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Atlas to the Text

Students and professors negotiate the philosophical challenges of translation

Loyalty to authorial intent and the creative desire for interpretation are two of the many irreconcilable imperatives for translators.
Loyalty to authorial intent and the creative desire for interpretation are two of the many irreconcilable imperatives for translators.
By Nicholas T Rinehart, Crimson Staff Writer

Completed in 1655, Harvard’s Indian College was designed to be a hotbed of Puritan missionary activity. The college also housed a printing press, then operated by the aptly-named James Printer, a student and a member of the Algonquian Nipmuc tribe.

Printer and his press—the first on the North American continent—would later be of great use to John Eliot, an English proselytizer. After more than a decade of painstaking labor, in 1659 Eliot completed his translation of the Bible into Wampanoag, which he had learned while living among Native Americans in ‘Praying Towns.’ These settlements were founded for the express purpose of exposing Native Americans to Christian enlightenment, and Eliot regularly delivered sermons in Wampanoag to the ‘Praying Indians’ of Natick. Published in stages at the Indian College between 1661 and 1663, Eliot’s Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God (“The-whole Holy his-Bible God”) was the first Bible printed in North America.

Though Eliot’s work may present moral problems from a modern perspective, it is difficult to imagine the intellectual responsibility and ambition required to convey ‘the word of God’ in a foreign tongue. Such a weighty endeavor brings with it both the possibility of great achievement and the looming threat of inadequacy. For contemporary expert and amateur translators at Harvard, the task of translation involves a confluence of fear, anxiety, and intimidation. The root cause of this distress lies in the creative, historical, and political complexities found in translation.

THE MODERN EAR

The tradition of translating ancient texts is still alive and well at Harvard, although it has lost curricular prominence since Harvard’s founding. Undergraduates in the Classics Department are the most active constituents in the niche community of translators at Harvard. The Classical Club, founded in 1885, translates and stages an ancient drama every spring. This year, the club is putting on their new version of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” which opened March 4 and is running through March 12.

The club’s modus operandi is to alternate Latin and Greek plays each year and shop around for interested directors once the translation has been completed. This pattern fell through last year, when the club’s translation never reached the stage. This time around, the creative process was reversed. “We decided to do ‘Oedipus [Rex]’ this year because [Meryl H. Federman ’11, director] was planning to do ‘Oedipus.’ She wasn’t happy with the translation, so we decided to work with her,” says Classical Club co-president Arthur D. Kaynor ’12, who is also working as a producer and ‘Translation Captain’ for the new production.

According to Federman, the initial translations she surveyed were dense and ornate, rendering the play’s drama unintelligible. “I was very excited to find the Classical Club because a lot of the translations [of ‘Oedipus’] are quite old, and the wording is quite highfalutin ... it’s very old-school, very poetic, overblown in what it sounds like when you hear it,” she says. “[In those editions] people are trying to approximate what it sounded like back then. They are going off of this style that is ultimately confusing today.” Federman’s task was to ignore rhetorical affectation and streamline “Oedipus” in order to make it relatable to a modern audience. “I wanted to get to the human story of it with a translation that is more accessible to the modern ear,” she says.

Members of the eight-person translation team for “Oedipus” brought home sections of the play for J-Term, each producing a literal, non-interpretive translation of his or her assigned segment. These disparate, individual translations were then joined into a single cohesive document. This draft was further revised by Federman, Kaynor, and Felice S. Ford ’11—the show’s other Producer and ‘Translation Captain’—to include language more stylistically suited to performance.

“My work has mostly been advising with the director and other production staff, especially during casting,” says Ford. She also helps to convey “aspects of the text that aren’t just in the text itself, the nature of Greek tragedy, the culture that produced it. There are still some things in terms of characterizations and staging when it does matter if you want to have an authentic production.” Staging classical texts, then, requires cultural transmission in addition to linguistic translation.

For Federman, the fear associated with translating “Oedipus Rex” has little to do with the work’s canonical status. In fact, directing a classic drama invites creative and original ideas. “You don’t want to do nothing,” says Federman. The anxiety of reinterpreting a text like “Oedipus Rex” lies rather in the multitude of creative options made possible by a new translation. For plays written in English, the range of interpretive possibilities is much narrower: “every line has a binary operation,” says Federman, to cut or not to cut. In translated plays, a director may actually create the text itself.

“It starts out terrifying, and gets really fun, because there are so many choices of what to do,” says Federman. “With something like this ... there is an uncountable number of things to do on every single line, and you have to make that decision over and over and over again. It becomes harder to change as you keep going.”

A director, however, must also confront the pressure of accurately conveying another’s work. “You are working with something that is not yours,” says Federman. “This is not an adaptation, it is the play itself. You need to have creative inspiration within a specific, narrow framework. There are times when you get stuck, because it is a creative process.” The central conflict, therefore, is between creativity and loyalty. “I think Sophocles would like this translation,” she adds with a smile.

BEAUTY AND SUBTEXT

Just as Eliot crowned his career with the Wampanoag Bible, a small set of undergraduates culminate their academic careers with a translation thesis. Ford is one such student, currently completing her edition of Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” a Greek tragedy centered on the god Dionysus’ revenge against his mortal family. Although Euripides’ drama is an oft-translated and oft-performed classic, Ford is attempting to contribute something original to her interpretation.

“My goal in the work overall was to be as true to the text as possible, but still produce a comprehensible and somewhat aesthetically pleasing version of the text,” says Ford. Her main goal is to reconsider widely accepted though antiquated translations, which distort the play’s content for a modern audience. “[Translated] texts pre-1950 or -1960 were very Victorian-sounding, [and used] high English,” she says.

Ford aims to make an aesthetic update. “I wanted to make something that could stand as a beautiful composition, but doesn’t do so at the expense of the true meaning of the words or the subtext that underlies them.” Her sentiment reiterates the tension Federman cites between interpretation and authenticity.

The greatest obstacle Ford has confronted so far lies in her efforts to translate the original Greek into verse English, especially the passages for chorus. “It is incredibly difficult to do the poetic sections. It’s hard to write poetry that sounds good in English but incorporates the meanings of the text.” Likewise, she adds, “I haven’t written poetry in a while, so it’s difficult on the personal side.” The process of translation, then, requires playing multiple roles: just as director Federman had to assume the part of translator, translator Ford must act as poet in her own project.

FREEDOM AND FIDELITY

Professor Sandra A. Naddaff ’75, Director of Studies for the literature concentration and Director of the Freshman Seminar Program, has taught Literature 109: “On Translation” for nearly two decades. The popular seminar examines translation from philosophical and theoretical perspectives, and each student is required to produce a large-scale, original translation over the course of a semester. “I am somebody who has for many years been fascinated by language and especially interested in philosophies of language, and in many ways thinking about translation ... [and] how meaning is made, how it crosses cultural boundaries,” Naddaff says.

Arthur L. Goldhammer—an affiliate at the Minda da Gunzburg Center for European Studies and English translator of more than 100 French works of history, philosophy, economics, literature, and criticism—has often visited the seminar to lend his expertise and guidance. His approach, however, is thoroughly unphilosophical. “My own approach to translation is that I don’t like to talk about it theoretically, I like to talk about it practically,” says Goldhammer. “I like to talk about the translation with the text in front of us. ... Translation is really a matter of hand-to-hand combat with the language. You really have to get up close to it,”

One trend Naddaff has observed throughout her years teaching Literature 109 is the anxiety students experience when confronted by the class’ final project. “Yes, there is always a tremendous sense of responsibility toward the author you are representing,” says Naddaff. “Young translators have an overdeveloped sense of this responsibility and concern to be as accurate and as literal as possible. ... More established, seasoned translators feel they can allow a certain interpretative dimension in their work.”

Inexperienced translators then try to serve the original text and its author by translating verbatim. This approach may lead students to get stuck in the minutiae of vocabulary rather than to consider the general effect or purpose of a particular phrase or passage. According to Naddaff, this student tendency reflects the looming fear of doing harm to a work’s legacy. “The fear is appropriate—that you are representing somebody, taking responsibility for the representation of someone’s work,” says Naddaff. “That’s a significant responsibility. The way that plays out theoretically is the tension between freedom on the one hand and fidelity on the other.”

Goldhammer does not believe there exists a distinction between interpretation and faithfulness. “I don’t like the opposition between freedom and slavish fidelity to the text,” he says. “Translating is like taking a musical composition and playing it on an instrument different from the one on which it was composed. A good player will try to get to the essence of the composition and use the resources of the instrument.” There’s no need to shy away from the advantages presented by the language of the finished product; rather, every translation is a full reconstruction.

“To me, the difference between English and French is like that,” says Goldhammer. “When I translate in English, I try to do what the author would have done if he had had the resources of English at his disposal.”

“PREEMPTIVE STRIKE”

Karla M. Cornejo Villavicencio ’11, a history and literature concentrator and semi-professional translator of modern Latin American literature, has experienced this same tension. Just last year, Cornejo published a previously untranslated interview between Jorge Luis Borges and Argentinian writer Héctor Alvarez Castillo in Harper’s Magazine.

“Touching Borges is like walking into a cathedral,” she says. For Cornejo, interpreting a legendary author like Borges imbues a translation with undeniable gravity. However, it also produces the fear that even the smallest mistake Cornejo makes will be blamed on her age, despite her years of experience as a translator. “If I fuck up, they’re going to be like, ‘She’s just a kid.’”

Cornejo observes this creative burden in the contrast between translating works of deceased writers and of those who are still living. “It’s different to translate someone who’s alive and [someone who’s] dead, because someone who’s dead can’t talk back,” says Cornejo. In other words, there’s a necessary opposition between “the canon” and “the guy you just emailed.” In that sense, the classic works of deceased authors are untouchable, and that distance elicits an elevated respect and formality that the works of living authors do not necessarily produce.

But translating a living author presents its own difficulties, both political and interpretative. “When you see a translated text, it’s another tool the writer uses when he knows he’s going to be translated,” says Cornejo. In her field of specialty, she claims that some authors plant specific scenes, paragraphs, or turns of phrase that mystify or elude the translator and the translator’s audience. Cornejo calls such a passage a “preemptive strike” or a “slightly malicious joke.”

What Cornejo terms ‘hot’ Latin American writers—those who expect to be translated for a mainstream American audience—“have moments which are inside jokes [to] intentionally leave out the cool kids,” says Cornejo. By doing so, some Latin American authors can preserve their material against translation and interpretation, thus granting special access to their local, Spanish-speaking readership. Elements of foreign work may resist translation not simply in artistic design but through roadblocks intentionally constructed by writers. The implicit argument in this obscurantism is that not all writing can be effectively translated.

For Goldhammer, translating living authors is complicated by the ongoing exchange between writer and interpreter. “Sometimes you will run across an author who has strong views of how his work should read in English that may at times conflict with your own views, and that can be a difficult kind of problem to resolve. You may wind up in a conflict with an author over his own style ... It takes some tactful negotiation,” Goldhammer says.

ACTA NON VERBA

Although a few students pursue translation within and beyond the academic program, the intellectual and creative obstacles inherent to the process of translation impede its popularity. Currently there is no centralized translation community at Harvard, and few professional translators or translation scholars work at the University. “There aren’t many people who are doing translation as a regular part of their scholarly work [because] it doesn’t leave a lot of time for teaching and publishing papers,” says Goldhammer. And, among those who do translate, there is no effective apparatus for communication. Goldhammer says that he was disappointed to find he and Literature Professor Leo Damrosch were both working on Alexis de Toqueville’s travel notes and letters at the same time without having any awareness of one another’s projects.

This absence of translation support and culture leaves Harvard without one of academia’s few opportunities for the immediate and concrete creation of cultural value. In making a foreign work accessible to a new audience, translation increases a group’s preexisting wealth of knowledge in absolute terms. It may be this responsibility that makes the substance of translation acta non verba.

—Staff writer Nicholas T. Rinehart can be reached at nrinehart@college.harvard.edu.

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