Armchair Conjectures

by Carmen Thong


It has to be noted that a lot of people would barely think to think about the translation of a text, or indeed the translator (those poor guys mostly get their names written in super small print).

But translation is hard work.

The process of morphing text from one language into another, word by word, is riddled with problems. Those who have opportuned to daydream about this can easily see that language does not move well. Sometimes, words don’t have their equivalence in the receiving languages; idioms and phrases have specific cultural connotations that sound either meaningless, super weird or seductively exotic when translated; and someone dabbled with your reading material, violating the sacred author-reader contract.

Another problem is that of non-English speaking writers having to write with a ‘Western’ audience in mind. Guys like Haruki Murakami are deeply suspect because of how easy it is to read his work. Yes, he writes in Japanese, but his lack of thick and specific cultural references makes his work easily translatable. So, he’s apparently a sell-out now.

“If you don’t read foreign literature – you are provincial and mono-cultural.”

Translation does not only problematize the language, it also problematizes content being transferred across borders. Without knowledge of an author’s culture or language, is it unethical to read their work? It’s all too easy to impose your own cultural hegemony on another culture’s fictive style. But if you don’t read foreign literature – you are provincial and mono-cultural. You really don’t want to be mono anything. This, then, is the reader’s ‘double bind’. So these are just some of the basic problems.

This piece is called Armchair Conjectures for a reason – because, beyond the horizon of sanity, I’m going to make a point without taking 30 pages to do it.  

For a moment, let’s imagine translation as content being shuttled from one medium to another. Take World War Z and The Martian as examples. Although originally books, someone somewhere decided more money could be made. They became films. Cue the faithfulness debate.

But in truth, the very concept of fidelity is flawed. The mediums are just too different. Sometimes you come close, like The Martian. Sometimes you don’t (the only things that the book and film of World War Z share are the title and a wall). People are reasonable about these kind of adaptations: few organize a mass protest against book-film adultery, and most (I hope) don’t trot around pretending that they’ve effectively read the book by watching the film.

“We’re running on an insurmountable deficit of justice based on history’s accounts”

So let’s just enter into cross-cultural literary relationships knowing where we are at. We’ll never do full justice to each other across cultures; heck we’re running on an insurmountable deficit of justice based on history’s accounts. But keep trying, and when you fail, acknowledge it and keep trying. As long as we know we’re all doing our best, then maybe we can chill out a bit.

Unless, of course, you have not agonized over these things before. Then it’s not okay, go agonise – you need to climb that mountain to enjoy the view.


The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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