Pitfalls of Unidirectional Translation

How are we understand a project whose primary objective is “to forge in common a memory, an imaginary, a common view of the world that surrounds us”? What does it mean when that same project attempts to create a common culture by simultaneously artebroadcasting television programing to German and French audiences, especially when that broadcasting is developed from a German or French perspective and then (mis)translated into the other language with insufficient concern for the lost context? These transcultural questions were two of many issues raised by Damien Stankiewicz’s “Is Europe Lost in Translation?: Lessons from the Micro-Politics of Meaning at the French-German Television Channel ARTE.” Though ostensibly a series of vignettes drawn from Stankiewicz’s fieldwork at the Strasbourg television channel, the paper becomes a study of the politics of translation when well-meaning cosmopolitanism becomes straitjacketed by nationalism, when polylingual discourse becomes “serial monolingualism” (a term I borrow from Bethan Wiggin). Via Stankiewicz’s dispiriting experiences at ARTE, we watch an admirable (it seems) effort flounder when it focuses too much on telling and too little on listening.  Consequently, the channel’s unidirectional linguistic and cultural translations frequently miss their mark.

For me, ARTE’s efforts and frustrations provide a potent reminder to the pitfalls of a transnational cultural project. It’s good to be reminded that political agendas (whether or not they are self-recognized) can thwart the highest-minded efforts.

When we launched Global Chaucers in 2012, our purposes were limited and certainly felt apolitical to us.  Within months we realized that even our most minimal goals could not be reached without collaborators outside our immediate contacts.  At this point, Global Chaucers became politically inflected. Although the direction of Global Chaucers continued to be primarily determined by our goals and interests, our collaborators’ local concerns also shaped the project.  Global Chaucers couldn’t be about telling members of the scholarly collective how they should appropriate, understand, or interpret Chaucer.  Instead, it had to became a listening campaign, an effort to learn how Chaucer’s non-Anglophone readers understood his work and how they translated that understanding to other non-Anglophone readers.  I think it’s this insistence on listening that has helped us expand our network, bringing in new voices and new perspectives, united not by a common understanding of a single text but by a common delight.

Translating Basic Word Lists


In her lucid exploration of language data collection in the field once known as “lexio-statistic glottochronology,” Judy Kaplan’s “From Lexiostatistics to Lexomics: Basic Vocabulary and the Study of Language Prehistory” traces the persistent hold “Basic Word Lists.” Though the data behind those word lists have gone from being recorded and shared on note cards to being stored and processed on the cloud, they have continued to be presented as the scientific basis for big data theories regarding the prehistory of language.  As new data is brought into linguistic models, she suggests, it is made to fit the models’ theoretical conclusions rather than the new data requiring any adjustments to the model.

I was particularly interested in her discussion of the Basic Word Lists,* ranging from 15-215 items, comprising a basic vocabulary defined by its stability across time and cultures.  Identified as commensurate across all language systems, this stable lexicon includes terms like all, louse, seed, blood, claw, belly, bite, know, sun, yellow, night, new, and round. An essential (and somewhat dubious) premise behind the Basic Word List is the commensurability of these lexemes across languages (and across time).  With these word lists, mid-twentieth-century linguists created absolute chronologies of language development.  Most recently, archaeogeneticists and evolutionists have used this Basic Word List to push back the limits of language prehistory, albeit in less absolute terms.

One aspect of my study of Canterbury Tales translations also works with word lists. Unlike the linguists of Kaplan’s study, however, I’m interested in intense moments of incommensurability, those points when the receiving language exceeds the confines established by the source text’s language.  By and large, my terms have been cultural; for instance, I’ve examined the various ways translators express the idea of pilgrimage and salvation.  Additionally, some examples seem so natural that we are surprised when the translations betray their cultural situatedness.  In this category are terms associated with emotions, such as anger and joy.  What if we extend this investigation to include those supposedly stable terms? Would the literary context of multiple translations support my intuition that these terms are not nearly as stable as supposed?

*Thanks to Roger Bilosoly for sharing this fascinating link.  Be prepared to spend many hours tracing linguistic cognates.

The Mis-Attributed Translation

Brian Long’s “Symeon Seth between Islamicate Culture and Eleventh-century Byzantium” tells a story familiar to Chaucerians: a multilingual polymath associated with the seats of power translates works from a dominant language into the court vernacular; sometimes he acknowledges both the source text and source author, sometimes he acknowledges one but not the other, and sometimes he acknowledges neither. Wandering between close translation and free adaptation, his texts allow him to bring new learning in a variety of guises.  As his title reveals, Long’s subject is not Chaucer but Symeon Seth, an 11th-century Byzantine translator of medical, scientific, and natural philosophy texts from Arabic into Greek.


One of Long’s concerns is the way Symeon Seth uses un- or mis-attributed translations and the guise of classical modes of discourse to transmit the new knowledge associated with Islamicate scholars.  Long suggests the motivation behind that strategy is the deeply conservative nature of Byzantine intellectual life. To make the new learning palatable, he had to dress it in the clothing of the classical style. Symeon Seth’s translations seem to imagine a resistance to Arabic modern learning—even if that resistance seems not to have materialized.

Seminar discussion raised several other possible motivations behind Symeon Seth’s strategy, including greater control of content, the sense of a unified or universal set of knowledge (that erases the Christian/Islamic distinction), a softening of his critique of Greek traditional knowledge, and an (apparent) denial of the superiority of Arabic learning.  In other words, these strategies either create distance between Symeon Seth and his sources or they close that distance.  Whatever his motives for recalibrating his relationship to the Arabic source texts, the translations provide clues for understanding the cultural politics of 11th-century Byzantine elite culture.

Whether studying Chaucer’s translations of European texts or non-Anglophone translations of the Tales, we’ve found the translations providing a similar window into the receiving culture.  The interpretive function of translation does not end with the translator’s interpretation of the source text.  Indeed, the translation weaves together interpretations of both the source text and the receiving culture, giving us a text that shines a light on both the source text and the receiving culture.

Did Chaucer arrive in China via American Missionaries?

w-_a-_p-_martin__facultyThrough our correspondence with Professor SHEN Hong–a medievalist at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China–we learned four interesting tidbits about the role Americans played in bringing English literature into China. According to Professor Shen,

1) American missionaries were among the first to introduce English literature into China through their writings and translations.
2) The earliest courses of English literature were established in missionary colleges and universities run by American missionaries.
3) American universities have trained Chinese students to be English scholars who, after returning to China, taught English literature to later generations of Chinese students.
4) Since the 1970s, quite a few American professors came to mainland China to teach English literature, including Chaucer.
At this point, we’re not certain if any of the Chaucerian corpus was among the texts brought by American missionaries. At first glance, this transmission route seems highly unlikely.  If, however, the missionaries were selecting works from among the literary anthologies circulating at the beginning of the 19th century, then the missionaries could have found selections appropriate to their needs.
We look forward to learning more about this line of influence through the ongoing scholarship of two graduate students, ZHONG Lian at Hunan Normal University and XIAOLEI Sun at Shanghai International Studies University.

Faux Translation


Susie Hatmaker’s “The Radical Abundance of Silica: Potential for a Digital Ethics” is concerned with translation as movement: movement of a natural resource from one locale to another, movement of minerals from their raw state to economic value.  In many ways, though, the story she tells is one of misrepresentation through faux translation (my term). That is, the histories of Silicon Valley and the computer chip industries housed there are not simple stories of taking an abundant resource–sand–and transforming it into abundant forms of digital information with nothing wasted, nothing extracted.  (Nor is it the case with Silicon Valley’s closely related industry, the manufacture and distribution of solar power panels, an industry which claims to transform sunlight into clean, abundant energy.) As Susie’s paper reminds us, the silicon chip and the resulting electronic data industries have never been a pure translation of a natural resource into uncontaminated digital bytes.  In order to see those impurities, Susie suggests we listen to the silica, heed its geologic and economic history. Only in this way, we can begin to approach a digital ethics.

Similarly for literary translations. Because all translations are impure, the only false translations are those that deny their impurity or imperfections.  However, because there seems to be a universal desire for pure translations, these modes of willful (perhaps, sometimes, naïve) misrepresentation are seductive.  Repeatedly, we see Chaucer and his translators resisting the lure of faux translation and importing impurities that mark the ethical integrity of their task.

Translation, ReTranslation


Among the many images Christine Poggi shared in her 27 September presentation, the most arresting for me was this reproduction of Mona Hatoum’s Projection (2006, cotton and abaca paper).  Although Poggi was primarily concerned with translation in its most literal sense, as carrying something over a boundary line, I was struck by how this example of Hatoum’s work queries the process of translation. Through the process of erasure, the artwork exposes the ways maps transmit their prejudices when translating three-dimensional geographical features into two-dimensional representations.  Whereas a map’s standard cartographic images project borders, languages, and landmarks as suitable for understanding geography, Hatoum’s translation of a map removes identifying features that would associate a locale with any agenda, people, or language. By stripping away all those features that would link the map to one purpose or another, Projection reminds us that customary maps are filled with the prejudices of those who make them, the powers that support them, and the eyes that read them. Delivering a washed out recreation that seems to bear little resemblance to the original, Hatoum’s art work would initially seem to declare the impossibility, even undesirability, of translation—whether cartographic or any other mode of translation—without prejudice.

If, however, we think about her projections as translations of translations, then she shows how a translation can sometimes return us to the source text’s original purity, a purity visible only from a distance.  Projection reminds me of the Apollo 17 photos of the earth taken 45,000 km away, the famous “Blue Marble” images. bluemarbleArtificial political demarcations are naturally absent, but also missing are many topographical features that have traditionally established boundaries. Instead, we have the broad outlines of continents and oceans. Hatoum’s image approximates this borderless, god’s-eye view that the Apollo photograph seems to capture, returning us thereby to a cartographic vision unavailable to most us.

When we study Chaucerian translations, either Chaucer’s own translations or subsequent translations of Chaucer’s texts, it can often feel that we’ve moved so far away from the original that we’ve lost sight of what counts.  Perhaps, only perhaps, these translations can bring into relief what we might otherwise miss, those broad outlines obscured by the text’s natural details and the false demarcations we’ve inherited from previous generations of readers.

Wales Book of the Year in 2015: English language poetry shortlist


In a bit of belated news, one of our favorite Global Chaucers, Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, was short-listed for the Roland Mathias poetry award as part of the 2015 Wales Book of the Year selections (English language category).  Agbabi’s Welsh heritage adds another interesting dimension to her fabulous adaptation of The Canterbury Tales. (Thanks to Jackie Burek for the tip!)

(Image: Catryn Williams, “At y Chwarel”)