So you think you can make translation sexy?

By Nicky Harman, published

So I’ve had to dream up a series of Free Word Centre talks for a non-specialist, non-translator audience, which are China/translation-focussed. Why not ask myself? It seemed like a great idea at first. I could hardly refuse…. So I did: “Nicky, will you give a talk on ‘3,000 years of Chinese translation’? “Yes Nicky, I will, no problem.”

But as the day grew nearer, I began to get cold feet. Why had I chosen a talk which I originally wrote for a Translation History class at Imperial College? Surely a bit too academic? Sprinkled with words like skopos (theory) and ST (source text). I tried rehearsing the talk to my husband and the dog but stopped after ten minutes because I was boring myself. Who on earth would come? At one point last week, only two people had registered. Should I take them to the pub? Back to the drawing board, and quickly.

Things looked up when I realized that a few fascinating facts and provocative pix might liven the event up, and mentally re-titled it: “Plus ça change…”.

Yes really! Here are just a couple of historical continuities. Translators have taken the rap down the ages: from the penalties meted out during the ancient Zhou Dynasty, the latter illustrated by a colourful print taken from Punishments of China, of an interpreter being tortured for “willful misinterpretation” …to the killing in 1991 of the Japanese translator of Satanic Verses.

And translation has been seen as an instrument of social/political/cultural change from the arrival of Buddhism in China, through to the translation of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in the first half of the twentieth century. Often, of course, a great deal was lost or changed in translation. The Chinese female deity Guan Yin was originally male in India; the translator of Alexander Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, a bestseller in late Imperial China, transformed the innocent sister of Armand, Marguerite’s lover, in order to make her conform to Confucian proprieties. (Instead of “loving” her fiancé, she has a “desire to have a family of her own” and her future marriage is described as “an arrangement by the parents”.)

I gave my long-suffering listeners quite a dose of Buddhist translation history, because those monk-translators faced some familiar-sounding challenges (how to get lengthy Sanskrit names into Chinese, how to translate new religious concepts for which the language of the time had no words, how to deal with lengthy, flowery digressions by the Sanskrit writers…).

I even managed to get skopos theory in once: Chinese Buddhist translations had an overriding purpose – they were meant to be chanted – and other considerations (comprehensibility, faithfulness to the original) sometimes came second. Chant-ability ruled. Cat-lovers in the audience were charmed when I told them that in Tibetan Buddhism the word for telling the beads is the same as the word for “to purr”, and is said to bring about a similar state of ecstasy. Think of that next time your cat sits purring on your knee. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand her, she’s in bliss.

I found some wonderfully colourful quotes. Critical of translation, from Kumarajiva, aka Luo Shi, a monk-translator in sixth century China: ““[Translation] “is like giving someone rice that you have chewed; the person will find it not just tasteless but downright disgusting”. And applauding it, from the contemporary Chinese author Han Dong: “Western [literary translations in the 1980s were] turned into nutrients to be stirred into the soup that was Chinese literature re-born.” Notice how food creeps into an appreciation of literature in China? No surprise there then!

As for the audience, I needn’t have worried. Loyal friends bringing their own friends plus our intensive leafleting of bookshops, meant the room was full. And what a nice room: anyone looking for a meeting space in London should consider the Free Word Centre. The tables were arranged café-style, free wine and juice was served at the back, and the data projector behaved impeccably, as did the helpful staff and volunteers.

We galloped through three thousand years in precisely one hour and no one left early (though that might have been because it would have been difficult to squeeze through the packed knees). To my surprise, and perhaps to theirs, we had a whale of a time.

Biljana Scott from Oxford University, a Chinese speaker and linguist with a special interest in diplomatic language, will fill the next Thursday evening slot (6.30pm, Thursday 27 October 2011) with Diplomatic Incidents: The Pitfalls of Translation.

There’s a two-for-one offer on all tickets: Buy one ticket (£5/ £3 concs) and get FREE entry to another talk in the series, which continues till December. If you’re within striking distance of London, do come!


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