Ethics of Translation?

Given that we are all always translating, that it is something that we do (this may be why it is such an inexhaustible topic of discussion, why its potential as a trope is almost infinite), we might want to consider some of its ethical implications. To start with essence. How we negotiate the limits of what we are willing/able to describe as translation invariably takes on an ethical dimension. Ontologically speaking, when what is at stake is what is or is not translation (and the powers vested therein), we run into (un)certain difficulties. We must also think, beyond the literary, of diplomatic translators, interpreters in conflict zones, immigration officials working with cases of abuse, etc. Sometimes it matters what counts as translation, and not just in situations where one sees the dreaded words: ‘Translate the following passage’.

Having said that we’re all involved in the runaround of translation, let’s fall back to look at two practical focuses – ‘making’ translations (‘translation’!) and ‘using’ translation (‘reading’ other language*).

Where do one’s obligations, in making translation, lie? (the receptions of) One’s text, (the receptions of) one’s author, one’s audience, one’s self? Probably all of these, and others, but in what proportion? What are the ethical processes and consequences of ‘tidying up’ elements of an otherlanguage text, in order to eliminate perceived difficulties and hindrances to the reading experience of the target audience (or to protect some or other modesty, or for fear of offense, etc etc)? Is this robbing Peter to pay Paul [translation please?]? But equally, what of not tidying, what of addition, omission, flattening this, playing up that? Is faithfulness possible when we’re already committed to a there and a here, if not also to a then and a now?

The key in using translations, it seems, is that we are honest with ourselves, and others, in admitting that we are indeed, using translations. This is a salutary reminder that we read only receptions, even when we read ‘originals’. Do they really read Flaubert in the original merely because they read him in French? But we cannot hope to engage with either the ‘original’, the ‘translation’ itself or receptions, when we begin and continue with the lie that we are ‘really’ reading Tolstoy, or Homer or whomever. This lie’s tacit. Not enough attention is paid to the fact of the translation. ‘Goethe writes’, or ‘Dante says’ are revealing formulae. A translation is another text. We need to own up to this, not pretend that we are reading something we’re not, so we can commit to what we are. And to ask whether this is just anxiety about the status of the reader, the text, the translator, the translation. It is still vital to struggle against the pretence that we are reading the same in another.

*of the millions of things a bite-sized chunklet like this has to ignore, intra-lingual translation, translation as (re-)reading and ‘Who gets the credit?’ for translation are among the more suggestive. To save further postings, we might also want to consider what’s ethical about the colossal disparity in translations from and into English, to take one particularly egregious example, and the complacency that seems to accompany it. An ethical discussion will be severely impoverished that ignores the uncomfortable topics of, e.g.,  politics and economics.




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