13 September 2011

Perditum in Translatione

For those of who you don’t know Latin, today’s blog heading means ‘lost in translation.’ I haven’t chosen this heading because I want to discuss the ‘what gets lost in translation’ comparative model I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, though that subject does come up (albeit from a critical standpoint). Rather, I want to use it as a metaphor for thinking about where I am in my process. I also do not mean that I am ‘lost in translation’ in a negative sense. This is major component of how I am looking at my primary texts, after all. Even though I will complain about what a struggle the dissertation process can be at times, I wouldn’t be thinking about translation and the broader field of Translation Studies if I was not fascinated by them. More than fascinated, even. To borrow from one of the many excellent Latin teachers I have had as a graduate student, I am a word nerd. As such, I find it quite easy and pleasurable to lose myself in translation. Keeping both the ‘traditional’ way of reading ‘lost in translation’ and the positive, metaphorical way I want to read it in mind, I want to return to the topic of how my primary texts relate to one another that I briefly mentioned towards the end of yesterday’s entry.

I wrote yesterday that my three texts‑ and I want to point out now that I am purposely giving as little detail about my topic as possible so that I can focus on process rather than plug my dissertation topic‑ are closely related to one another. From a chronological standpoint, the ‘second’ text, in fact, a translation of the ‘first’ text. The ‘third’ text is a translation of the ‘second’. The ‘first’ text has not usually be considered a translation at all. Building on the expanded definition of translation that I mapped out in yesterday’s entry (i.e., the construction of human subjects and/or whole cultures), I argue, however, that this text translates cultural materials, some of which was transmitted to the author orally and some of which was transmitted in other texts the author was familiar with. I will also add that this ‘first’ text is written in Latin. The other two are written in vernaculars. Those of you who know Arthurian literature can probably guess which three texts I am talking about now. Good on you!

I’ve called attention to the chronological order in which my three texts were written for a reason. The natural tendency would be to think of the ‘first’ text as the ‘origin’ of the other two. If we take this assumption to its logical conclusion, we would be tempted to think that the farther we go from the ‘first’ or ‘original’ text, the more that is ‘lost in translation’. However, I’ve recently begun thinking that the relationship between these three texts is more complicated than this. Or rather, I think that although looking at these texts sequentially, with the ‘second’ building on the ‘first,’ and the ‘third’ building on the ‘second,’ is a valid approach, it nonetheless does not provide the most insightful reading of the three of them in terms of the way cultural materials were exchanged across cultural boundaries at the time. In some ways, the ‘second’ text more radically departs from the ‘first’ than the ‘third’ text does. And this occurs despite that the ‘third’ text is primarily based on the ‘second’ (some scholars, and I tend to agree with them, have argued that the ‘author’ of the ‘third’ text read the ‘first’ or at least read works by its ‘author’). That this non‑sequential relationship seems to exist between the three texts raises all kinds of questions and possibilities for me. I think one of the biggest factors that needs to be considered is the position of each of the three languages during that period. Latin was beginning to decline as the lingua franca. And much like English is arguably the most dominant language spoken in and written in today (or at least one of the most dominant), the vernacular of the ‘second’ text was in the ascendant position throughout the period I am dealing with. I also think we have to consider the geography‑ and I mean geography here in the very political way that Europeans use that word‑ of the period and the place where each of the authors of these texts resided. The author’s of the ‘first’ and ‘third’ texts not only composed their narratives in the British Isles. They also both spent time, each at different points in their lives, in close proximity to one of the key regions of the British Isles where Arthurian tradition was nurtured and flourished. The author of the ‘second’ text is not known to have ever visited the British Isles. He did live in close proximity to Brittany and explicitly states in his text that he is familiar with Breton stories about Arthur. But the continental vernacular tradition is very much different from the insular Latin and vernacular traditions. I don’t think we can ignore this fact when thinking about how each of these three authors responds to and constructs cultural materials about the British Isles in translation. I don’t think it’s an accident, for instance, that the authors of the ‘first’ and ‘third’ texts are much more willing to imbue Arthur and his retinue with the magical and folkloric qualities that are a big component of insular traditions while the author of the ‘second’ text attempts to eliminate this cultural material, not always successfully.

The situation is actually even more complicated than I am letting on here. There is necessarily some overlap between insular and continental traditions about Arthur, for one thing. But my goal in this entry has been to begin to map out how I see translation operating in my primary sources rather than go into every little detail. And I think even this rudimentary and incomplete map of the linguistic landscape I am dealing with illustrates how easily I can lose myself in translation. I feel as though I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the possible opportunities that Translation Studies offers me. That’s both the strength and danger with this approach. At some point I need to plunge into the contents and do close readings of my sources. And of course I have been doing just that. But sometimes that experience isn’t as enjoyable as looking at the bigger picture I am constructing. I also think it’s important for me to explore the things that excite me about my project in this blog, because there are definitely some days when I am not excited at all. Now that I am wrapping up this entry, I can say that today is not one of those days.

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