Why Translations?

Vasari’s The Temptation of St. Jerome @ Chicago Art Institute

by Candace Barrington

In July, I spent a wonderful three weeks at an NEH Institute, The Centrality of Translation to the Humanities, at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. I joined twenty-four other scholars from across the disciplines and at every stage of the academic career; many of them are published translators.  Guided by a two UIUC faculty, Chris Higgins and Elizabeth Lowe–as well as by St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators–we explored the seemingly limitless ways translation informs our study of  so many fields, including literature, history, religion, and performance.  The reading list was relentless, and the discussions with fellow scholars always provocative.  I learned so much about translation and translators.

Obviously, translation is at the core of the Global Chaucers project. To begin with, our primary resources are the wondrous myriad of translations and appropriations from every continent.  Thus far, we’ve identified Global Chaucers translated into over 50 languages. In order for most Anglophone scholars to work with these translated texts, we will have to add another level of translation to our study by providing back-translations into present-day English.

On a practical level, these translations extend the life of Chaucer’s original by providing new readers, chronological longevity, and geographical expansion. Currently, there is little danger than Chaucer’s Middle English will fade away or die; his Middle English remains accessible to an educated readership, a body of readers which seems as robust as ever (if NCS membership reveals anything).  Nevertheless, anyone without that deep knowledge or the commitment to study needs a translation in the form of either a modernization or a regularization in present-day English.  With these translations, instructors in secondary- and college-classrooms can include Chaucer’s tales in a course syllabus without needing to set aside time to learn the language. (And though many decry such practices, I would maintain that faculty who teach Chaucer in the Middle English without including significant instruction and time devoted to practice reading the medieval language are doing worse harm: either the students have no idea what is happening in the course and can only parrot what the instructor tells them, or the students are resorting to a crib of some sort, the best of which the instructor has already deemed beneath the rigors of the course). Of course, much is given up, but the modernizations can provide a viable introduction to Chaucer’s texts.  Whether for student or casual reader, translations into present-day English extend Chaucer’s readership, though not without some controversial sacrifices.

The need for a translation in a non-Anglophone context is more readily apparent and less controversial.  Without these translations, Chaucer’s reach would be limited to a rather narrow swath of Anglophone readers.  Although English is becoming the lingua franca of the twenty-first century, it doesn’t mean that all those speakers will be looking to learn Middle English.  With these translations, a wider, global readership brings fresh eyes and new perspectives to Chaucer’s texts.

But why are these translations important to Chaucerians, those scholars devoted to studying the texts in their original Middle English?

Of course, translation enters our interpretation of Chaucer long before we encounter a translation into Czech or Mandarin.  For as experience and countless theorists remind us, there is no transparent or immediate utterance or communication; every utterance requires translation by the recipient. Even the original isn’t like itself—once in the hands of readers, it begins the unending process of shape-shifting, a process differing from translation as a matter of degree rather than kind.  It’s all translation, a process that Walter Benjamin calls “one of the most powerful and fruitful historical processes” (“The Task of the Translator” 256).*  And then when we read Chaucer in the twenty-first century, we have to translate him not only into a modern idiom (if only in our minds) but also across immense chronological, cultural, and (for many of us) geographical borders. In short, there is no way to read Chaucer in 2013 without translating.  Global Chaucers merely foreground the translation inherent in every reading practice.

For this reason, Global Chaucers have much to teach us.  When we identify and study these translations, we are engaged in more than collecting some shiny academic baubles.  At one level, we are understanding these texts through a very familiar medievalism paradigm recently examined by Tison Pugh and Angela Wiesl in Medievalism: Making the Past in the Present (reviewed here, here, and here). In this model we ask how various far-flung cultures have received Chaucer, how different cultural demands shaped his text for new purposes.  In many ways, the text translated out of the middle ages is studied less to gain a greater understanding of itself or its medieval precursor and more to gain a toehold on understanding the receiving culture. Such studies are a fascinating use of Global Chaucers.

Despite these interests, the NEH Institute’s theoretical readings and the translators in our cohort taught me that such models pre-limit what we allow ourselves to learn from the translated texts.  When we recognize translations as the final product of the translator’s extended close reading of a complex text, then we can also recognize that these translators and their translations have much to teach us about the medieval text.  For example, dislocations in the translation can help us locate interpretive cruxes that we might otherwise overlook.  Literal translations of words unfamiliar to the receiving language can remind us of the etymologies we might easily ignore.  Translations can expose ideas, idioms, word formations, and semantic constructions that have become invisible to us through overuse or underuse, a process both exacerbated by geographical and chronological distance.  The Danish translation of “masterly” in Ebbe’s Klitgård’s post is a good example of that phenomenon.  Other examples are Fang Zhong’s Chinese translation of Nicholas’ enchantment in The Miller’s Tale and Luk Bey’s comic book translation of John’s bedroom window into a garbage chute.  Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle English is premised on this linguistic phenomenon.  These examples are valuable because they demonstrate why Global Chaucers can be of interest to those not interested in medievalism. They nourish our reading of the original Middle English with ideas, associations, and images not previously available to us.

Translation provides something more, and it is a possibility that Benjamin suggests when he claims that “the life of the originals attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding” in translation (Benjamin, “Task” 255). As faithful to the original as they might (or might not) attempt to be, a certain amount of inherent infidelity happens to serve a higher interest: “to release in his [sic] own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work” (261).  The more I’ve learned about these translations and their translators, the more I’m convinced that they are interpreters who have much to teach us about reading Chaucer. Benjamin uses “lovingly” to describe their detailed work” (260). They are worth listening to and learning from. Having worked so closely with the text and thought through the implications of each word and line, translators clearly know Chaucer’s work as intimately as any reader possibly could.  Their insights need to be sought out and valued.

We can also learn much from what the receiving language explores, exposes, and expresses in the original’s gaps, such as forgotten etymologies and meanings excluded in the original but embraced in the receiving language. Sometimes, as we often see, these meanings are in conflict, but in this conflict a richer meaning is created for the reader. These translations can reveal what has been latent in the Middle English text and unavailable until it was translated into other languages, no matter whether those tongues were known to Chaucer and his contemporaries.  For that is the nature of language, to hide as well as to reveal. And each language has a different set of things that it reveals or hides.  The original and these translations supplement one another, supplying words, associations, and imagery not available in the others.

If the Chaucerian text celebrates polyvalency (which it clearly does), then surely translations deserve our careful study.

*Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913-1926, trans. Suhrkamp Verlag, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997), pages 253-63.


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