Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Bart Moore-Gilbert on the perils of translated texts

Just found in a Bart Moore-Gilbert (RIP) article on Palestine and postcolonial studies an interesting example of the risks of literature scholars working from translations. It could be read, I think, as an equally interesting comment on the role of the translator (I do wonder if de Lange’s choice here was a deliberate echoing of Heart of Darkness and thus whether de Lange’s translated text should be read in Moore-Gilbert’s way, even if Yizhar’s original shouldn’t). From the journal Interventions, 2016:

Being proficient in neither language, I’ve sometimes been rudely reminded of the perils of relying on English-language versions of works originally written in Hebrew and Arabic. For example, on first reading S. Yizhar’s novella Khirbet Khizeh (1949) in English, I became convinced that Yizhar must have read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and that he was selfconsciously using it as an intertext. It was not simply the conjunction of the theme of colonial invasion, the often melancholically self-critical tone and the quasi-Modernist narrative form which encouraged me to make the association; one particular and unusual phrase seemed to link the two works definitively. Concluding a pained description of two elderly Arab women refugees, whom he is helping to expel from their ancestral village during the1948–1949 war, the narrator comments: ‘What could you do with them but spit in disgust, and gag, and not look, and run from here – the horror! The horror!’ (Yizhar 2008, 53; as translated by de Lange). That distinctive final phrase is the very one Kurtz so famously uses to express his epiphany about colonialism in Conrad’s text (1974, 100).
However, comparing Nicholas de Lange’s translation with the original in the company of Yizhar’s son, Professor Israel Smilansky, and his wife Nitsa, Professor of Translation Studies at Tel Aviv University, I realized that the truth was more complex. Yizhar in fact uses a single Hebrew word palatzut, where de Lange plumps for repetition; this is perhaps to emphasize the greater force of the original, which equates more with ‘awe’, a word which is perhaps somewhat too biblical/archaic to suit de Lange’s aim of providing a fluent, modern English translation (despite the often intensely biblical register of Yizhar’s Hebrew.) The Smilanskys further pointed out that Heart of Darkness was not translated into Hebrew at the time he wrote his novella (this didn’t happen until 1961);16 and even had Yizhar stumbled on Conrad’s text prior to writing Khirbet Khizeh, they doubted that his command of English was sufficient to have enabled him to make real sense of it.

One comment on “Bart Moore-Gilbert on the perils of translated texts

  1. shunra
    November 17, 2016

    In a similar vein, a wonderful translator of Sumerian into Hebrew, Shin Shifra, has restated a large corpus of Sumerian writing in Biblical Hebrew. It is very hard to read it and keep in mind that the restatement is at least as much the translator’s rendition as it is the source material’s form and content.

    And the translation of the Odyssey by Lombardo gets rid of all epithets because they got in his way as a modern reader (we do not like his translations in this household, not at all.) Local opinion about his insertions, intended to suit the storytelling to modern standards, is it that he mistranslated it (“he made shit up” was my actual phrasing, because he replaced the repeated descriptions with – well – stuff he made up.)

    The part that makes it hard for me, as a translator, to accept all of that is that I see translation as a fiduciary position: our entire integrity requires us to convey the source material in as many levels as possible in the target language. That includes register, sense, imagery, meter (if possible), general sense, and more. Echoing other texts in the target language feels like a cheap trick – unless the source echoed equivalent texts.

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