Australian author, cultural commentator, essayist and translator Linda Jaivin shared her thoughts on literary translations in her keynote speech at the 2014 Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference.

Fellow subversives and saboteurs, I come to you to praise not just the ‘plural world’ but the acts of violence that make it possible.

I’m referring to the ‘acts of violence’ of which Victor Hugo spoke in his preface to a French translation of Shakespeare published in France in 1865: the disruptive, discomposing effects that translation can have on language and culture.
Translation introduces new ways of thinking about the world, new linguistic formulations, and new paths of connection between cultures – and these are not always welcomed with open arms.

Hugo wrote (André Lefevere’s translation): “When you offer a translation to a nation, that nation will almost always look on the translation as an act of violence against itself … Bourgeois taste tends to resist the universal spirit.” He continued:

To translate a foreign writer is to add to your own national poetry; [yet] such a widening of the horizon does not please those who profit from it, at least not in the beginning. The first reaction is one of rebellion. If a foreign idiom is transplanted into a language in this way, that language will do all it can to reject that foreign idiom… There is an abuse of images, a profusion of metaphors, a violation of frontiers, a forced introduction of the cosmopolitan into local taste.

See what happens when you translate? All hell breaks loose – if you’re doing it right.

The introduction of new, challenging ideas into a culture or language through translation is like placing a book about male penguins raising a baby penguin onto the shelf of a library in Singapore. (I refer to the controversy at the time of the conference about a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, in our host city). You will alarm the most parochial, reactionary and small-minded members of society. They will do all they can to reject this ‘foreign idiom’, this ‘introduction of the cosmopolitan into local taste’. They will say that they cannot accept ‘this kind of taste’.

To liken the placement of And Tango Makes Three onto Singapore’s library shelves to the act of translation is not a linguistic stretch. The word translation in English derives from the Latin trans, meaning across, plus latum, the past participle of to bear or carry. It describes transferring something from one place or realm to another and is not confined to the metaphorical. Catholics speak of translating the relics of saints when they move them from one shrine to the next.

The North Koreans, like Singapore’s National Library Board, are more than aware of the potential violence that can be done to a closed culture by translation. When the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the Chosun Social Sciences Institute in Pyongyang translate foreign-language books into Korean, they typically restrict the print run to one hundred copies. Only the leadership and their closest associates have access to books in the One Hundred Copy Collection; only they can be trusted with such mass weapons of ideological destruction as, say, the collected poems of Lord Byron.

The new book (translated by one of APWT’s co-founders, Shirley Lee) Dear Leader by Jang Jin-sung, a former official poet in Kim Jung-il’s circle and defector provides a vivid illustration of Victor Hugo’s point about ‘acts of violence’.

Jang was a teenager when he encountered the Korean translation of The Collected Works of Lord Byron from the One Hundred Copy Collection on his father’s bookshelf. Jang writes:

I opened the book with vague curiosity, but I was pulled in from the first page and the poetry seized me at once. The vocabulary was bold and the words pushed their definitions and associations to the limits, unlike anything I had ever read.

In North Korea, the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the National Literary Deliberation Committee combine to set ‘strict boundaries for the written and spoken word.’ Byron’s poetry, Jang writes, was ‘like a dictionary of New Korean to me’.

He writes in Dear Leader that in the North Korean language: ‘There are two distinct registers of speech: one relating to the Leader, and one to everyone else. Before encountering Byron’s poetry, I had thought that adjectives such as “Dear” and “Respected” were a special form of pronoun in the Korean language reserved for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il … I had assumed that these adjectives were names just like Kim and therefore etymologically and purely Korean.’ The notion that they could be applied to another individual, he writes, ‘elated him’.

The poetry itself, meanwhile achieved something even more shocking: it led him to understand that ‘emotions could be experienced in a personal sphere that did not include the Leader’ – what he calls ‘an astounding epiphany’.

It could hardly have been the intention of Byron’s North Korean translators to shake the world-view of their highly select readers but in other cases, such ‘acts of violence’ may be precisely the translator’s aim.

One extreme of translation theory

In her new book, Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence, the Monash University scholar Gloria Davis writes of a fierce debate about translation that blew up in China in the late 1920s. The debate pitted the progressive writer Lu Xun against the prominent literary critic Liang Shiqiu. The controversy concerned Lu Xun’s style of translation from the Japanese, which he himself described as ‘hard translation’ – hard in the sense of rigid or solid. Liang was unimpressed. He considered Lu Xun’s translations overly and unnecessarily literal, and said they were not so much ‘hard’ as ‘dead’.

Liang argued that a more fluid translation – one that read better in the target language – might contain small errors, but would at least ‘give the reader a sense of pleasure’. Lu Xun retorted that he didn’t translate ‘to enhance the reader’s “pleasure”’. He did so, he said, to introduce ‘new constructions’ in grammar, syntax and vocabulary to the Chinese language: in Davies’ words, to ‘prise open the Chinese language to accommodate new ways of sense-making’.

Lu Xun was a towering figure of the 1919 May Fourth Movement. The movement began with ad hoc patriotic demonstrations by Beijing students and grew into a cultural, social and intellectual movement that was highly self-reflective and critical of Chinese culture, asking what it was about tradition – including China’s linguistic, philosophical and literary tradition – that kept China weak, poor and seemingly unable to join the modern world as an equal.

The essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger has cited ‘national self-loathing’ as ‘one of the great spurs to translation’ in general. He writes:

It is often the case that translation flourishes when the writers feel that their language or society needs liberating.

It flourishes in times of ferment.

Lu Xun, like many other Chinese intellectuals of his era who searched for a path towards the liberation of Chinese society from its stifling and backwards-looking traditions, studied in Japan. Culturally, Japan had much in common with China: it had even borrowed Chinese characters to use in formal writing more than one thousand years earlier. Yet by the late nineteenth century Japan had successfully transformed itself into a modern nation and a major military power, while once-mighty China suffered defeat after humiliation after defeat at the hands of Western Imperialist powers like France and Britain.

This onetime ‘tribute nation’ of China had inflicted perhaps the most humiliating defeat of all on China in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, which resulted in Japan’s occupation of Chinese territories including Taiwan. In searching for clues as to how this had happened, Chinese thinkers observed that beginning in the nineteenth century, Japan had nurtured a rich culture of translation from Western texts. These included literary and aesthetic as well as political and philosophical texts. The Japanese had, in other words, actively encouraged these very ‘acts of violence’ that would transform and strengthen them.

Usefully for the Chinese, the Japanese translators used Chinese characters, kanji, to inscribe many key concepts including ‘civilisation’ (文明= literature 文 + illumination 明) and ‘democracy’ (民主 = people 民 + plus rule, or master 主). Lu Xun did not wish to find some pre-existing Chinese formulation that could stand in for such startling, disruptive concepts, old formulations that would obscure the freshness of the ideas. He wanted them to stick out, to use a colourful Australian expression, like dog’s balls. He even tried to preserve Japanese syntax and grammar, rendering his translations quite difficult to read – and also very different from his own writing, essays and fiction that include some of the most loved Chinese texts of the twentieth century.

Lu Xun’s work represents one extreme of translation theory. Objecting to that type of translation in general, David Bellos, author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, remarks: ‘Why should we want or need Kafka to sound German? In German, Kafka doesn’t sound “German” at all – he sounds like Kafka.’

Kafka is a perfect example of a writer whose work in translation (as in the original) introduced such a distinctively new way of framing our experience that we have had to give him his own adjective, Kafka-esque, to do it justice. In other words, you can commit an act of violence without leaving blood all over the floor.

The translator and theorist Lawrence Venuti is one of the main adherents today of the practice that Lu Xun espoused in his translation. Like Bellos, I disagree with the notion that the reader needs to be jarred into awareness that she or he is reading a foreign text – the act of violence as a hammer in the face.

Yet, it’s also worth considering Venuti’s warning against ‘fluent translations that invisibly inscribe foreign texts with English-language values’, thereby providing readers ‘with the narcissistic experience of recognising their own culture in a cultural other’.

On the other extreme, is exoticisation. In Found in Translation, I relate the cautionary tale of the very first Chinese film ever shown in a commercial cinema in the US, in New York in 1936. It was a silent film, and so featured title cards for dialogue and narration. One read, in the English translation, “Seven times the pear tree has come into blossom.” Poetic, I’m sure – but the original text in Chinese read simply 七年之后, which translates as: ‘seven years later’.

The Japanese have a number of words for translation: meiyaku for a famous translation, setsuyaku for the modest ‘my clumsy translation’, shoyaku for the translation of an excerpt from a longer work, juyaku for a translation of a translation and, my favourite, choyaku, a publishing trademark that means ‘a translation that’s better than the original’.

When my novel Eat Me became a bestseller in France, the Australian literary critic Andrew Riemer, who was not a fan of the original, speculated that it must have been greatly improved in translation. I consider that entirely possible given the talent of my translator, Nathalie Vernay, and the innate eroticism of the French language.

I didn’t expect an English-language work of erotic fiction to make much of a splash. But Eat Me became a bestseller in France.  And yet, it didn’t translate in some parts of America at all. My American publishers planned my publicity tour so that I would completely avoid the Bible Belt.

As I wrote in Found in Translation:

It’s patently counter-productive to fear or attempt to limit the contamination of new ideas … we would be pig-headed not to welcome those ‘acts of violence’ of which Hugo spoke. If these acts of violence end up knocking down some walls, the view only improves.

We live in a plural, interconnected world. Gay penguins are coming to an ice floe near you. Resistance is futile.

Linda Jaivin is an author, cultural commentator, essayist and translator (from Chinese). She has published seven novels and four works of non-fiction; her latest novel, The Empress Lover (Fourth Estate, 2014), features a protagonist who is a translator of Chinese film subtitles. ( Linda’s recent non-fiction includes her recent Quarterly Essay Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World (Black Inc, 2013) and a new book on Beijing (Beijing, published in June 2014 by Reaktion Press).