro-Hungarian empire – so the history of nationalism is one of language resistance, of battling against the language of the oppressor.
Here is P.F. Kavanagh in 1902 in an essay titled 'Ireland's Defence – Her Language' emphasising the fundamental social significance of language: Language marks a race of men as distinct from other races, and determines their rank among them by its antiquity, its purity, and its excellence as a means of expressing thought. The mind of a people is mirrored in their language. A people's language tells us what they were even better than their history. So true is this that even if the people had perished and their history had been lost, we might still learn from their language- and in language I include literature- to what intellectual status they had attained, what was the extent and direction of their moral development and what their general worthiness. (Kavanagh, 2000: 204–205)
Other Irish writers, of whom Brian Friel is a recent example, have written about Ireland in terms of the politics of language, and have argued that systematic attempts to suppress Irish ran up against fundamental opposition, just the Hapsburg attempt to suppress Czech ultimately failed. Czech is a fascinating case, since the Czech Revival of the 19th century that resulted in a great flowering of literature has as one of its points of origin a series of literary forgeries. Determined to break the stranglehold of German, Czech intellectuals invented an illusory period of ancient Czech literary greatness, claiming to have discovered lost manuscripts and in the process boosted national self-confidence in quite extraordinary ways. In short, the discovery of a presumed ancient Czech literary tradition provided the spur for contemporary writers to experiment with the language that the Austrians had sought to suppress.
Similarly, the forgery by James Macpherson of the poems of the ancient Celtic bard Ossian was hugely significant in Scotland and across Europe, where Ossian rapidly acquired cult and then canonical status in those societies engaged in struggles to establish a national identity, despite the vitriol poured over the poems by such English establishment figures as Dr Johnson and Boswell. And here we come to a point that is worth noting: the importance of translation in nationalist movements. It may seem like a paradox, but the more a culture struggles to assert its own individuality and establish its own literature, to make its own voice heard, the more likely it is that translation will play a major part in the process. The true test of a language is to show that it can take the foreign, the different and the other and transform it into something familiar. It is significant that Martin Luther talked not about übersetzen but about verdeutschen, 'germanising', and that the great English Renaissance translators claimed that they were engaged in a process of 'englishing'. The importance of translation at crucial moments in time is clear: the emergence of literatures in the evolving vernacular languages of early medieval Europe is marked by translation, the road to the Reformation is filled with translations of sacred texts, the Renaissance is a time of intense translation activity and the age of revolutions in Europe and the Americas is similarly an age of translations.
Yet, even as we talk in such grandiose terms, we should not forget the role of the translator, that individual who transposes a work from one language into another. Translators translate for all kinds of reasons, not by any means always on account of national pride. Some do it for love, some for money, some out of a desire to make unknown writers come to life for new readers, some out of a crusading spirit of zealotry, some to innovate and extend the boundaries of their own literary models and some because of a particular passion for a language or an author or a work or a culture.
Translation theory has devoted little attention in recent years to the pragmatics of translation and to the subjectivity of the translator as a factor in the translation process. There is a lot of interesting research to be done here, which brings together the personal and the political. Let me offer two examples: Scotland has a particularly strong tradition of innovative translation, arguably today much stronger than England. John Corbett argues that it is the lack of a standard variety of language in Scotland that allows the translator greater possibilities, at once representing both the familiar and the strange:
In translations into Scots we reinvent our own 'imaginary geography' in a medium which allows no invisibility to the translator. The absence of a fixed standard variety necessitates the continual reinvention of the language of the Scottish nation. (Corbett, 1999: 185)
Translation in such a context, Corbett argues, becomes a powerful means of exploring the range of a language and extending the boundaries of a literature. Crucial to such an exploration is the ability to shift perspective, to look simultaneously from within and from without, to question oneself and one's own culture as much as one questions the other. It is a view not unlike that proposed by the great Brazilian translator Augusto de Campos, who sees translation as a metamorphic process, whereby the translator enters into the skin of another being:
Translation for me is a persona. Nearly a heteronym. It is to get into the pretender's skin to re-pretend everything again, each pain, each sound, each colour. This is why I never set out to translate everything. Only what I feel. (Augusto de Campos, 1998: 186)
Excerpted from Reflections on Translation by Susan Bassnett. Copyright © 2011 Susan Bassnett. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction1. Language and Identity2. Original Sin3. Theory and Practice: the old dilemma4. Dangerous Translations5. How modern should translations be?6. Status Anxiety7. Under the Influence8. Reference Point9. Translation or Adaptation10. Translating Style11. Telling Tales12. Pride and Prejudices13. Turning the page14. Poetry in motion15. When translation goes horribly wrong16. Living Languages17. All in the mind18. More than words19. Just what did you call me?20. Lost in translation21. Good rhyme and reason22. Women’s Work23. Plays for today24. Between the lines25. Playing on words26. Pleasures of rereading27. On the case28. Gained in translation29. Layers of meaning30. The value of comparing translations31. Where the fun comes in32. Translators making the news33 What exactly did Saddam say?34. Native strengths35. What’s in a name?36. Food for thought37. Family matters38. Rethinking theory and practice39. The power of poetry