Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Architecture of Perception

The latest Quarterly Essay (QE52) is Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World (2013) by Linda Jaivin. Moving away from politics, I initially feared this QE would be rather dull (in fact I almost didn't buy it). But that would have been my loss, as this was a fascinating and enjoyable essay about the art of translation. 

Author Linda Jaivin is extraordinarily qualified to write on this subject. She has been a translator for over 30 years, working predominately in Chinese/English translation. Her specialty is translating film subtitles but has also worked on poetry, song lyrics, fiction and interpreted at meetings. She is also an author, with a keen understanding of the power of language.

Jaivin reveals the depth of the role of the translator - not merely to convey the words, but also the meaning. She writes "it is absurd to speak of issues of literary style, rhythm – or any aspect of a translated work aside from its structure, characters and plot – without acknowledging that the language of the text is at once a creation of the translator and an interpretation of the author…". Translators generally work behind the scenes, although some authors acknowledge how  the translator has improved their original work.

The complexity of translating comes with understanding the historic and cultural context. Jaivin describes how words change meaning over time: "Political, economic, social and cultural shifts push some phrases over the cliff into obscurity, rescue others from it, and dress up still others in new clothing." 

So many words have multiple meanings which adds complexity to the role of the translator. Jaivin writes that "words have the power to change the way people think; they are part of the architecture of perception." Throughout the essay she highlights misunderstandings that have occurred when words were incorrectly translated.

Jaivin doesn't just talk about translating from one language to another. She also discusses translating from one medium to the next - a poem to a song, a play to a film - and the process of transformation that is undertaken. She also reveals how insular we are, that very few of us read books in translation (as few publishers commission translated works). 

One of the most compelling arguments Jaivin makes it that of learning a second language. She argues, "learning a second language challenges you to see the world from a different and sometimes uncomfortable perspective - it broadens the mind more surely than travel, and promotes cross-cultural empathy and understanding". I wholeheartedly agree. 

Overall, I found Jaivin's essay extremely interesting and thought provoking. I am so glad I took the time to read it.

Also included in the QE is correspondence about the previous issue. Geraldine Doogue, Michael Cooney, Robbie Swan, Barney Zwartz, Paul Collins, Frank Bongiorno and Amanda Lohrey all wrote in response to David Marr's The Prince (QE51). Each raised interesting points, although some I disagreed strongly with.