Linda Jaivin, Found in translation: In praise of a plural world (Review)

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation Book cover

Courtesy: Black Inc

Reading synchronicity strikes again! In the last couple of months, the issue of language, translation and culture has been crossing my path – in Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs, in Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, and on Lisa’s blog post about the AALITRA Symposium on Translation. I was consequently more than happy to accept a review copy of the latest Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation.

Now, as some of you know, I have mixed feelings about reading books in translation. I want to read them because I want to read not just about but from other cultures. Not being fluent in all the languages of the world, the only way I can do this is to read works in translation, but when I read a translated work I am very conscious that there is a mediator between me and the work. This bothers me. Linda Jaivin, herself a translator, knows exactly what I mean:

… it is absurd to speak of issues of literary style, rhythm – or any aspect of a translated work aside from its structure, characters and plot – without acknowledging that the language of the text is at once a creation of the translator and an interpretation of the author …

And she gives good examples to support her statement. I was pleased to see her acknowledge this, because she knows of what she speaks! But, this little point is only a very small part of Jaivin’s wide-ranging, entertaining but also passionate essay. Jaivin, if you haven’t heard of her, is a multi-skilled woman: she subtitles Chinese film and television and translates Chinese text; she has worked as an interpreter; and she has written novels, stories, plays and essays.

As a reader and lover of words, I enjoyed Jaivin’s discussion of the technical and philosophical challenges faced by translators. She peppers her discussion with an eclectic but fascinating array of examples. And she quotes other translators, such as Edith Grossman who wrote that

a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation … no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly.

Take swearing for example. How we swear is highly cultural. Swear words, Jaivin writes, “expose what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred” in a culture, and consequently “can  throw differences in worldviews into sharp relief”. However, you’ll have to read the essay, if you want to see her examples!

I was intrigued by her argument that translations of classics go out of date! So, this means that the Spanish will always read the same Don Quixote but English speakers are very likely to read a different translation depending on which one is currently in vogue.

“… a culture doesn’t grow just by talking to itself …”

But, the critical point of her essay is not the act of translation. As the title of her essay implies, Jaivin is passionate about pluralism, and more, about cosmopolitanism. By this, she means not just living side by side, not just accepting each other, but “sharing a common vision”.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeFor Jaivin, “translation” is not a narrow concept. Its implications extend far beyond the “simple” translation of words from one language to another, because attached to language are meanings and ideas. When ideas are translated – via words – from one culture to another those ideas change. Jaivin describes how concepts such as Confucianism and yes, even democracy, change when they cross cultures. This can lead, she says, to misunderstanding but it can also provide “room for the kind of creative interpretation that allows cultures and the conversations between them to grow and evolve”.

She argues that, because of Australia’s particular history and geography, and because Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in Australia after English, “Australia is … in a unique position to translate the shift from the ‘American century’ to the ‘Asian one’ …”.

Building successful international relationships, she believes, requires genuine communication, which includes knowing, recognising and respecting other languages. It

does not require the weak to adopt the language of the strong – as reliance on English threatens to do, given its global and frequently imperial reach.

Jaivin argues that learning a foreign language should be a compulsory part of year 12 and university education, because “we need to have every possible line of communication open to us” if we are to successfully traverse the changes coming.  Not everyone agrees. What do you think?

Linda Jaivin
“Found in translation: In praise of a plural world”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 52
Collingwood: Black Inc, November 2013
ISBN: 9781863956307

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

25 thoughts on “Linda Jaivin, Found in translation: In praise of a plural world (Review)

  1. It is a brilliant essay. By Linda JAIVIN. And folk in European countries generally study two or three other languages. I’m all for the study of other languages – make it compulsory – but don’t test it to make it “count” towards a Tertiary Entrance – just that Tertiary Entrance requires study of one or two other languages to a certain number of hours/achievement criteria.

    • Oh glad you liked it too Jim. It’s fascinating isn’t it … so readable. I understand your point about not making it “count” but do you think that would result in students not treating it seriously in those two pressured years?

  2. Haven’t had the chance to read my copy yet but it’s by my bedside patiently waiting its turn . But I couldn’t agree more about the study of foreign languages. It was yet another backward step when they were no longer considered necessary for students. Not only are they beneficial for cross cultural understanding and appreciation,they also help us better understand our own.

    • Oh, those books waiting their turns! I expect you’ll enjoy this Sara. Learning a language has such value I agree -and our various governments have often set policies but have never backed it up with resources.

  3. This sounds absolutely wonderful. Language! Culture! Words! Words mean things! Would like to read this.

    PS No luck with Atwood audiobooks. Realised that the reason I got Oryx and Crake in the first place was because it was the only one ther!

      • Oh, I’m sure they have the books themselves, but probably e-audiobooks are only just started to take off (I think they have CDs of them. But I need the mp3 versions).

        • I’m sure they do have the books, but you’d think they’d have more audiobooks of one of Canada’s most significant authors too. Still, I guess multiple formats is difficult for libraries to manage.

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  5. I found this essay fascinating, both in itself and for the fact that this topic was given prominence in Quarterly Essay. There does need to be a serious rethink of the value of teaching languages other than English. Unfortunately we now have generations of teachers who were not themselves taught another language, or if so, taught badly. It’s a wonderful but challenging experience to translate both from and into one’s mother tongue, trying to do an excellent job, and then compare with what Google Translate offers! Good translation really does need human sensitivity to nuance. (And on a less elevated plane, of course there’s the joy of sniggering when one can see that a hapless sub-titler has got it wrong under time pressure, by mishearing what was originally said!)

    • Thanks Glenys … yes, the availability of skilled teachers is one of the big issues when the government makes pronouncements regarding increasing language learning in schools. If they can’t fund the training of teachers – and that is going to require some lead-time now as you realise – we can’t really teach languages in schools. I hope my American Japanese teacher friend (in California) finds time to comment on this in terms of her experience.

  6. I’m halfway through Jaivan’s essay and enjoying it immensely. The decline in the study of languages is tragic. It is narrowing our lives and limiting the potential depth of our relationships with our Asian neighbours.

  7. I haven’t read the essay but I certainly believe other languages should be taught in schools – preferably starting in primary school. And why on earth have the so-called ‘dead languages’ been deleted from the curriculum. My study of Latin (I am an octogenarian) – even fairly elementary Latin – has been of enormous benefit to me in my understanding and love of English.
    Also, as Australians, with only New Zealand and New Guinea of our near neighbours speaking English, we should be teaching our children an Asian language or we are going to be at a severe disadvantage in our relations with those countries in the future. English is being taught in many of their school systems but we Aussies…? Is it a form of arrogance? Wake up Australia.

  8. Sounds like a marvelous essay. It is interesting how translations do go out of date isn’t it? if they didn’t there would be no reason to publish new translations of classic work. How many are there of Homer? Or Don Quixote? Language changes and our understanding of the past and how it used language changes too. It really is fascinating.

    I had no idea Mandarin was the most commonly spoken language in Australia after English. Fascinating. In the US it is Spanish.

    • I didn’t know that either though it makes sense. I did know about the US andSpanish though!

      The classics translations going out of date is fascinating … The original work clearly survives datedness but the translations don’t.

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