If the world is becoming more and more dependent on technology it is imperative that we (read: intellectuals, scholars, academics, literary peoples, translators) create our own place in it; a place not dictated by the motivations of Silicone Valley.
That is a paraphrase of the words of French translator and member of the ESA (European Society of Authors) Camille de Toledo (otherwise known as Alexis Mital; heir to the Dannon Yogurt empire). I met de Toledo several weeks ago when he was presenting at the Walls and Bridges: Found In Translation conference at NYU. De Toledo was workshopping a new online platform called TLHUB (Translation and Literary HUB) that will go live in late fall. Initially the HUB will serve as a platform for translators or groups of translators to work together on various projects. They can work together to create drafts, comment on each other’s word choices, and access all the same material at the same time no matter where they are in the world.
It will also allow Spanish, French, Arabic and even Yiddish translators to have access to the linguistic decisions of translators working on the same project but in other languages. While all of this is an important step in bursting open the humanness of literary translations, the part that got me most excited was the digital archive that will be created for each project. It will be an exportable archive of the methods of translation, linguistic decisions, and catalogue the etymological and social factors behind the cultural exchange of language and ideas. The notion of process is one that too often gets lost when people read translations or believe that translations can or should be done by computers; if we archive the steps of translation, the discussions, and the various versions of texts we can bring to light the sense of creation and continual becoming that is inherent not only in translation but in communication more generally.
In a previous panel during that same conference the presenters spoke about translation as a dangerous tool, one that has significant cultural and political residue both on the original language and on the language of translation. Many translators consider themselves writers as they engage in the critical, cultural and linguistic factors, the literary nuance and the close-reading investigations at play in their work. To translate is to communicate not just the words of the text but the emotion, tone, rhythm, structure, cultural history and class implications (… I could keep going) of a syllable, word, sentence, or work as a whole. To get it “wrong” can be trouble, but to get it “right” can be just as much trouble. Understanding the process of cultural exchange at play in the translation of a text is something that leads to a better understanding of the cultures on both sides of the translation coin. Isn’t really good communication about the messiness of it all, about the complicated and dynamic structures behind ideas?
When Howard M. Parshley, a retired zoologist was asked to translate The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir he created a text that feminists and de Beauvoir scholars have been criticizing for the last sixty years. The new unabridged translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier in many ways revives the previously muffled voice of de Beauvoir. If Borde and Malovany-Chevallier had used TLHUB for their new translation we, as the English speaking public, would not only have a new de Beauvoir but new access into the subtleties at play in communicating ideas; we would see their process in deciding to change the quintessential phrase:“On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” from ”one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” to “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” It would create a transparency that renders the myth of transparency in translation obsolete.
I think that de Toledo is on to something when he says that we need to build technologies that center around our ideas of translation, communication and pedagogy because while effective communication is essential for product marketing (I still remember nearly all of the commercial jingles popular during my childhood) I don’t know that I can stand behind a marketing of communication-as-product.