Symposium on Literary Translation: Part One

This past weekend, the University of Western Sydney hosted a Symposium on Literary Translation featuring a ton of great speakers and interesting panels. Since I couldn’t be there—not only wasn’t I invited (sigh), but I was in Scranton for the very fun Pages & Places Festival—I asked Joel Scott to write this up for us. He graciously put together a couple posts for us. The first one is below—the second will go up tomorrow.

And by way of introduction: Joel Scott is a Sydney based writer and translator, whose poetry and critical writing has been published variously, in Australia and beyond. He is currently completing a PhD at Macquarie University, which looks at how translation might redeem a truly contemporary writing practice. He blogs at hedgingyourbets.wordpress.com.

As a researcher into translation and its relation to contemporary writing practice, I was extremely pleased to hear about The University of Western Sydney’s ‘Symposium on Literary Translation’. Only a few months earlier I had received funding to attend a conference on translation in the UK on the basis of the argument that there is no translation studies in Australia, and that there are even less in the way of conferences and symposia. Yet here we are. With keynotes provided by Esther Allen and Marcelo Cohen, as well as a spread of Australia’s most eminent translators and thinkers on translation. And with a full-scale conference on literary translation to be held next July in Melbourne, perhaps the landscape is finally shifting.

My first impression looking through the program and at the audience around me, was that thankfully, this does look pretty much how an Australian symposium on translation should look. The conference I attended recently focused on the European literary tradition. And while all conferences need boundaries, I was struck by how problematic that concept was. Not so much because it excludes scholarship from other regions, but because it tends to exclude ‘non-European’ Europeans. This symposium has a satisfying ‘Southern Hemisphere feel’. It is only a small symposium, so this is not exhaustive. But the presence of translators of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Indigenous Australian languages, gestures towards what an Australian translation studies might look like.

Esther Allen.

Esther Allen’s opening Keynote lecture managed to be both erudite and entertaining, analysing some ‘lost texts’ of Flaubert’s which raised some interesting questions about translation’s relation to modernist realism. The texts were actually a kind of anti-writing, written upon the deaths of people close to Flaubert, and in contrast to his usually precise and finessed writing, these were ungrammatical, fragmentary, artless. Through extensive research Allen was able to reveal these pieces as a kind of mental exercise seemingly extrinsic to his writing practice. They were tucked away in a drawer, and he never looked at them again. Allen articulated a complex and conflicting sense of time in relation to language and translation. These pieces were described as an exercise in the slipperiness of language, the way that content seems to drain from language over time, leaving a dried husk in the back of the draw, while Flaubert saw the distance which time puts between our present and past events as somehow giving grandeur to what is past. As if he turned around the lens through which we look at the distant past, enlarging the image to engulf the present. This idea of history was also linked to Flaubert’s conception of the people around him, like his sister, who seemed taller and more beautiful in death, and his friend Alfred Le Poittevin, who became irreproachable in death, though he frustrated Flaubert in life by being happily married. These ideas of the live and the dead lead to ideas of death masks, of sculptures made by ‘un moulage sur nature’ (casts). This form of sculpture was highly problematic in a time in which the wax museum was gaining attention from the public, and scorn from the artistic community. The links here to back to translation become visible. We see in the derision of sculpture made from casts the denigration of translation by a broader literary culture. The reproduction of whole texts or individual words as if by mould or tracing (calques). Yet there is a clear relation, as Allen suggests, to realism here. Allen’s themes of casts and death masks immediately reminded me of Giorgio Agamben’s introduction to Language and History, in which he claims that every written work has its own death mask that is destined to remain unwritten. I think this is where translation steps in.

Marcelo Cohen

Marcelo Cohen gave a highly compelling and insightful narration of his transitions between his native Argentina and his exiled home of Barcelona, and the battles for the ‘propriety’ or ‘appropriation’ of language that movement has created for him as a writer and translator. Anyone familiar with the linguistic and literary culture of the Spanish-speaking world is aware of the sometimes heated clashes for propriety over the use of the ‘Spanish’ language. They are questions not just of vernacular and argot, but also of notions centres and periphery, cultural hegemony and cultural exclusion. And this is just to focus on the relation between Spain and its former colonies, not to mention the intranational linguistic conflicts between the Castillian and Catalan, Euskara, Gallego, etc. For Cohen the experience went much deeper than merely having his grammar ‘corrected’. In the early years it also for him spoke of the lack of an ‘unconscious’ in the Spanish he was surrounded by. Argentinians, says Cohen, had a healthy distrust of language. The Spanish (or Catalans) around him seemed to think that they could actually say what they meant. His initial response to this was one of defence. Returning to Buenos Aires some twenty years later seems to have been influential in his reframing of the problems of linguistic difference. Realising that Argentinian Spanish was also not what it was twenty years earlier, Cohen has become aware of the dangers of receding from a repressive linguistic culture into a besieged self, a self which is nationalistic, patriotic, and has a tendency to become a mirror of the repression it resists. Taking to task a publishing culture which, like the popular culture it reflects and shapes, tends to promote a monophonic voice, both in translation and creative writing. His way out has been to cultivate a distinguished hybridity, creating a language in which the self dissipates into a variety of possibilities.

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