Upgrading the Downgraded
My current translation project (being carried out under typical Anglophone conditions) provides a good example of this intentionality of translation and its effect on the finished product. Originally one of the few novels written in German in the young GDR around the political and personal tensions leading up to the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, Der geteilte Himmel by Christa Wolf (1963) was translated into English in East Berlin in 1965. That English version made the book a statement for socialism, removing all ambiguities, hesitations, and ambivalences that confront the young woman who chooses to stay in East Germany and not join her lover, who has remained in the West after an academic conference. In the translation (prepared and published in East Berlin), the woman’s decision becomes a clear vote for this new, better German society and against the corrupt capitalist other. Given the English disregard for the details of such translation, this has remained the only version available. Now, fifty years later, I have the leisure to produce an English text with another intention: to restore these uncertainties as well as the first-person narrative excised by the earlier text and, in the process, rehabilitate the work of one of the great writers of that now-extinct Germany.
The German Hans Vermeer first used the term “skopos” to get at this intentionality of translation; in French, the reference is often to “fonctionnalisme.” There are, of course, differences between these two theoretical approaches to understanding translation—the German focuses on what the translation sets out to do, and the French on what it effects—but they are certainly related and address a point made several times by the late André Lefevere in his perspicacious Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame (1992), notably that “patronage” seriously affects translation. Recent examples of purposeful translation, where the intention of the patrons is clear, abound:
- the glut of “Western” texts of political theory, philosophy, literature, historiography, and social sciences translated into the languages of East Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and financed by various “Western” sources, the Soros Foundation important among them. The purpose was influence through ideology; the effects are still being measured (Mihalache 2005).
- the translation into English of a large body of women’s writing from various cultures over the course of the 1970s and 1980s as Anglophone feminisms gained power and sought inspiration as well as “sisterly” collaborations; similar massive translations of women’s writing occurred in many other countries.
- the hundreds of translations into various languages funded and published by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s—among them Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—that were part of what was then called “psychological warfare” (Saunders 2000) and is now termed cultural diplomacy
- most recently, an exercise in this new diplomacy headed by Laura Bush and entitled the “Global Cultural Initiative” (September 2006). The program announced funding for translation, first and foremost, among other arts. The translation of poetry by American writers into Arabic and by Pakistani and Arabic writers into English was the very first project. More information has been hard to come by. Probably nothing more happened.
Research and writing in such areas can be of great interest to promoters, teachers, students, and readers of literary translation because such work recognizes and provides the tools with which to examine the role assigned to translation by the “patrons of the moment,” and to study its effects, which may well diverge from those intended. It seems that in the realm of English literary translation today, the lack of enterprising patrons with a purpose might be posing the problem. The altruistic purposes of a few translator/scholars hardly matter.
Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS): The set of theories and research methodologies incorporated in DTS (Toury 1995) engage more deeply with the individual translated text than do the preceding ones, examining it through contrastive analyses with the source text and other translations and assessing it as a product of its time, translator, publisher, marketing system, and so on. Descriptive translation studies often start from the premise that since translation involves many different players and interests, studying these sheds light on socio-cultural power struggles otherwise left unobserved and undetected. Further, DTS recognize and tease out the manipulative and transformative powers of translation. There is little room here for translation as an “independent literary work”; rather it is often found to be ruled by series of contemporary norms, spoken or unspoken, personal or public. The use of descriptive translation studies (by students and many others) provides insights about how texts change in the move from one place and language and time to another, and perhaps finally and forever wipes out the notion that translation provides an equivalent other text. Descriptive translation studies have been applied to many types of work: