On Being Translated

There is now a whole genre of research about translation; but not much that I have seen about being translated.  Here are some thoughts about the experience.

Being translated is flattering.  Somebody has thought well enough of my text to put time and effort into it.  I feel warmed, even when the result is a mystery to me.

The Japanese edition of Gender and Power, for example, is a beautiful piece of book-making (see below), but I can only guess what it’s like as a text.  And I can hardly imagine what it would be like to read Gender and Power in Japan, with its own gender order and debates about gender questions.
Gender and Power in Japanese

With a language I can follow sentence by sentence, the feeling is different.  I have an immediate connection with this text; yet it’s still not the text I sweated to produce.  It’s like being a grandmother rather than a mother, perhaps.

When a translator approaches me with queries – something I encourage strongly – I learn unexpected things about my own writing.

I once imagined my prose style to be plain, clear English, a blend of George Orwell and Jane Austen with a touch of Dashiell Hammett.  I discover it is actually laced with allusions, figures of speech and assumptions of prior knowledge – like the previous sentence.

For instance, one translator was stumped when I wrote “letting things slide”.   I hardly thought of that as a metaphor – but it is.  “Jobs for the boys” was another puzzle for the translator – think of the literal meaning.

Worse: I’m from a generation that was brought up on Shakespeare, the Bible, and the anglican Prayer Book.  So I sometimes quote from the 17th century almost without realizing it, and certainly without identifying it as a quotation.

Nouns in apposition; semi-technical terms, such as “embodiment”; slang, such as “sexpot”: those are traps too.

Allusions and jokes may go dead flat – and not only in translation.  The final passage of Gender and Power is entitled “Concluding Notes on the World to which a Social Theory of Gender Might Lead”.  This is a joking allusion to John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory.  Nobody seems to have noticed.

I have come to realize how much I rely on the rhythm of English to scaffold an argument, connect pieces of evidence, or convey nuances.  When I am writing, I speak the sentences in my head, and constantly correct for sound.  Since punctuation is the main tool for conveying rhythm in written English, I get very touchy about punctuation.  I once had a terrible argument, lasting half the night, with an editor who had deleted all my semi-colons.

How does a translator convey the rhythm, in a language with a different sound-pattern?  I simply don’t know; I’m not fluent enough in any other language to tell.

Some translators have worked very hard on the text, and discussed many of the difficulties with me.  The German translation of Masculinities, for instance, called Der gemachte Mann, is the product of admirable scholarship and teamwork.  I know this translation has a strong reputation in Germany.  It feels good to be associated with such a text, though it was other people who did the work!

There is always a feeling of displacement.  A translation appears later, sometimes many years later, than the original.  I don’t know in advance what pieces will get picked up.  Very little of my work has yet been translated into French, none into Arabic. Some of my best writing has not been translated at all.

I still feel there is something miraculous about my words going out into the world in new forms. Every translation means an unexpected audience, a chance for new connection and exchange of ideas.  That is culturally and politically important, given the xenophobia being whipped up in my country, and around the world, today.

But it leaves a dilemma.  To write the best work I can – the most worth translating - is to write English at full stretch, using the marvellous resources of the language.   But using all those resources makes the product more difficult to translate.   When I give a lecture to an audience whose first language is not English, I try for clarity above all.  I used to think that was the priority in writing, too.  But now I’m not so sure.
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