Translation, Metaphor

refineriesOur seminar’s first paper—Bethany Wiggin’s “Mixing Water and Oil: Environmental Humanities on the Lower Schuylkill River”—considers (among many other issues) two parallel rivers, the lower Schuylkill and the proposed pipelines delivering gas to refineries lining the lower Schuylkill. Although its environmental focus would seem to have little that pertains to my work with Chaucer’s global translations, Bethany’s paper and the subsequent discussion prompted these observations that might have implications for my project.

  1. How can metaphors help us better understand translation? Both words—one made of Greek lexemes, the other of Latin—mean carry over.

When Bethany’s paper asks us to consider the two systems as rivers—one an actual river, the other a metaphorical one—she is asking us to carry over the qualities that we’ve associated with the lower Schuylkill River’s historical degradation (corporate greed, political intrigue, polluted landscape, and uninformed consumers) to the proposed pipeline bringing petroleum by-products to the River’s refineries.

When we think about metaphors, it is convenient to think about them as consisting of a vehicle (the image) and the tenor (the message). In this case, the vehicle (the river) is a potent metaphor because it carries multiple messages.  In addition to the negative qualities specifically associated with the Schuylkill River that Bethany’s paper asks the metaphor to carry, the more general river metaphors bring other, more positive, associations with them. From this perspective a river is a natural resource enabling movement and providing food beauty, purity, and recreation.  By identifying the proposed pipeline as a metaphorical river, she simultaneously reminds her audience of what it resembles (the environmentally dubious lower Schuylkill River) and what it does not resemble (the ideal river of beauty and benefit).

When we use metaphor to think about translation, it reminds us that the translation is both less and more than the possible meanings carried over from the source text.  In addition to losing some meanings and associations inherent in the source language, the translation picks up additional meanings enabled by the receiving language and culture. Metaphor reminds us of this inevitability.

  1. Can we identify something as deliberately untranslatable? What is the difference between accidental and deliberate untranslatability, say the difference between Linear A and the Voynich Manuscript? And what is the difference between two forms of deliberate untranslatability, obfuscation and ambiguity?

This series of questions stems from questions about ways individuals and institutions have purposefully obscured the public’s understanding of the two rivers in question through purposeful misdirection, obscure jargon, bureaucratic obfuscation, and hidden documentation.  In this case, the deliberate untranslatability (at least for a certain audience) seems to de-legitimate the documents, records, and accounts associated with control of the two rivers. When we are discussing the public good, transparency and translatability are imperative. To deliberately prevent citizens from translating murky intentions into clear purposes undermines the credibility of the source text.

Chaucer’s translations show him dealing with moments of untranslatability, places where he seems to stutter and stumble when the source text either reveals its own inability to present a concept or resists relinquishing its meaning into another language. Whether deliberate or not, these moments of untranslatability imply the source text is hermeneutically complex and resists easy interpretation. They do not, however, necessarily de-legitimate the source text or its purposes.


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