Conceptions of translation and its constraints are a constant topic amongst practitioners as much as theorists. What complicates these debates are both the objects and the objectives of translation in play. For those of us focused upon writing, literary writing, it is not enough to talk about translating languages between writers and readers. Our acts of translation, whether directed at self or at others, enter a web of transitions between the roles we assume and the ways in which we make articulate and navigate literary writing and its silences.

Indeed, translating between languages can quickly dissolve when asking, “What about language, specifically?” Schematically expressed, are we pinpointing one or more interlocking, yet separable, levels of language? To what extent are we foregrounding its individually significant sounds (the “phonological”) or significant combinations of such sounds (the “morphological”)? Or have we become pre-occupied with significant words—generally known as its vocabulary (the “lexical”) or significant combinations of words—popularly known as its grammar (the “syntactical”)? Or are we pursuing the significance or meaning of any or all of the foregoing levels (the “semantic”)?

To take a different tack, are we focused upon the kinds of interactive roles, factors, and/or dimensions of language? Here, we might view the multiplicity of interactions along the following axes:


Needless to say, each of these key factors is not immediately self-explanatory or self-defining. Consider two examples which suggest the dialectical techniques or dialogical processes characterising any act of translation.

As a first example, consider the concept of context. It is open to many kinds of interpretation as psycho-linguistic interactional theorist Ivanka Marková recently reviews. When construed as existing externally and hence independently of individuals, contexts tend to be viewed as “transmitted by habit and tradition,” thereby forming “stable situations” in which individuals and groups act (Marková 2015: 54). By contrast, Ragnar Rommetveit contends that not everything that is, say, physically or perceptually present in a context is necessarily salient or pertinent to individuals’ attention, apprehension, or cognition. What Rommetveit terms the “relevant extralinguistic context” only has bearing if it is so shared or “cognized by the participants” by virtue of their common presuppositions or “architecture of intersubjectivity” (1974: 45). To think otherwise, he argues, is to become embroiled in “the futility of assessing…utterances in vacuo” (1974: 101). Here, then, we face a distinction between our context as existing independently and externally and our context as that which we actively engage and jointly construe, that is, as existing interdependently. However, as Marková (2015: 58-59) acknowledges, construing context interdependently does not preclude individuals from construing it as externally independent, especially where institutions, ranging from the familial to the educational, the medical to the political, define the roles individuals play or the routines they follow. Conceptions of context, to that extent, colour the other factors diagrammatically depicted above, particularly overlapping socio-cultural perspectives and references connecting writers and readers. Hence, what at first appears to be a purely binary contrast, two mutually exclusive conceptions of context, now assumes the appearance of operating dialectically.

Turning to the second example from our diagram, the reader, it is immediately obvious that the reader occurs in two primary roles. On the one hand, we have the participant whose reading is directed at him- or herself along the “horizontal” writer-text-reader axis and, on the other hand, the participant whose reading is directed at or takes into account others, including other readers and writers, along the “vertical” writer-reader-editor axis. This duality of roles in large part reflects shifts in the meaning of words comprising the text from the developmental point of view as much as the processual one. Both intimately emerge from the reader retrospectively and prospectively navigating, as it were, the writer’s unfolding meaning and thinking. As Lev Vygotskii succinctly realised, “Thought is not expressed, but completed in the word” (1934b: 250) to cite Norris Minick’s 1987 translation; “Thought is not expressed in words, but comes into existence through them” (1934a: 33) to cite the 1939 Kogan, Hanfmann, Kasanin translation. For whom the apprehended meaning and thinking can be assigned—be it self, other, or self-as-other—marks the dynamic nature of the reader role. This is further complicated as the reader identifies him- or herself as translator and/or analyst, editor and/or censor, let alone the writer. If nothing else, the concept of reader seems to be characterised, if not constituted, by a continuing, dialogical set of voices.

By now, we are fast approaching the realisation that our acts of translation, as stated at the beginning of this essay, enter a web of transitions between the roles we assume and the ways in which we make articulate and navigate literary writing and its silences. It is a realisation that many before us have understood: Walter Benjamin (1923) and Roman Jakobson (1959) last century, Paul Ricoeur (2004) and Mireille Gansel (2012) this century come immediately to mind. Alternatively expressed, perhaps the problem facing us as translators of writing, our own or another’s, does not seem resolvable by constantly shifting between theories of translation. That approach leaves us with the quandary diagnosed by Vygotskii (1927) when confronting the crisis besetting his fragmented discipline of psychology nine decades ago which could not be identified with any of the competing topics, presumptions, and methods of the day. In other words, it is a quandary that not only confronted Vygotskii, but also continues to leave us in the perplexing position of arguing that, where a theorist of psychology asserts (or, for that matter, a theorist of translation, as can be gleaned from Jaan Valsiner (1988: 151-152)):

(i) Everything that a theorist of the discipline in question asserts is inferentially derived from his or her preferred theory.
(ii) However, it is a theorist who is making this assertion (i).
(iii) Hence, this very assertion (i) itself is also inferentially derived.

If Vygotskii’s dismay at biased generalisations about the fundamental nature of his discipline resonates for us, albeit analogously, then let us turn our attention to the actualities facing translators in an extreme case on the grounds that the extreme may well force us to re-conceptualise what we all too often take for granted. In view of the anguish and, at times, anger expressed by Ouyang Yu in this Issue, let us begin to consider, from the perspective of English, the extreme case of translating Chinese.

To intensify the contrast, let us examine the actualities as revealed by writer and translator Eliot Weinberger (2016) when encountering the example of Buddhist poet and artist Wang Wei (circa 699-761). Weinberger seizes upon a short verse from a sequence of poems associated with his horizontal scroll’s depiction of the Wang River—a river just south of the then ancient capital Chang’an (modern day Xi’an on the Guanzhong Plain of the central, north-western province of Shaanxi in China)—by this acclaimed writer of the Tang dynasty. (By way of background, the Tang dynasty was founded in A.D. 618 by Li Yuan and it was his son, Li Shimin, who, on seizing power in 626, opened his provinces to Buddhist and Christian adherents. Wang Wei’s lifetime saw the four-decade rule of Li Longji from 712 which was notable for his patronage of the arts, including the spread of printing, literacy, and public libraries, during a period of technological innovation and economic advancement, but which ended with devastating warfare and the death of possibly one in every two persons between 755 and 763.)

“Lu zhai” is translatable as “Deer Park (or Grove)” and possibly an allusion to where, in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, Gautama (or Siddhartha) Buddha first preached and subsequently nominated it as a place of pilgrimage. The poem is a quatrain read from top to bottom, left to right, comprising four lines of five characters each, totalling twenty ideographic characters. Adapting the character-by-character translation of Weinberger (2016: 9), the four (numbered) lines read as follows:


For any translator of this poem, there are several salient features to be addressed with the previously mentioned, schematically labelled factor of the linguistic codes or conventions alone:

* Although Chinese characters have remained much the same since the early Tang dynasty, the same cannot be said for their pronunciation.
* Each monosyllabic word of Chinese, and its written character, is pronounced in one of four tones, each tone having many meanings.
* In so far as Chinese verse centres upon the number of characters in each line and the arrangement of tones and rhymes—and in the case of Wang Wei’s jueju or four lines of five syllables each with paired rhyming lines—neither character nor tone is directly translatable in terms of English and related Germanic languages.
* Single characters or ideograms might have multiple functions. In terms of the traditional (Hellenic) classes or categories of words, first synthesized about B.C. 100 by Dionysios Thrax of Alexandreia in Tekhne grammatike [Craft (or Art) of Grammar] (see Kemp (1986)), single characters can function as nouns or verbs, adjectives or adverbs.
* To complicate the translator’s task even further, both major noun and verb systems within English are radically different. In the case of the former, differences derive from the fact that nouns in Chinese do not possess number, namely, singularity or plurality. That, in turn, leaves it open whether or not Chinese characters convey references to countable or non-countable (“mass”) phenomena or both (for instance, “conversation,” “sound,” “shadow”).
* In the case of the English verb system, even more complexities arise. Chinese verbs do not possess tense—the psychological timeframe of speaker or writer, narrator or fictional character—namely, past, present, or future or any combination of them. Similarly, verbs do not convey aspect—the perspective from which speaker or writer, narrator or fictional character regards events or processes—namely, as completed, habitual or generalised, or continuing. Nor do verbs express modality such as necessity, obligation, or possibility. Modality is typically manifested in English by its multi-worded verbs, multi-worded verbs which enable English-speakers to express a score or more temporal distinctions alongside voice or agency (traditionally termed active and passive), for example, “[he] could [might] [should] have been going to be seen with [her]”).

Translators might be consoled by the knowledge that Wang Wei’s poetry pays careful attention to his physical surroundings and that, not unlike ancient biblical Hebrew, he exploits parallelism or partial lexico-syntactic repetitions (“no one… someone”; “to hear…to see”). However, when faced with the demands of the linguistic codes or conventions of Chinese, translators ultimately appear to have little choice but to decipher meaning through the linguistic context of phrases or groups of characters, that is to say, they approach the meaning of a text in relational terms.

Obviously, our brief discussion can hardly be said to have exhausted the task of translators. Nonetheless, we have attempted to foreground the fluidity of what might be implied by appeals to the context within which translators operate and to the reader for whom they translate. At the same time, we have also attempted to disclose the linguistic pressure under which translators of Chinese work. Yet in these dark times, translators have other responsibilities. Not the least of these responsibilities is to retrieve writing repressed by tyranny, be it, as recalled in the ‘sixties by Nadezhda Mandelstam (1971) and documented by Vitaly Shentalinsky (1993), an Anna Akhmatova or a Marina Tsvetaeva, an Isaac Babel or an Osip Mandelstam. Whatever their continent or island, whatever their epoch or generation, whatever their native tongue, we must retrieve them; we shall retrieve them.

14th November 2018



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