the "faithful" translator is a misogynist concept
but I happen to think faith is a good thing
I am tired of that word, “faithful.” A translator is no author’s wife, but more importantly, I don’t like what that metaphor says about wives. I am reminded of male scholars of a certain generation who might thank their wives for their typing services in a quick note of acknowledgment at the start of a monograph, or more likely at its end. (Look, sir, if she developed the thesis in late-night conversations with you, did all the research, proofread and rephrased, and typed it all up, she wrote the book.) A translator is the author’s wife often in this cynical sense: the one who does all the work and gets none of the credit, the one to blame when things go south. She may be righteously grumpy about this state of affairs, but she is just as often joyful and ingenious in the work. She tends to believe the project is worth it in the end, because she wouldn’t bother if she didn’t love and trust her partner. In this sense she is faith-full.
But this is not what the theory means when it congratulates translators (who are most often women) on their fidelity to authors (who are most often men). They do not mean to congratulate the translator’s perspicacity and perseverance in breathing new life into old texts, visionary qualities she may have learned from the faithful wife who raised her. No; more often than not, they mean to congratulate her invisibility. The feminist translator Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood observes that the “faithful” translation mimics the linguistic masculine default, “where the referent is presumed to be male until proven…other” (The Body Bilingual 113). In such a worldview, a textual divergence where translation is “other” than original is a betrayal, feminine in its visible difference.
I do not concede the premise. I do not assess my work as a translator on the extent to which I remain invisible because it is an absurd project. My authors write in Spanish; I write in English. To say I have changed or altered their words is to say the sky is blue. Of course I have. If you’d like to read their words, learn Spanish. I’ve changed every word in the book. “My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem,” Emily Wilson wrote at the start of her Odyssey. And the “gendered metaphor of the ‘faithful’ translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance” (86). So too in the hagiography of a man who lived among men, whose primary female interlocutor was the Blessed Virgin Mary.
And yet neither will I concede that fidelity must always and forever remain a dirty word in the discourse, because of course a translator is faith-full, and to be called a wife is no insult, metaphoric or literal. Maybe if the theory weren’t so dominated by nineteenth-century men, we might be able to acknowledge that it is possible to imagine a translator to be un/faithful without also imagining her to be subordinate. There is no reason that translation, like marriage, cannot be analogized as two-part harmony rather than male soloist beside female transcriptionist. I merely insist that it be of the contrapuntal sort.
I am faith-full in that I believe in the value of wrestling with my author and our God. This is my gift, that I am full of the same faith my author had, and so we came to an easy agreement: when in doubt, talk to the Holy Spirit that he was talking to when he wrote this in the first place. Who better to clear things up? This is what happens when your dissertation is both an earnest academic contribution and a sincere work of devotion: the methodology section gets messy. But it’s not so messy as you might think. The translator and poet Katherine M. Hedeen observes that “inspiration legitimizes something as original, even though all creative work is always done in dialogue with other creative work.” At the heart of my faith is a God who is Trinity, a Creator in communal dialogue among Himself. He did not dictate His creative work but dialogued with prophets and evangelists to do it with Him. Thus, I speak from both devotion and academic practice when I argue that fidelity is a conversation.
Yuen Ren Chao speaks of fidelity as a thing of many dimensions (h/t Ivan Plis):
semantic vs. functional: what the original says, or how it says it? (it generally matters that a poem rhymes. right?)
literal vs. idiomatic: how the original is worded, or how the target-language reader would say it? (does an apple fall far from the tree in Spanish?)
frequency of occurrence: how familiar or distinctive is the original expression? (“every rose has its thorns” is a cliché in English, but what if I made the same remark about blackberries?)
obligatory categories: is this an accident of grammar or a tool of meaning? (does it matter to an author that a pencil is grammatically feminine in Spanish?)
sound effects: what happens when I read this aloud? what’s happening in the phonics and the rhythm and the punctuation? (AM I YELLING???? am i now???)
situation of use: would the source language reader find these words appropriate or discordant for this situation? is that true for the target language? (would I really say “I don’t know,” or would I just shrug?)
style: look, you know it when you see it
I find this way of approaching fidelity useful because it is specific and systematic without being computational. To refuse a subordinate position and to assume creative equality does not mean leaving the tools of the trade at the door. I am not above craft, neither is any artist. When I write, in digital pages to come, about tradeoffs like these—a turn of phrase lost in translation, a phonetic victory—I want it emphasized from the beginning that this is art I’m making. It’s also academic. It’s also collaborative. It’s also technical. It’s also the work of God.
More on that later.
The comments are open! You may leave questions, quibbles, quips, & qualms of all sorts below; just no quackery, please. (And that is an example of a sentence with sound effects!)