An expansion for: Nine Maxims On Translation
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts / 5 Dec 2002

In its new context, a translation must operate without the support of its source culture, and it must have its effect on an audience which is unaware of many of the issues which the original addresses. The new audience needs somehow to be brought up to speed, about what the original was up to. Commentary is the way such gaps in audience preparation are usually bridged. The question is where to locate the commentary.

First, figure out what the audience needs, besides the translation itself, in order to understand the translation. Then consider where to put that extra information. With a little adjustment, some pieces can explain themselves as they go; with others, there will be a residue of stuff needing further effort. The further effort usually goes into notes. Footnotes are fine; they make a more attractive page. Introductory inscenations, worked into the text as it goes along, can also be successful (Waley's Sei Shonagon is the great masterpiece in this format).

The elaborate stage directions in printed editions of Barrie's plays are there to guide the director of a performance, but also to recreate for the reader what signals the performance of the play would have carried for one present at the performance. If you are translating a libretto, you will need to translate or supply equivalent stage directions, so that the director can put those signals into the lights, costumes, gestures, and stage arrangement of the performance, and so that the mere reader can get the effect of the performance (the Brandon and Niwa Kanjincho was a step forward in this regard).

Translations which are meant to be apprehended in real time (and any reading of a text occurs to some extent in real time) cannot pause for explanations. If the audience cannot be briefed in advance, the text may have to be adjusted so as not to raise questions which can't be answered under the conditions of performance. Among the standard devices used in this predicament are the substitution of familiar for unfamiliar allusions, or the entire replacement of allusions by general terms (the Hooker translation of Rostand's Cyrano is a classic of this sort of practical fidelity).


We end on a note of encouragement, albeit a slightly ironic one. It is to the effect that commentary is not always despised by literary persons, and is to some extent becoming part of the literary scene.

In many ways, translations have been enormously influential on literatures. Commentaries first arose with the need to make ancient or otherwise alien works intelligible to modern readers. By long familiarity, those devices have now become so much part of literary presentation that some authors will not feel fully clothed before their primary audience unless they include a self-commentary (Eliot's Four Quartets was one of the pioneering works in this mode). The faith of writers that, however difficult their work, it will be understood, has had the effect of legitimizing a lot of needlessly difficult writing, but it has also established a sense of partnership between writers and commentators.

Between writers and the translators who vastly increase the available audience for their work, a similar partnership is also increasingly being recognized. Translators are no longer invariably seen as intruding into the sanctity of the poet's vision; sometimes they are accepted as the sharer of that vision for the larger world.


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