Friday, May 12, 2006

An amazing piece on translation

by J. M. Coetzee, it appeared in January but I must have missed it at the time, if you did not read it then you must click on this link and read the whole piece! Everything in it is fascinating (it's basically his reflections on the actual experience of having his novels translated, including amazing excerpts from his correspondence with translators into Serbian, Korean, etc.), here's a taste though:

My novel Waiting for the Barbarians presents an unusual problem for the translator. It is set in an unspecified space at an unspecified time in history; it would be hard to maintain that this milieu is Western, yet, despite allusions to barbarians, to an imperial palace, and to such items as lacquered armour, it is as hard to fit it snugly into the Far East.

All of its dialogue can be conceived of as translated by an invisible hand from an unspecified foreign tongue into English. Its language is more or less bare of allusion to the past of the English language and indeed to the history of Western thought. Furthermore, within this invented discourse there are passages of what may be conceived as translation from a hypothetical barbarian tongue into the language of the narrator and thence into English. Such passages are marked by a simplified syntax and lexicon.

The principal character in the novel, and its narrator, is called simply the Magistrate and is addressed as 'Magistrate'. His principal duty is to officiate over the system of justice in this part of the frontier, but in the absence of a bureaucracy he seems to oversee the day-to-day operation of the neglected frontier town.

Since there is no term in English for someone who is in effect judge and mayor and town clerk, since a magistrate in this book would not be a magistrate in any other book, does it matter what one calls the man in the target language? Perhaps not; but there are good approximations and bad approximations. If magistrate is the authorial approximation in English, what would be a good approximation in German, for instance?

(Thanks to Ben for the link.)

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