12 September 2011

Translatio Studii

Although I am now more than a year into my dissertation, I keep coming back to some of the basic questions that I asked myself when I started this process. I don’t yet have answers to a great many of them. The probability that I won’t answer some of them is high. This is not necessarily a problem. The best questions lead to more questions rather than answers. I’d like to think that some of the questions I’ve formulated work this way. But I am presently struggling to answer a cluster of related questions that need answering if I am to articulate a clear sense of my project, for myself and for my dissertation committee. Just what is the field of Translation Studies exactly? How am I engaging it? How does Translation Studies change the way I think about my primary sources, all three of which include statements by its authors about why they have translated their sources into the specific languages they choose to write in? How does Translations Studies contribute to our understanding of these authors, the culture(s) they lived in, and the cultural materials to be gleaned from their writing?

It’s not like I am completely in the dark on these questions. I have a good sense of what Translation Studies entails. In brief, Translation Studies departs from older models that compared two texts in terms of the word‑for‑word or sense‑for‑sense meanings of the ‘target’ language to the ‘source’ language (i.e., what is ‘lost’ in translation) and instead emphasizes in one way or another how human subjects and even whole cultures are constructed in translation. This more flexible approach to translation has been gaining currency over the last twenty to thirty years, though, as I have recently read, medieval scholars have not shown the same amount of interest in Translation Studies as their colleagues who work with more recent texts. Part of the difficulty is the marginalized status of medieval studies. I don’t want to suggest the field is dead or dieing, but it doesn’t carry the kind of prestige other fields currently enjoy. I am one of two or three graduate students in my department studying the Middle Ages. The others came in quite a number of years after I did. Another problem is that medievalists sometimes have a problem applying what are perceived as ‘modern’ critical models such as postcolonial theory to their texts. Some medievalists object that the people they are studying had no notion of the terms modern scholars use to describe their cultures, or they have a very different understanding of those terms. I’m not at all convinced of this as far as postcolonialism goes, since the Romans formed ‘colonos’ precisely to maintain their hold on lands they conquered. This colonizing program persisted during the Roman conquest of England and was adapted in varying ways by the Danes, English and Normans when they each conquered the island during the Middle Ages. As Translation Studies expands the definition of translation to include other critical tools like postcolonial theory, the reticence of some medieval scholars to embrace Translation Studies seems understandable. More and more medievalists are embracing postcolonialism these days, but, as I have recently read, this can cause some discomfort. Though I feel as though I am quite hip to the intersection between Translation Studies and postcolonialism, I often feel as though using these tools is hindering me from articulating an argument about what I believe is going on in my texts. I worry that I am spending far too much time setting up the issues I am teasing out of my texts via these tools. And if I discard them, I feel as though I don’t have anything worth saying about my texts. Where do I draw the line?

Going along with this problem with applying critical theory to my texts, I worry that I’m only managing to state the obvious about my primary sources or that I am not using what I have learned about Translation Studies to best advantage. A big strength of Translation Studies is that it allows the scholar to put distinct cultures into contact with another. In many ways, Arthurian literature by its very nature is about contact with other cultures, though the point of contact is frequently written in the language of conquest and domination. As I try to negotiate these zones of contact in my readings of my texts, I feel as though I have emphasized the position of the conquerors and their attitudes and thoughts about (primarily their) culture over those of the conquered (or, better yet, how the conquerors respond to the conquered and vice versa). This kind of scholarship is not fruitless, but I feel as though I am only telling one half of the story that I think needs telling, that I am not doing the type of work I have been trained to do; in short, that I am somehow failing to write a meaningful dissertation. Perhaps I am putting too much emphasis on the notion that a dissertation ought to contribute something meaningful and new to the body of knowledge that comes before it. By this I do not mean that I think a dissertation does not need to do that. But I do mean that my dissertation will do that if I worry less about the final product and think about the questions I am articulating here. If I am right about the problems I am having (i.e., it’s not just all in my head), then I also know what I need to do to correct them.

It takes a lot of energy to think about the dissertation process. I haven’t said very much here or gone into a whole lot of detail. Yet even this humble beginning at working through the difficulties I have encountered has taken much more time than I planned or anticipated. And it took me in directions I didn’t expect to go. I initially envisioned that I would spend some time on what I think about the way each of my texts relate to one another (they turn out to be translations of translations but do not ‘progress linearly’ from one to the next), but that doesn’t seem to fit with what I’ve mapped out here, and it can wait until my next entry. Like with asking questions that have no answers, going in unexpected directions is not a bad thing. But it can be just as unsettling, discomforting. Perhaps this is the only way through to the end of the process for me, to continually struggle, to continually ask questions, and to accept that the process is what matters most.

1 comment:

Courtney said...

Excellent, G. This almost reads like a segment of an introduction or possibly your conclusion. I think this blog will be really useful and might produce some usable writing, too! Here's my tip: close readings first, then worry about theory later. Maybe that's what you do already. But I found that engaging with my primary texts first led me to the theory and not vice versa. Best of luck!