Uruguay / The translator
Hay Festival was a moveable feast, the talks and writers appearing now here, within the cloisters of Santo Domingo, now there, in the elegant setting of the Heredia Theatre.
Cartagena’s fabled walled city also contains a host of gracious courtyards. Crossing Bolivar Park, where young children were engaged in a tournament of chess, training their minds in that ancient, universal language, an audience filed through a handsomely heavy wooden doorway to an airy, colonial-style patio where slender palm trunks stood in company with slim columns, complementing but not pretending to be equivalent to each other, to hear Claudia Amengual in conversation with fellow translators, Ariel Magnus and Álvaro Enrigue.
On stage and in interview afterwards, the Uruguayan writer dissented categorically from the view that a literary translation ought to be an exact copy of the original in another language. “The original text is never recovered,” she said, before adding that such a chimerical goal was not the task of the faithful translator, whose profession consists “not of creating, but recreating.” In this respect, co-panelist Álvaro Enrigue, contributor to Letras Libres magazine, warned against the misguided tendency to, “award an ethical rank to originality in the primary text that it doesn’t have.”
“A translated text is an enriched text,” said Claudia Amengual, because, “languages are visions of the world. Another language is another way of seeing reality.”
Each language is a door to a world which resonates in a new way, home to its own particular musicality and rhythms, feel and flavour, its nobility, vulgarity and own peculiarity, with a structure and style that reflects relationships in the real world and a grammar and vocabulary in which we read the mind-set of a culture. A new language invites us to step into its world and see things, including ourselves, in a new and refreshing way. “Reality creates language, but language also creates reality,” states Amengual. “From Von Humboldt onwards, the Germans have referred to this as Weltanschauung, that is, the vision of the world that each language lends to reality. A fact of reality, definite and significant, fans out to an infinite range of connotations when it is given new meaning via language. Umberto Eco went into this in his book The Open Work, in which he speaks of the concept of infinite openness.”
In the hands of author and reader alike, reality in this way seem to lose its rigidity, its hard edges, its cold unyieldingness, to become more plastic, something we can shape and mould according to what we bring to the experience. “I don’t believe there is one way in which reality can be described, but rather as many ways as there are narrators, which are multiplied afterwards in as many ways as there are readings. And I say readings, not readers, because every reading of a story makes it live anew. So any one reality opens up to present an almost infinite number of combinations.” And when the same story is re-presented in another language, the permutations are increased manifold.
The participation and importance of the reader, relegated to a position of invisible passivity in traditional literary theory, is alluded to here by Amengual, who goes on to restore us to our rightful place. “The act of reading is always creative; it is an essential element in the composition of the literary act. The work is completed when author, work and reader vibrate to the same tune. Without this triple alliance, the work has no existence. Around the mid-20th Century, Jauss and Iser studied the phenomenon of the reader and developed what is known as the Theory of Reception, according to which the history of literature may be understood as the history of what has been received. This model proposes that the potential reader bears within them the constant presence of what is called an expectation horizon. When a literary work passes beyond this horizon, it brings about the phenomenon known as estrangement (a concept coined by the early 20th Century Russian formalists), and the range of perception is then pushed further out and the work is recreated. In my work, the reader occupies a place of honour. To this end, I add my e-mail address to my novels; that way I am able to receive readers’ impressions.”
The writer, Claudia said, “aspires to a reading of reality.” The work of the translator is to take that reading and “mediate between two codes of language which, of course, correspond to different visions of the world.” Even when the two fail to coincide —and she cites the examples of the possibly untranslatable Finnegan’s Wake and the great Argentininan poem, Martin Fierro, of which up to 50% is lost in the French, English and Italian versions— “it is worthwhile making the translation when it is the only way of gaining access to a book.” The third guest speaker at the Hay event, author Ariel Magnus, defended the value of even imperfect renditions, saying: “The great number of additional readers who are brought to a book justify the distancing from the original in translation.”
When Claudia Amengual speaks it is to affirm the diversity of perspectives that different languages represent, to “champion diversity as enrichment.” She emphasizes the cultural importance of this message in an age where globalism tends to steamroll weaker languages, by pointing out how language is intimately tied up to community or national identity. “To raze a language is to raze a cultural identity. For this reason, also, we should defend diversity against any attempt at mass imposition of a single culture.”
The perils and the opportunities being faced today in this regard by peoples and their languages are ably set out by Welshman, David Crystal, in the next of this Hay Festival series of words about words.
Claudia Amengual was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1969. A public translator for many years, she now divides her time between teaching duties and research into social-cultural linguistics at ORT University and professional writing. She is the author of The broom seller, The rose of Jericho and More than a shadow.
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