Balancing Act: Notes on Translating for Future Relevance

Future Relevance / 明天,谁说了算? opened today. I translated the exhibition catalogue. Below, I’ve uploaded my thoughts (and translation of said thoughts) on the importance of learning to listen across unsaid assumptions, even when we don’t depend on a translator.

In our native languages, we speak with the expectation that we will be understood and if not, that misunderstandings can be easily fixed. Moreover, we often emphasize speaking as the sign of linguistic competence, rather than listening, reading, or writing, or more generally, an ability to navigate shared histories and cultural assumptions, political exigencies and economic conditions; in short, we take for granted all the unspoken social infrastructure that enables communication. Indeed, we are often so oblivious to the contexts of meaningful dialogue that cross-cultural exchanges often degenerate into fumbling searches for the “right word”.

Take for example a simple comparison of cultural associations with the English word, translation and its Mandarin counterpart, fanyi (翻译).

Coming from the Latin translatus “carried over,” the English word translation means both “to remove from one place to another,” also “to turn from one language to another.” Its prefix, trans is a preposition meaning “across, over, and beyond”. Associated words include transparent, transpire, transient, transfix, transfer, transmit, transvestite, transfuse, transcend, and transplant. In other words, an English translation is not a simple linguistic movement from here to there, but also hints at how human action transforms linguistic meaning and physical shapes beyond what may have been said, or in cases of transgendered persons and divine transmogrification beyond natural limits.

In contrast, the characters fan “to turn over” and yi “to interpret” constitute the Mandarin expression, fanyi. Associated words include fange’er (somersault), fanling (a turn down collar), fanyue (thumb through reading materials), fangai (renovate), fanxiangdaogui (ransack boxes and cupboards, turn everything inside out), fanlian (become hostile), fangun (writhe), fanbaiyan (roll one’s eyes in disgust or die), and fanshen (turn over and free oneself from oppression). In other words, a Chinese fanyi is not simply the overturning and reinterpretation of what has been said, but also suggests how human action might fanzao (restore) meaning as easily as it disrupts the world (fantianfugai – chaos).

In both English and Mandarin translations, we move between languages. However, the particularities of movement differ. In English, we move across, while in Mandarin we flip over. That small difference resonates precisely because the cultural meanings associated with moving across or turning not only over reveal different linguistic structures, but also imply latent strategies for situating interlocutors with respect to each other. Crudely, an English translator is trying to help interlocutors cross over to common ground, while a Chinese fanyiren is trying to stabilize uncertain social relations.

All this to make a simple point: the future relevance of cross-cultural dialogue – about the meaning of contemporary art, for example – is intimately dependent on the terms of engagement. Whose voice will count will in large part be decided by whether or not we can learn to hear what our interlocutor has left unsaid.

走钢丝:翻译“明天,谁说了算?”的笔记

在自己的母语里,说话的前提是对方将听得懂我们的意思,误解也能调整过来。同时,我们经常用“你会说话” 强调一个人的语言能力,而忽略听力阅读和写作的重要性,更不意识到公共历史与文化,政情经济的交流作用。概而言之,我们忽略一切非语言的沟通结构。其实,因为我们经常意识不到非语言性的沟通背景,所以跨文化的交流活动也经常退到一些找“恰当的词语去说”的语言摸索。

比较英文“translation”的文化联想与中文“翻译”的文化联想足够示范下意识的语言前提。

来自于拉丁语的”translatus :携带“,英文的translation有两个含义:“从一个地方带到另一个地方”和“翻译”。作为英语前缀trans是一个介词,有《横过,穿过,跨过》等意义。相关的单词有:透明(transparent), 发生(transpire), 短暂的(transient), 刺穿(transfix), 转移或调任(transfer), 传达(transmit), 易装癖者(transvestite), 移注(transfuse), 超越(transcend), 与移栽(植物)或移植(器官)(transplant)等单词。换句来说,一次英文翻译不是一个从这儿到那儿的简单移动,还是示意人性实践把语言和物体变化为一个超过话题的范围,还包裹超过自然的变性和变形的可能性。

相反,”翻“与”译“两个汉字形成中文的”翻译“。相关的词语有:翻个儿,翻领,翻阅,翻盖,翻箱倒柜,翻脸,翻滚,翻白眼,与翻身。换句而言,中文的一次翻译不只是把说过的话翻倒或重新解释,也是暗示人性实践也许会翻造意义甚至引起翻天覆地的误会。

在英文与中文的翻译中,我们都是从一个语境移动到另一个语境去。可是,这个动作是不一样。在英文,我们”穿过“而在中文我们“翻倒”。因为穿过与翻倒作为比喻揭示不同的语言结构,还指向潜在的沟通战术,因此这么小的语言区别能有异常大的结果。简单地说,一位英文翻译人想帮对话者一起穿过到同一个地方,而一位中文翻译人会使劲摆平不稳定的社会关系。

说这么多是为了强调一个很简单的道理:跨文化对话的未来意义——也包括该展览宣称的“当代艺术的未来意义”——跟沟通方式有着密切关系。先学会听明白对方话里的话。再决定明天,由谁说了算。

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