Jennifer – The Hidden Hand: Texts and Translations

I came to Emmanuel in 2008 to read Modern & Medieval Languages; through the support of a member and a Derek Brewer Research Studentship I am now studying for a PhD. 

In my field, translation studies, the text and the translation are often referred to as the ‘source text’ and the ‘target text’. This is the vocabulary of the professional translator and clearly positions us between texts, seeing things from the translator’s point of view. The original or foreign text is the ‘source’, which must be mined, extracted, sharpened or otherwise transformed, and then hurled towards a ‘target’, the text that will result from the translation process. It’s a dreadful mixed metaphor, but there have been very good reasons to focus on the translator, who has traditionally been a neglected, invisible figure. How many of us are willing to claim we have read Proust, or Flaubert, or Hergé’s Tintin, without bothering to check the small print at the back and find out who really wrote those words? Translation studies, then, have attempted to provide redress, focussing attention on these neglected translators. More precisely it focuses on the figure of the translator, on mediation, and on the ethics of, and metaphors for, the act of translation as it takes place. 

In his seminal essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin opens with the view that a translation is always an attempt to explain or communicate another text to a reader. Taking the reader into account, in some sense being ‘for’ readers, is what marks the translation’s secondariness, its difference. My project is about this difference between a text and a translated text (not ‘source’ or ‘target’), and whether it constitutes a difference in anything other than perceived status, after the moment of the act of translation is past. My project is about readers, because however hard a translator tries to interpret, to gloss, to ‘communicate’ the ‘essence’ of a foreign text, in the vast majority of cases he or she cannot sit and look over a reader’s shoulder, explaining the difficult bits. Just like the original writer, the translator departs in order for any real act of reading to take place, the time for mediation has passed, and each individual reader becomes the interpreter in what has been described as his or her own personal translation. 

My current focus is on parallel text, or facing-page translation, in that it implicates the reader in the process of linking the two texts, as he or she is faced with both at the same time. Sometimes the reader’s aim is to read in the foreign language while looking at the translation as little as possible unless he or she gets really stuck. Sometimes a reader cannot understand even one word of the original, yet seeks visual parallels as far as possible, frustrated not to have access to the ‘real meaning’ of the original. Sometimes the reader is really interested only in the English, perhaps because the translator in question is a notable poet, but is disturbed by the intrusion of the foreign original. 

Parallel text translation is more usually found in poetry than prose, and I am looking at French poems translated in the USA, exploring this unique and unsettling reading experience in its essential oddness and plurality.