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6 Oct

Balance redux – Kevin, he of the Hairy Chasms, recently posted an interesting thought on translation that he cleverly disguised as a footnote to a more or less innocuous post on frying rice cakes. I played along and posted an equally innocuous comment about how I also love fried rice cakes sprinkled with some sugar (OK, a lot of sugar). Kevin was disappointed that I didn’t try to pick a fight with him over the apparent differences in our translation philosophies, and proceeded to defend his position anyway. I appreciate what he wrote, because he makes an important point that I failed to cover in my recent entry on balance in translation, and in today’s entry I’d like to talk briefly (well, briefly for me, at least) about that.

“when people read a translation, they don’t expect it to be like whatever literature they are familiar with.”

For those of you who dislike reading (and if that’s you, I honestly don’t know why you’re here), here’s the story so far in a nutshell. Kevin noted that he translates many Sino-Korean terms (that is, Korean terms derived from and/or expressed in Chinese characters), especially religious terms, in a “deliberately crude manner” to allow the Chinese characters to “speak for themselves.” That is, presenting the characters in their barest and crudest form prevents cultural, social or other filters from getting in the way of the raw meaning.

My own philosophy, with which this seemingly clashes, was expressed in a much more meandering and tangent-ridden manner, but the gist is that translation is about finding the balance between being faithful to the original text and producing a readable text in the target language. I argued that the target language text takes precedence over the original text if and when an appropriate compromise cannot be reached. That is, I would rather sacrifice some of the nuance of the original than produce an awkward target language text in an attempt to save that nuance.

Judging by these explanations, these two ideas would indeed seem to be in opposition. But these are only cursory treatments of very complex ideas, and I believe that they are not, in fact, diametrically opposed. In the entry linked above, I guess I did go a little overboard in driving home my point, dragging in religious language and symbolism to the point of nausea. And even though I did go as far as saying, “The target language is the altar upon which I burn my translations, hoping that the fragrance of the smoke will be pleasing in the nostrils of the Reader” (I swear I was not smoking anything fragrant at the time, scout’s honor), I do not actually believe in sacrificing everything to produce a smooth target language text.

When I was contemplating how to summarize the philosophy I had rambled on about for several thousand words in my previous entry, I came up with this phrase: “...finding the balance between faithfulness to the nuance and artistry of the original text and faithfulness to the expectations of the target language readers.” Then I realized that this is not at all what I had said, but is in fact more accurate. So here’s the thesis, and then I’ll work from there: when people read a translation—especially a translation from a distant and unfamiliar country—they don’t expect it to be like American literature or whatever literature they are familiar with. In fact, they expect it to be different—“exotic,” some might even say.

It’s interesting that Kevin mentioned obscenities in his follow up, because that may be the area where I would be most tempted to stray from the original expression of my philosophy. Go read the example he gives, because it’s a good one. Had I been the professor, I would have chosen the more literal translation—that is, “I s*** on them,” rather than the more colloquial “F*** you!”

Once again, I must refer to the Korean translator/author An Jeonghyo and an anecdote I heard him tell. He was talking to Westerners who had read an English translation of a Korean story, and they all praised the fluidity of the translation, but they had one complaint: the characters didn’t sound Korean. When he asked them to elaborate, they said that the characters sounded more like Americans, and he ultimately discovered that this was because they were walking around saying things like s***, f***, and a**hole.

Why was this a problem? Because it wasn’t what the Western readers were expecting of Korean characters. I doubt that any of them could have vocalized what exactly they did expect, but if pressed for an answer they probably would have said something along the lines of, “I don’t know. Something different.” I am not familiar with the translation in question, but there’s a fair chance that the obscenities weren’t the only factor, just one of the more obvious factors. It is possible that the translator tried too hard to make the text sound natural in the target language and thus stripped it of the nuance and flavor that made it Korean.

In defending the colloquial translation of the French curse, Kevin notes that the French use this curse in the same context as English speakers when they say “F*** you.” Yet I wonder if perhaps the similarity of context itself is not as important as the different reactions to that same context. Some of the more traditional Korean curses (and even some modern ones) are very hard to translate literally. If I had such a gem as “I s*** on them” within my grasp, I would be all over it like flies on... well, you know.

This is all very good in theory, of course, but as I just mentioned, some Korean curses can be difficult to translate. While translating yesterday I ran into a pretty good example. In a flashback that takes place in the late 19th century (the novel itself is set at the turn of the 20th century), a character’s father is lost at sea and his family is preparing for the ritual to call his spirit back from its watery resting place. His mother discovers his sister crying in the outhouse and drives her out of town, fearing that her grief will bring bad luck. As she sends her off, her final words are a curse: “i aebi jabameogeun nyeona.”

Literally, this means “you wench who has tormented her father.” (A few linguistic notes: the verb “jabameokda” means “to devour” when applied to animals, but it means “to torment” when applied to humans—otherwise this would be a very ghastly curse indeed—and “nyeon” can be translated in a number of ways, but I chose “wench” as the most “old-fashioned sounding.”) I have to admit that I love “traditional” Korean curses (modern Korean curses are far less imaginative in my opinion), like “yeombyeonghal nom,” which literally means “fellow who will die of the plague.” Isn’t that great? Maybe it’s just me.

But back to my original example. I’m honestly not sure how I’m going to handle this one yet. Since I’m translating this novel using my relatively new “translate quickly and move on” technique (otherwise known as “translating without a net”), I typed “father-tormenting wench” and kept going. It’s a horribly awkward bit, and it may very well end up being changed in the editing process (I’ve already got a few ideas bouncing around in my head), but there is something about the awkwardness that I like. It conveys something of the feeling of the original.

This does, in fact, run counter to my previous entry, where I said that one shouldn’t sacrifice a fluent translation for the sake of nuance, because an awkward translation will most likely fail just as miserably at conveying that nuance as a more fluent translation that ignores it entirely. I think I may have been a bit overzealous when I made that statement, because I think that awkwardness may have its place in translation. Depending on how intrusive the awkwardness is, it may be justified by the flavor it brings to the translation.

As I did in the previous entry, I’m going to give some extreme examples, this time going in the other direction, to prove a point. In the previous entry I carried on for quite some time about oil lamps, showing how disastrous it could be to consider words sacred and thus untranslatable. But I’ve also heard of (although never actually witnessed) people swinging too far to other end of the spectrum. The “translation” of names is a good example. I heard of one translator who “translated” Korean names into English equivalents because he or she felt that the original Korean names would be too hard for foreign readers to recognize or remember. So Miseon would become Mary and Johun would become John. I can’t think of a better way to Westernize Korean characters than to give them Western names.

This hapless translator (and, honestly, given how ridiculous this gets, I can’t help wondering if this translator is not an urban legend—but the examples prove a point, and that’s what counts) then goes on to replace Korean foods with their Western “counterparts.” Kimchi, which many people are familiar with these days, was translated as “pickles” (and not “pickled cabbage,” because pickled cabbage is not a traditional American food). My personal favorite was fermented soybean paste (doenjjang), which was transformed into peanut butter—apparently the closest thing to fermented soybean paste that the translator could imagine. Thanks to these unfortunate choices, Mary and John ended up eating pickles and peanut butter stew.

Setting aside the question of whether anyone could actually be so clueless, these are good (not to mention humorous) examples of how easy it is to go astray when you lose sight of the fundamental principles. It’s one thing to write so that readers of the target language can read and understand the story, but it’s quite another to assume that these readers are sheltered, intolerant idiots who might explode at the slightest exposure to something foreign.

There is a certain type of people who read translated literature, as I alluded to above, and one of the reasons they read translated literature is that they’re looking for something different from what they are used to, something a little out of the ordinary. This does not mean that we should produce a stilted translation in an attempt to preserve every last nuance of the original, it simply means that we should attempt to capture as much of the original flavor in a reasonably fluent translation, since that flavor is a big part of why people read translations.

To address the examples I gave above, names are usually a no-brainer for me. Miseon is Miseon, and Johun is Johun. The waters do get a bit murky when you start dealing with certain famous fictional characters—The Tale of Chunhyang (Chunhyangjeon) is the example I’m thinking of right now. This story is one of the most famous in all of Korean literature, and it has been translated numerous times. I have seen some translations where Chunhyang’s name is rendered as “Spring Fragrance”—the literal meaning of “Chunhyang.” While I can understand why this was done (think of how Native American names are translated into English, just to offer a “Western” example), I’m not sure if I agree with the choice. I can’t say that I completely disagree with it, but I think I would render (and have in the past rendered) the name as “Chunhyang.”

Translating a name by translating its meaning is a much better tactic than attempting to find an equivalent, but I don’t think it is the ideal choice. The only time I would consider translating the meaning of a name would be if that meaning was important to the story. Does the fact that Chunhyang’s name means “Spring Fragrance” contribute in any major way to the story? No, it does not. It is a beautiful name, but such names are typical of gisaeng (the female entertainer class/occupation to which Chunhyang belongs) and have no special meaning. I think translators who choose to translate the meanings of names forget that all names, no matter what the language, have meanings. Imagine how awkward it would be to translate every name in a literary work, especially when the majority of their meanings do not relate to the characters to whom they refer. And if you are not going to translate them all, where do you draw the line?

This may seem like a tangent, but it is related to the issue at hand. Translating the meaning of a name is an attempt to squeeze as much nuance and flavor out of the original—even nuance that may not exist or be quite as important as the translation makes it out to be. It is also a way of sidestepping the difficult issue of having to render the original language in the target language. In my own experience, though, names do not cause that much of a problem in reading translations. Names are identifiers, and readers will recognize them as such. They will not attempt to take apart a foreign name and figure out what it means, they will simply recognize it as a whole and understand that it identifies a certain character.

As for kimchi and deonjjang, what’s wrong with pickled cabbage and fermented soybean paste? Sure, the latter is a bit unwieldy, but after the first mention in a passage you can refer to it as “soybean paste,” which is much more manageable. As long as we remember that the goal of translation is to render the original work in the target language, not necessarily in the target cultural idiom, we should easily be able to avoid such blunders.

I’d like to make one final note in an attempt to prevent this entry from swinging too far in the other direction and ruining the balance once again. My thoughts today should not be taken as a defense of awkwardness in translation. Retaining the flavor of the original does not necessarily mean an awkward translation, and an awkward translation may not necessarily retain the flavor the original. In fact, I would say that most of the time awkwardness does not equal flavor, it just equals awkwardness.

In the end, it all comes back to getting the balance right. Perhaps today’s entrance shifts that balance a little bit away from the extreme that the previous entry might have seemed to espouse. But I would like to think of these two entries as different perspectives on the same philosophy. If you take both of these entries as a whole, you’ll get a reasonably accurate expression of this philosophy. Until I revise it again, of course.

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