Don’t fear a for­eign sound in your ear

Quar­terly Es­say 52: Found in Trans­la­tion: In Praise of a Plu­ral World

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Si­mon West Si­mon West

By Linda Jaivin Black Inc, 106pp, $19.95

LINDA Jaivin be­gins this Quar­terly Es­say with an anec­dote about Ge­orge W. Bush. Im­pa­tient that his speech at a 2007 G8 sum­mit was be­ing slowed by the process of trans­la­tion, the then US pres­i­dent in­ter­rupted a Ger­man in­ter­preter with the ques­tion, ‘‘ Ev­ery­one speaks English, right?’’

Sum­mit host An­gela Merkel promptly replied, ‘‘ Be pa­tient’’, and the in­ter­preter con­tin­ued. Yet I imag­ine many peo­ple in the English-speak­ing world would share Bush’s frus­tra­tion. What is gained by trans­lat­ing his words if the Ger­man leader al­ready un­der­stands English?

The an­swer lies in the fact lan­guages em­body cul­tural iden­tity. Lan­guages are the prin­ci­pal lenses through which we ex­pe­ri­ence the world. Chang­ing one can be as star­tling as chang­ing the strength of your glasses.

On a prac­ti­cal level, hav­ing the trans­la­tor there may sim­ply have given the Ger­man Chan­cel­lor more time to think be­fore re­spond­ing. But on a sym­bolic level its im­por­tance can’t be un­der­es­ti­mated.

It is a recog­ni­tion of the value of the cul­tural iden­tity of the other coun­try. For a su­per­power of­ten ac­cused of cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism, this kind of im­pa­tience would best be kept hid­den.

The case for the im­por­tance of trans­la­tion has been made many times. Un­for­tu­nately, where it falls on English ears it of­ten falls on deaf ones.

A strength of Jaivin’s es­say is to en­ter­tain us with nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of what can be lost and gained in trans­la­tion and why the topic is so im­por­tant.

And we’re not just talk­ing about the finer points of lit­er­a­ture. The film ver­sion of a novel and the way a multi­na­tional com­pany uses di­verse ad­ver­tis­ing strate­gies for the same prod­uct in dif­fer­ent coun­tries in­volve is­sues of trans­la­tion just as much as an English ver­sion of a son­net by Pe­trarch.

Th­ese days trans­la­tion has out­grown its sta­tus as an il­le­git­i­mate child of lit­er­a­ture to be­come a way of dis­cussing any ex­change be­tween lan­guages and cul­tures. And ap­pro­pri­ately so, given the word de­rives from the Latin trans­la­tio, which means ‘‘ car­ried across’’. In this com­pre­hen­sive sense, trans­la­tion is a process that we all en­counter daily, whether we read books or not. In­deed, as Mex­i­can writer Oc­tavio Paz has put it, when we learn to speak we are learn­ing to trans­late, for any at­tempt to com­mu­ni­cate in­volves in­ter­pret­ing the non-ver­bal world in words. Trans­la­tion is of vi­tal im­por­tance to ev­ery­one.

You just need to think of the fam­ily nick­names we so fondly adopt for ev­ery­day ob­jects and loved ones but would be em­bar­rassed to use on the tram, or of teenagers’ fond­ness for slang on that same tram, to re­alise that lan­guages em­body iden­tity.

So im­por­tant is lan­guage as a marker of dif­fer­ence that even where it seems most im­prac­ti­cal you’ll find the need for trans­la­tion. In the moun­tains of north­ern Italy there are val­leys where towns on op­pos­ing slopes have dis­tinct di­alects. You would think the dif­fi­culty of life on the land in an alpine cli­mate must have been hard enough with­out the bar­rier of lan­guage be­tween two towns an hour’s walk from each other. Yet there they are, or at least were un­til re­cently.

In Aus­tralia there are more than 300 lan­guages spo­ken. Af­ter English the most com­mon are Man­darin, Ital­ian, Ara­bic, Greek, and Viet­namese. We are lucky to have pub­lic ser­vices such as SBS Ra­dio, which broad­casts in 74 four of th­ese lan­guages ev­ery week. Yet, as Jaivin points out, most Aus­tralians are mono­lin­gual English speak­ers whose ex­pe­ri­ence of the world is poorer for this fact. They may think that, like Bush, they can com­mu­ni­cate pretty much with any­one any­where, but they un­der­es­ti­mate the lim­ited na­ture of that com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

As Jaivin 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 cross­cul­tural em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing’’.

We all have ex­pe­ri­ence th­ese days of prod­ucts of mass con­sump­tion. We are all wary of the gap be­tween the mar­ket­ing hype around a sig­ni­fier and what you ac­tu­ally get for your dol­lar. As English be­comes a global tool serv­ing a greater and greater num­ber of di­verse peo­ple, is it too in dan­ger of be­com­ing im­pov­er­ished? It is im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict. But if to­day in Aus­tralia only 12 per cent of Year 12 stu­dents are study­ing a for­eign lan­guage and the cul­tures they em­body, then the signs are not good.

From left, Vladimir Putin, An­gela Merkel and Ge­orge W. Bush at a G8 sum­mit in 2007

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