#SecondThoughts: Translations

As I’m sure you can imagine, sometimes the ideas for these posts come from odd places, and as I think I’ve mentioned before, sometimes it’s the collision of several ideas firing off a neuron or two.  Today’s post is brought to you by a recent reread of the Swiss Family Robinson, the Mutiny on the Bounty, #BlackLivesMatter, the King James Bible, and is fuelled by a healthy dose of pro-level procrastination – I should really be getting on with the text book I’m writing, a story for a competition, and several other writerly projects.  But today, as Henry Reed might have said, we have #SecondThoughts.

The bit about the Mutiny on the Bounty is actually prompted by one of the other bits of writing that I should be working on, in that Peter F. Hamilton returns Fletcher Christian to a sort of life in the Night’s Dawn Trilogy.  I suspect that PFH’s Christian doesn’t really bear any resemblance to the real man, but in that instance, it doesn’t really matter.  Procrastinating, again, I ended up looking up more information about Christian than I really needed for the article I was writing.  At this remove, it’s difficult to know the exact truth: the facts are that Bligh survived and provided testimony that led to Christian being convicted in absentia, but as Christian had already come to a sticky end, probably murdered by one of the other mutineers, it was moot.  This is a classic example of what everyone knows (a tyrannical captain, overcome by plucky underdogs fighting against the system), what really happened, and something of a mystery.  Bligh was actually quite an unusual officer of the time, and less harsh, by all accounts, than many of his contemporaries, not to mention that he was something of a mentor/patron/friend to Fletcher Christian.   There’s even a bit of conspiracy theory, that Fletcher Christian survived and returned to England under an assumed name.

Swiss Family Robinson was a great favourite when I was a child.  Initially I had the Ladybird version, heavily abridged and illustrated, but when I got to secondary school I borrowed a full version from the school library several times.  At this remove, I’m not now sure which version this would have been, a point only really brought home to me the other day, when I started to read a copy I downloaded from Project Gutenberg.  I think I must have read a newer translation when I was younger, but in any case, I’m reminded what a difficult job the translator has.  They need to convey the sense of what the writer intended, place it into the new language (which may not have an exact version of the word used, and avoid the temptation to tidy up the story as they go.  Certainly, in the case of the translation I’m reading at the moment, I would be extremely tempted to rewrite a lot of the story, not necessarily to improve the pacing, but to make certain passages clearer.

This in turn gave rise to two thoughts.  One, is that there will come a time, when the English language will have changed sufficiently that it will become necessary for a translator to modernise Charles Dickens, for example.  I think I can hear the mob outside the door!  It’s not such a heresy though, I think.  We already see smatterings of this with the Ladybird abridgements, and of course there are modern adaptations of Shakespeare.  The issue I think, is whether the text is intelligible without copious readers notes.  If you are studying a text, then the notes are inevitable, but as we move further and further from the point at which the story was written then certain nuances are lost – we share fewer experiences with the writer, words change meaning or become obsolete, the sense becomes not what the writer intended.

The second thing that I started to think about was translations as a weapon.  The King James Bible sprang to mind as an example of a weaponised translation.  As Dr Who fans, and those interested in the period, will know, King James had a bit of a bee in his bonnet about witches.  The translation, the third into English, was undertaken by a leading scholars of the day, but under the direction of James, and so his fingerprints are to be found all over the text.  There are numerous tweaks to the translation intended to bolster the idea of rule by divine right, and the injunction that ‘thou shall not suffer a witch to live’.  The witch hunts have been much parodied in the last few decades, but they must have been pretty frightening at the time.  There is much debate over how this should be translated.  The problem is muddied because of the distance from the time at which the original was written, cultural changes, and the influence of other texts.  King James probably wasn’t the first to use this meaning, but he clearly didn’t take the opportunity to set the record straight.  A contextual as well as linguistic translation might be that “thou shall not suffer a poisoner to live”, with the specific nuance that we are talking about a well-poisoner.  Such a person would be breaking multiple social taboos in a desert dwelling, community oriented, lifestyle, essentially carrying out a terrorist atrocity.  As we continue to study this period of history, and to improve our understanding of the development of languages, then a new, improved translation might become available.  Whether it will do anything with regard to the perception of witches is another matter.

One would have to be cut off in the extreme to have missed #BlackLivesMatter in the press.  2020 was a year of strange and difficult events, not least the presidential elections and their aftermath.  It can feel surprising that there is still such racial tension in the US that it leads to the discrimination against an important section of the community, and as a result a significantly higher judicial death rate.  But nowhere around the world can really hold it’s head up and say this is a problem that they’ve sorted.  There might not be the extremes that we see in some places, but every where there is some level of discrimination, and I’ve been particularly ashamed of the institutional racism observed in the UK, with various examples of the police using e.g. racial profiling.

One of the responses to #BlackLivesMatter has been to remove certain programmes from streaming services. Some TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s are particularly problematic.  In other instances, a disclaimer is shown at the beginning, telling us that the programme is of its time, and uses language or demonstrates ideas that would be considered offensive today.  This is a harder ask with books.  As readers, we need to be mindful that the books we reader are a link to the mind of the author.  The further we’re removed in time, the more different the ideas might seem.  There are some instances where a word has changed significantly, and the meaning of what they intended has changed too.  We must not instantly condemn a writer for their choice of words: we need to translate to a modern idiom, and sometimes that will need help.

In moving forward, there will be a need to draw a line under certain events.  Easy to say from a position of comfortable, white middleclass, but as the saying goes, when you take an eye for an eye everyone ends up blind.  But we will need to engage with history, and deal with uncomfortable truths.  It is proverbially easy for things to become lost in translation, and we need to make sure that we engage with interpreters, understand their influence, and look for the filters that have been applied.

© David Jesson, 2020