Two worlds collided for me recently when I attended the Brisbane Writers Festival. I bought several new books (as one does at a festival!) but chose to start reading Brisbane author Veny Armanno’s Burning Down in the gaps between panels (read my review here!).
Then, in the car on the way home, I happened upon a radio interview about translation studies; specifically, it discussed the theories of Lawrence Venuti, a leading light on the topic, whose work I’d come across in my PhD research days.
So…Venero and Venuti. A folk music double act? A hip Italian bistro in Teneriffe? For me, it’s the coming together of two sites of professional interest and influence. The theories of one are perfect for unpacking the practice of the other. What’s more, a quick look at the processes of translation that go on within novels is useful to anyone trying to develop their writing skills.
So, read on for a few thoughts about translation theory and how it can be applied in the writing of a novel – long before it makes the leap into a different language – using Burning Down as a case study. I intend to work this up into a longer academic article at some stage, so all feedback and ideas welcome!
Depending on your perspective, all writing is translation: a writer’s job is to take an idea and make it comprehensible to someone else. Most commonly, of course, we use the term to mean swapping a text from one language to another; an activity that’s straightforward in concept but in fact one of the most complex philosophical debates in the world of communication theory.
To make a choice about how to translate a word, a (good) translator must go far beyond understanding the word itself, towards understanding the web of connected nuances and connotations of that word. Decisions must be made about what the word means in the original text and what the word needs to mean in the translated text. In the jargon of translation theory, this is the difference between ‘fidelity’ (translating in a way that is strictly faithful to the author’s words) and ‘domestication’ (translating in a way that ensures the ‘target’ reader will grasp the intended contextual meaning of the word in a way that’s culturally relevant to them).
An example…a translator is translating an Australian book into French. She is faced with this sentence: Cathy was eating a Vegemite sandwich. It reminded her of her childhood school lunches.
The French reader may not know what Vegemite is, nor why it might be relevant to school lunches.
The translator’s decisions will include:
- What is the main point of this sentence to progressing the story? Is it more valuable to retain the word ‘Vegemite’, to provide Australian context, or to retain the sense that the sandwich reminds the character of childhood? In which case, swapping Vegemite for jam or cheese would be more appropriate.
- Where will this book sit in the publishing market? Retaining obscure cultural references will make this a ‘niche’ publication, which may impact sales.
- Could Vegemite (and any other culturally-specific terms) be retained and translated in the text with a footnote or glossary? What are the repercussions of that? For example, will it start to look more like a text book than a novel?
This simplistic example barely brushes the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complexities of translation theory and the impact translations may have on cross-cultural communication. Consider the potential dilemmas around pop cultural references, swearing, idioms and metaphors. I hear someone wrote a lengthy PhD on this topic if you have several hours to waste ….
As Lawrence Venuti has said, ‘language is constitutive of thought, and meaning a site of multiple determinations’ which means we are ‘far from thinking that translating is a simple communicative act’.*
Intralinguistic and intratextual translation
To further twist and turn the way we look at translation, particularly in contemporary fiction publishing, it’s also important to understand that these changes happen all the time within language groups. That is, when an Australian novel is released in the UK or the USA, in English, similar changes are often made: the ute becomes a pickup truck, the nappy becomes a diaper, the kilos become ounces. How willingly such changes are made depends on yet another set of negotiations, like where the author sits in the recipient market. For new authors, this may well mean the difference between being published or not, leaving them feeling like cultural traitors – albeit with a book for sale!
One option for an author with their sights on international markets is to write with intratextual translation in mind. That is, clarifying culturally-specific terminology within the words of the text.
For example: Cathy was eating a Vegemite sandwich. The taste of that sticky, salty spread reminded her of her school days, when her mother always packed a sandwich just like this into her lunch box.
The translator would have an easier time making this work for a new cultural market; unfortunately, the book might also be ten times longer and chronically ‘over written’. Venuti again: ‘translation never communicates in an untroubled fashion…’
Intratextual translation is a tool, however, that can be deployed at any time by a writer who wants to help clarify a cultural perspective within a text. If, for example, cultural identity is important to your story, your choices of when and if to translate words has a major impact on character development.
Venuti on translation and community
Relevant to this is Venuti’s interest in the ways in which translation creates communities of readers. A community here is ‘an audience to whom it is intelligible and who put it to various uses’ (Venuti, 2000, 477). So, any one translated work creates several communities (and these, too, are heterogenous) including:
- readers who understand both the source and the target languages
- readers who only understand one language or the other
- readers who prefer to read a domesticated translation (which requires no additional ‘work’ from the reader)
- readers who prefer to read ‘exotic’ translations, which retain culturally-specific terminology; these readers may be happy to use a glossary or conduct additional research to fully understand the text.
Put simply, each reader community is going to ‘get’ the text in a different way; which is true of all reading, of course, but in this case it is directed to some extent by the translator’s choices. A translator must imagine one reader community in order to make translation choices, but other communities will necessarily erupt. ‘The communities fostered by translating are initially potential, signalled in the text, in the discursive strategy deployed by the translator, but not yet possessing a social existence.’ (484:2000) The individual reader realises this potential when they interact with the text.
Applying this in the writing process
Veny Armanno has always been a master of intratextual translation, and his work serves as an excellent example of how writers can deploy these translation concepts. Armanno’s work regularly locates protagonists in foreign cultures – whether as tourists, migrants, or children of migrants, who experience the legacy of cultural displacement. His work has also been translated into other languages, but that’s a discussion for another time!
His latest novel, Burning Down, makes a neat case study of intratextual translation; that is, creating reader communities with different responses to culturally-specific terminology by translating terms (or strategically not doing so) within the text. Translation choices here contribute significantly to characterization and story nuance, as well as positioning readers as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ to cultural communities.
In Burning Down we meet former boxer Carmelo Fumo, known to many as Charlie Smoke – a pseudonym given to him as a younger man by an ambitious promoter who insisted ‘dago names’ would never work for fans on the Australian circuit. We learn this on page one of the novel, and multiple reader communities are already created. Some will recognise the fact that Fumo means Smoke, for example; others will not understand the linguistic connection, but will still understand the connotations of cultural positioning/racism implied by the name change. This way of opening the story also begins to translate the character of Charlie for the reader: he clearly has Italian heritage; he lives outside of Italy; he lives in a time and place where being Italian may cause you social problems. These facts are then verified as Armanno unpacks Charlie’s life story within the context of 1930/40s Australia in the pages ahead.
Charlie’s fighting days are behind him in the story’s present day and he is coming to terms with his ageing body. Gesu Cristo, getting old means waking up every day with some new part of yourself hurting. Here we learn that, name change or not, Charlie still thinks in both English and Italian – he has not entirely replaced one identity with the other. The expression Gesu Cristo is not translated within the text, giving rise to (at least) three reader communities: those who speak Italian, those who don’t, and those who might have an educated guess as to the meaning. Each community will understand the language and the character of Charlie in different ways based on the author’s intratextual translation choices.
The novel plays out a tale of secrets and lies, between and within families, set in the corrupt Brisbane of the 1970s. Shady business dealings have violent repercussions for several generations, beginning with Charlie and his former boxing foe (Spanish) Diego Domingo.
Throughout the novel, language is used as a tool for power plays. When Diego and Charlie reconnect after years of estrangement, Charlie has taken an inconspicuous seat in the Domingo family restaurant. ‘Look at this salami come to hide up the back’, says Diego. ‘Buenas tardes, cerdo Español’, Charlie responds.
This interaction signifies several things. It speaks of the weary relationship between these two men – enemies, but with a certain amount of mutual respect. They acknowledge their shared experience of being European migrants in Australia, but also assert their own cultural backgrounds – Italian and Spanish – as superior. Diego speaks in English, using the salami as a culture-based insult. Charlie, who has Sicilian origins, responds with an insult in Spanish: good evening, Spanish pig (‘I get you – I speak your language – you can’t put one over on me.’)
At this point, some deceptively simple use of language speaks volumes about the characters, but also creates points of connection for reader communities.
For much of the book, Diego’s most prominent use of Spanish (and Italian) terms is in moments of affection for his son – Bobby – and for Charlie’s daughter Sistine (currently estranged from Charlie, but a close family friend of the Domingos). These interactions too, though, are loaded.
Diego’s empire is crumbling. His son, Bobby, is bearing the weight of his father’s poor business decisions and pressures are mounting from several directions. It’s at these moments of crisis that Diego uses Spanish language to assert authority. ‘Todo va a estar bien: Everything will be fine.’ – Diego tells Sistine, as she confesses that Bobby has been assaulted by thugs over a debt. Armanno, though Diego, translates this expression of reassurance within the text, reminding the reader that Sistine is close but not fully part of the ‘inner circle’ of the Domingo family. This also aligns any non-Spanish speaking reader with Sistine; that is, outside the family circle.
When either Bobby or Sistine comes to Diego with a problem (problems that are, in fact, largely of Diego’s causing) he deploys Spanish to remind them of this position as father, boss and connection to ancestral traditions of respect. He refers to Bobby as ‘Roberto…mi hijo’, and to Sistine as ‘querida’, drawing them into the ‘community’ of people who understand his language – reminding them of his expectations of loyalty to family. Diego does, of course, love both these kids, but there is also a certain cunning behind the terminology.
The other key point at which Spanish language examples spill out is towards the end of the novel, when Diego’s smooth façade and confident position as patriarch and businessman is unravelling. Under pressure, we find him swearing and shouting in Spanish. At this point, Spanish language is used to reflect an ‘essence’ – a primal/authentic part of Diego that reveals itself when his defences are down.
Translation can help a writer perform culture
This is all, of course, just one possible reading of a complex novel. Much like any ‘translation’ there are many potential interpretations of what any writer creates on the page. And again, all writing works this way – using considered descriptions and careful word choices to paint a picture for the reader. But the specific implications of translating cultural terminology within a novel are worth considering for anyone keen to explore cultural identity in fiction.
Various translation theorists talk about the fact that literary translation can ‘perform’ a culture for a target readership; translation choices can exoticise a culture or render it similar to the target. So too, in the writing of a novel, translation choices act as opportunities to identify cultural distance and create spaces of inclusions and exclusion – of both characters and reader communities.
*See Venuti’s Translation Studies Reader (2000) for this and more useful ‘Translation 101’ theoretical perspectives.