Mixed response to Jeffrey Angles on translation

Photo by Mindy Cheng
Photo by Mindy Cheng
Photo by Mindy Cheng

Last Monday, Jeffrey Angles visited from Western Michigan University to give a lecture titled “Migrant Poetics: Gender and Trauma in Translation”. After a summary discussion of the constraints placed on translators, especially those who translate poetry that treats trauma, he delved into the specifics of his own work translating Japanese poet Itō Hiromi.

The lecture started late, giving time to a small crowd of latecomers to gather in the lecture hall. The audience was comprised of a mix of faculty and students, whose interest ranged from Japanese language and culture, translation as an art, and modern languages in general. Attendees clumped by these interests, with an amusing row of linguistics professors eagerly monopolizing the front row, a desire to engage demonstrated by their enthused contributions to the concluding Q&A.

Throughout the lecture, Angles laid out what drives his endeavors: to be what he deemed “faithful” to the original, on the one hand, and to be aesthetically accomplished on the other. His qualms derived primarily from what he identified to be the vagueness of the word “faithful.”

“Should a translator be faithful to lexical choices?” he asked. ”Faithful to the grammatical structure? Faithful to the rhythm involving the original text? Faithful to the emotional impact of the original?”

He then further explored the pitfalls of translating, and broke down the means by which a translator will modify an initial text accidentally through the change in language. At this point, he turned to Itō, and used her relationship to language as a means of identifying the struggles of translating trauma.

“Language has made me suffer so much,” Itō said. “The Japanese language for me represents the source of trauma. All I’ve done my whole life is struggle against language, trying to find myself within it, trying to understand how to use it. But now, I want to break the Japanese language. I want to take my revenge on it.”

At this point, it seemed as though Angles had set himself up for failure: the scope of Itō’s anguish went far beyond the canonical translation theory he had evoked to us so far. Pushing through, however, he made a solemn attempt at rationalizing a potential methodology.

“The places where language fails in making meaning are just as important as places where language succeeds in making meaning,” he said on his slides.

As he pulled up this quote,  of which the bathos to any humanities attendee must be noted, he proceeded to flesh his underlying argument.

“Working with texts about trauma, I’ve learned that in the process of the language itself, the language represents a working out of ideas,” he said. “It’s an attempt by authors to come to terms with some kind of experience. That process is not always an easy or perfectly achieved.”

With this guiding principle in mind, Angles arrived at his most recent work translating Itō. Her poetry has been discussing issues of sexual assault, feminism and trauma since before such topics were commonplace (or at least acceptable) in Japan, making her a feminist pioneer and icon to many. Angles’s most recent endeavor was the translation of “Wild Grass on a Riverbank,” a text about a rootless young girl whose repeated migrations between the US and Japan led to a sense of alienation from both countries and their affiliated languages. The quasi-bilingual nature of the work made Angles’s job all the more complex, but his close friendship with Itō helped guide him in his process. The finished product (although, will it ever be really finished?) is harrowing in its dark, fragmented verse, whose intermittently lost meaning was justified and striking. I recommend the read.

“I tried to be respectful of her work,” he said.

In the aforementioned closing Q&A, Angles was asked to clarify his qualms with “faithfulness.” His answer, quoted in full, is enlightening as it helps us place him in relation to a wider culture’s understanding of translation.

“In some ways, faithfulness can be useful if we qualify it specifically,” he said. “Reviewers will often just say, ‘This is a very faithful translation,’ full stop. I don’t like that kind of way of talking about translation. If a reviewer said, it seems to be producing such and such feature of the text in various ways, I love that kind of reviewer. When it’s just kind of used in that very crude way, I don’t like that.”

I noticed by the end of the lecture that Angles was still seemed muddled in his approach. In my opinion, translation is an act of recreation and an art, and since no translation will perfectly reproduce the original work it must be considered a new work entirely. Due to his relationship with Itō, Angles seems capable of ignoring this fact, and his conflicted attempts at preserving “faithfulness” are veiled by the benevolent approval of his friend. I would have appreciated a more nuanced discussion of the implications of this relationship. Of course, it is possible I have misconstrued his argument and beliefs, and if you believe my integrity as an objective reporter you may deduce what you will as to Angles’s oratorical qualities.


1 Comment

  1. “since no translation will perfectly reproduce the original work it must be considered a new work entirely”

    If it isn’t perfectly the same it must be entirely new? Why so either/or?

    As a translator myself I wouldn’t have thought that to be faithful to the original meant to be identical to the original. It means to keep as many of the original’s salient features as one can in spite of the many changes that translation necessarily entails. Just which features are salient, and which changes are necessary – those are the questions that make translation an intellectual challenge and a ground for discussion and debate.

    A translation is a tightrope walk, balancing between faithfulness and transformation. Different people, and different cultures, will want a different balance between the two. If it was entirely new it wouldn’t be a translation at all, it would be a work “inspired by” the original, not “translated from” it.

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