Languages and Translation in the 21st Century Literature

All talks of internationalization and calls for globalization today can only be understood and acted upon if people coming from different societies and cultures make an effort to understand each other. In its most literal sense, understanding each other presupposes the use of a common language. What language to use to bridge peoples and cultures has its own share of controversies and difficulties.

Our Philippine constitution recognizes Filipino and English as its two official languages. However, we must bear in mind that apart from these two languages, the Philippines is also home to some 180 languages. Therefore, it is understandable that some Filipinos do not have any of these two official languages as their mother tongue. In Asia, approximately 2,200 languages are being used. Worldwide, it is said that close to 7,000 languages are being spoken. Across time some of these languages become archaic or die out, and some of these languages grow in importance in world affairs and become attributed as a lingua franca. According to UNESCO (United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), the most widely spoken languages in the world today are Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German, and French.

It is indeed a challenge to humanity to make an effort to understand different cultures of different peoples across the globe when the basic tool for understanding—language—poses a challenge. It is of growing concern today that people should step out of their linguistic comfort zones and attempt to master a second language or even more languages. Filipinos are fortunate that most of us are raised in bilingual or multilingual communities; we can enjoy conversing and reading in different Philippine languages and thus immerse ourselves in different ways of viewing the world. For a language system carries with it a culture’s view of the world. Plus, as we understand more of a language, we understand more about the culture that spawned it.

Diversity of Literary Forms

With the diversity of world languages comes a diversity of literary forms. From ancient to modern literary works, there are numerous types of poetry, drama, and fiction. Readers across the globe can surely have their lives enriched by delving into the beauty and wisdom of these literary works. Alas, we need more than one lifetime to read all of these works in languages we have not yet mastered. Fortunately, one branch of literary scholarship called literary translation is addressing readers’ needs to transform literary works from the original or source language to the language that its target readers know. The literary translator’s work differs from the work of other translators such as commercial translators—they who translate technical manuals, medical books, and the like—in that the former has more freedom translating, whereas the latter must adhere to consistency and exactness in their translation.

To have an idea about the process of literary translation, read an excerpt from Ilya Kaminsky’s “Translating a Peony

Meaning of Negotiation

What does the word “negotiate” mean? It is known that good literary translators constantly negotiate with the source text. How do you think literary translators negotiate with a source text? Umberto Eco, a popular Italian fictionist, essayist, and the translator says that “[n]egotia-don is a process by virtue of which, in order to get something, each party renounces something else, and at the end everybody feels satisfied since one cannot have everything.” For Umberto Eco, a good translation is not a literal translation but a translation that provides a sense of the original text.

It must also be emphasized that like all types of writing, translations are made for an audience. There is no such thing as a translation that is for all time. Translated works must be reassessed time and again for the needs of its intended audience. Take the case of the Spanish novel Don Quixote of the Mancha (El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Originally written in the 1600s, the work has enjoyed several rebirths through arduous translations in different world languages.

Let us take two English translations of Don Quixote and see how changes in the English language necessitated a retranslation of the work.

The earliest English translation of Don Quixote was published in London in 1612. It was translated by Thomas Shelton. Below is the first paragraph of its first chapter.

There lived not long since, in a certain village of the Man-cha, the name whereof I purposely omit, a gentleman of their calling that use to pile up in their halls old lances, halberds, morions, and such other armours and weapons. He was, besides, master of an ancient target, a lean stallion, and a swift greyhound. His pot consisted daily of somewhat more beef than mutton: a gallimaufry each night, collops and eggs on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and now and then a lean pigeon on Sundays, did consume three parts of his rents; the rest and remnant thereof was spent on a jerkin of fine puce, a pair of velvet hose, with pantofles of the same for the holy-days, and one suit of the finest vesture; for therewithal he honored and set out his person on the work-days. He had in his house a woman-servant of about forty years old, and a niece not yet twenty, and a man that served him both in field and at home, and could saddle his horse, and likewise manage a pruning-hook. The master himself was about fifty years old, of a strong complexion, dry flesh, and a withered face. He was an early riser, and a great friend of hunting. Some affirm that his surname was Quixada, or Quesada (for in this there is some variance among the authors that write his life), although it may be gathered, by very probable conjectures, that he was called Quixana. Yet all this concerns our historical relation but little: let it then suffice, that in the narration thereof we will not vary a jot from the truth.

Below is the first paragraph of a 2003 translation by Edith Gross-man:

Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays—these consumed three-fourths of his income. The rest went for a light woolen tunic and velvet breeches and hose of the same material for feast days, while weekdays were honored with dun-colored coarse cloth. He had a housekeeper past forty, a niece not yet twenty, and a man-of-all-work who did everything from saddling the horse to pruning the trees. Our gentleman was approximately fifty years old; his complexion was weathered, his flesh scrawny, his face gaunt, and he was a very early riser and a great lover of the hunt. Some claim that his family name was Quixada or Quexada, for there is a certain amount of disagreement among the authors who write of this matter, although reliable conjecture seems to indicate that his name was Quexana. But this does not matter very much to our story; in its telling, there is absolutely no deviation from the truth.

How did the Grossman translation make the Don Quixote text appealing to 21st-century readers? Form groups and exchange your views about the two excerpts. Make a list of noticeable changes between the two translations.