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The deepness of the narrow margins

by Teresa Salema Cadete
The dignity of the translator as a co-author must be defended and promoted in a context of a mutual relationship between author and text, as well as time and space of the material existence conditions of both. When a text is translated, the web of such relationships becomes correspondingly complex.

Regarding translators of contemporary texts, it is desirable that they work together with the authors. If it is not the case, there are many possibilities to compensate for this, from critical editions or, in the case of poetry, bilingual editions.

In both cases, the translator is a co-author and should be recognised as such. Unhappily, we know that this is not always the case. In Portugal, only renamed authors and/or translators are able, at the present, to have their translations published without having been "processed" by a "correcting" program. This is due to the imposition of the so-called "Orthographic Agreement", to have their translations published without having been "processed" by a "correcting" program.

In any case, the language is able to resist and to find a shape in the final text that proves its elastic power, sharpened by the deepness of the narrow margins, of the choice between literal and free translation. Some examples will prove this lifetime task of dedicated attention.

How does translation happen? I would say – as the visible part of a deep iceberg, which symbolises the long and complex relationship between author and translator, even if the first part only appears in the form of a name and a text. This may occur for a number of evident reasons, the first one being the date when the text was produced and secondly communication difficulties of any kind between both, if the author is still alive.

Translating has always been a multiple task. Translation as a "place of exile" has been the characterisation made by the Portuguese author Ana Luísa Amaral (a poet and translator, who has won the PEN award 2013 for her beautifully poetic novel "Ara"). As she has stated in a seminar paper, such a definition may have immediate reasoning regarding the foreignness of the languages as mediums. Yet we know that languages always keep moving on. The translator may step into a new land or go into a voluntary and temporary exile, but he or she knows that the bridge building must keep going, and the choice of possibilities is narrow. This would mean, if we wish to stick to this image, that the distance between the margins is too close. Yet, the river may also be not only deep but also powerful, in a certain way reminding us of Bertolt Brecht’s words about the violence of the margins that make a river seem violent.

My main thesis says that the translator must be regarded as a co-author. Those translators who are also authors (poets, essayists or novelists) know the dialectics of freedom of creation better. They are aware of the limits of that freedom for an author by writing a text, according to the internal rules or dynamics of the literary work itself, with its aspects of necessary coherence. Even if they transform and violate codes, they must find a shelter for the newborn work, which is only able to survive in a solid symbolic place when it becomes recognisable and legible in its capacity to communicate. Therefore, "translated" into a creative praxis and process, the writing subject realises that he or she has a structurally limited freedom. In any case, more limited than the illusion of "freedom of creation" allows, supposing, for those who have never written a longer text.

This experience that often happens on the side of the author may disclose an interesting perspective for a certain freedom for the translator, which we could circumscribe with a "deepness of narrow margins". The translator knows from the beginning that his or her options are limited and must be selected among a small amount of possibilities. Yet the game is not over – on the contrary, it’s just beginning.

By translating an older text, in a situation when the dialogue with the author consists of trying to recreate the dynamic endogenesis or the conditions of possibility that made the object we deal with come to life, it may happen that we notice this simple truth: that the margins are not so narrow as we would suppose in the first moment. To put it simply: We have the choice to stick to older formulations also in the target language, to modernise them, or to search for balanced options that must always be found in-between. By each option we are making experiences that are the sheer contrary of exile: We create new cities of words, as living organisms and not as time machines. As we cannot talk to the author any more, we must listen to the sound of the sentences we form according to the spirit of the original text, even if we often cannot but betray the latter.

I’ll give you an example out of my translation workshop. By translating Friedrich Schiller’s Der Geisterseher [The Visionary], a successful novel that the author published in monthly sequences, I often came across the expression Gnädigster Prinz [Most clement Prince], which I decided to translate into the Portuguese Mui clemente Príncipe, using the outdated word mui that is still perfectly understandable in our days and carries the reader to the 18th Century.

This extreme example contrasts blatantly with the present situation, where there are little excuses for author and translator not working together, unless the living conditions of both do not allow it – we in PEN know too well what this mean, having translated, for instance, poems by Liu Xiaobo or a short story by Nurmuhemmet Yasin. But if we leave such sad examples aside, we may recall moments of joy and anger, of delight and doubt that go along with the exchanges between author and translator, in real presence or by mail, phone or Skype. Sparkling sentences like "one cannot write like this in our language" are too common, also keeping the dialogue alive and contributing to make the horizons of both languages broader – or to make the river deeper. An author as a small miracle often feels each translated sentence from our own text – and the same may happen when a translator finds the best possible solution. A translation is a living being, an autonomic text that either survives without the original or vanishes without literary legitimacy. This is of course not valid for bilingual editions of poetry, in which both languages have a mutual fruitful influence.

For these reasons and many others, which I have personally experienced or got to know by reading, the translator has the dignity of a co-author and should always be treated as such. Unhappily, we know that this is often not the case. As mention earlier, in Portugal only renamed translators can establish their own conditions. And since the beginning of 2012, many publishers try to impose the chaos of a most disastrous orthographic reform (the so-called "Orthographic Agreement") that tears European Portuguese apart from its historical language family by cutting many Greek and Latin roots, with the result that translated books in such a "grapholect" become illegible to those who love to discern the beauty of etymology. And does a translator not always do this?

As a matter of fact, authors and translators, and the Portuguese language too, are coming across dark times. The Microsoft dictionaries are playing the game of the forces that try to implement that pseudo-legal nonsense and offer the choice between Brazilian Portuguese, Portugal Portuguese and Angola Portuguese. The Brazilian variant had not much to lose, contrary to Portugal Portuguese where the mentioned roots have been cut, and to Angola Portuguese, because the Angolan government did not implement that reform. Correspondingly, and apart from many regional expressions that give to the language a elastic local colour, the Angolans still write "European" – that means Euro-Afro-Asiatic – Portuguese. It would be ironic, if it wasn’t most tragic for the present and future generations. The role of PEN in the struggle against this "linguicide" has been most active since the beginning of 2012, and we shall continue to be so.

Meeting of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Commitee, Barcelona, April 21th to 23th, 2015

Isabel Banal: Llapis trobats, sèrie iniciada el 1999.

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