Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On exoticism of language

James McAvoy is being very clever here; one of the things he's especially clever about is accents. I won't belabor the point of why it wouldn't make sense to act out an entire movie in a foreign language -- the point of translation is making foreign books/movies accessible to audiences in other language environments. Unfortunately, in the US translation there's often a tendency to make a movie or text seem foreign by using actor accents or broken grammar respectively.

This convention seems to create an additional barrier between the audience and the work, by constantly reminding the audience that the work if foreign, by intentionally othering and alienating the characters. I find it supremely annoying, for example, when Russian characters in stories by American authors occasionally use Russian words a la Clockwork Orange -- because they are speaking Russian the entire time, they sound NORMAL to each other, and an occasional foreign word serves no other purpose than to exoticize. (I, of course, am not talking about words that have no obvious English equivalents, but perfectly normal ones -- babushka being a very weird favorite for some reason).

I don't get it. A couple of years back I was on a panel that compared several translations of Zamyatin's We, and both the audience and the panel participants seemed to prefer the translations that sounded the most broken, the most alien. I alone liked the one which translated Zamyatin's text into normal English (with a few quirks of the original preserved), and I still remember the vertiginous sense of trying to explain how alienating that broken English felt while realizing that my own accent, in turn, is rendering my point useless (after the panel, several people saw it fit to compliment me on my accent; just FYI.)

So all of this is probably tangentially related to the issue of world SF, or rather lack of translated SF in the US. Sure, some of it is cost and opportunity; but much of it, I suspect, lies in that culture of othering, while failing to admit that much of the SF audience is not looking for a truly alien experience. We like our aliens to be just like us, or at least shown through the eyes of people just like us. Foreign books, written for a foreign audience, assume different frames of reference, and a reader has to do a bit of work decoding them, and, most of all, relating not to him/herself, but a person with different life experience. It is much easier to create a faux difference by inserting an occasional foreign word/broken sentence than to cope with a real difference. This is the main explanation I can come up with for the dearth of translated books but an abundance of books by Americans (and for Americans) writing about other cultures. There's interest in the other, but only presented through a certain lens, and dotted with frequent markers of the otherness -- rather than a genuine desire of much of the audience to understand people coming from other backgrounds. And by defining them in our terms rather than allowing for self-definition and self-representation, the culture of Western-centric entertainment McAvoy is talking about continues. But hey, they are making Tolstoy in translation and with no silly accents. That's good, right?


Anonymous said...
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EGauvin said...

Please forgive this translator’s enthusiasm...

The debate between “Domestication” and “Foreignization” is quite central to contemporary translation theory, thanks largely to Lawrence Venuti’s seminal 1995 study, The Translator’s Invisibility. Curious to bring it up in response to your post, though, since its argument is founded on the premise of an audience with tastes contrary to the ones you describe from the panel; that is, it proceeds from the assumption (historically supported in the book) that readers, especially English-language readers, prefer the “domesticated” translation that reads smoothly to the one that betrays its foreignness (presumably through clunky, unidiomatic language). This preference, borne out in Venuti’s research into current mainstream American publishing practices, ties into his political argument about the cultural hegemony of English; for him the “domesticating” approach in translation involves “an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target-language cultural values.”

But perhaps this terminology merely confuses the issue… it seems what you’re against isn’t what Venuti would advocate as “foreignizing,” but in fact a parodic and caricatural “over-foreignizing” of a text. Ideally, a text written in relatively everyday Russian wouldn’t be rendered in some whimsical “Russianesque” made up mostly of Anglophone ideas of Russian, overstuffed with incredulous “bozhe moi”s, all in the name of giving us a foreign experience. Nor, however, would a translation pretending o fidelity presume to seem a work of English from which all hint of the foreign original had been removed for reading convenience. To use a clich├ęd example, it’s partly the gits, lifts, and lorries that make Potter Potter, and not Hogwarts, USA, right? According to Antoine Berman, a “bad translation carries out a systematic negation of the strangeness of the foreign work."

Another thing muddying the issue here are the different codes of “foreignizing” in print and video. In any media with an aural component, accents still get a great deal of comedy mileage; they’re arguably fundamental to our conception of foreignness. However, distorting spelling to reflect accent in print has fallen out of fashion, at least in English. Seeing Southern vowels orthographically exaggerated on the page seems more yokel than the accent itself these days. I do a lot of work in comics and children’s books; for example, an American publisher removed from the English version all traces of a Japanese accent from a character caricatured for mixing up her R’s and L’s in the original French.

As for inserting the occasional foreign word into dialogue; I’ve seen this taught in creative writing textbooks as a technique to remind readers what language the characters are actually speaking. You say it’s a bothersome othering, which gives a rather bourgeois, touristic frisson of foreignness—point taken. But an effect of English’s “cultural hegemony” is that it assimilates foreign words, but always, of course, with value markers. Decades of comedians have saddled Yiddish words in English with comedic connotations absent in the original language; the implicit class gamut runs from Spanish on the low end to French (and increasingly Japanese) on the hoity-toity. What if these insertions were used less to highlight or alienate than to enhance or destabilize? Perhaps if a writer were able to marshal or mobilize the true dynamic hodgepodgery of contemporary English, or to deploy, in translation, the same non-mainstream language, they could convey more of the foreignness of a given text without needlessly exoticizing it. Venuti’s argument runs something like this.

Fish Monkey said...

"This preference, borne out in Venuti’s research into current mainstream American publishing practices, ties into his political argument about the cultural hegemony of English; for him the “domesticating” approach in translation involves “an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target-language cultural values.”"

Very interesting point; however, it is probably worth pointing out that right now possibly more works are translated FROM English rather than INTO it -- especially in science fiction and fantasy fields. (Assuming otherwise is indeed ethnocentric). That is, American cultural hegemony is ensured via American books penetrating foreign markets (not to mention Hollywood). That is, translation is not a one-way street, and from my familiarity with works translated from English into Russian, I can say that a good translator would always aim for the translation that sounds as if it was a native text. Within the text itself, there are always indicators of foreignness, such as names and landmarks, currencies and social conventions. Contrived language, however, does not achieve the same effect, IMO.

As for film: I rather liked the fact that in Inglorious Basterds, Germans were speaking German, French were speaking French etc etc. No need to resort to accents at all.

The Erudite Ogre said...

"Contrived language, however, does not achieve the same effect, IMO (as other indicators of foreignness do),"

That is a hard lesson to learn, because so much of English-based media (particularly in the US) uses the contrivances of ambivalent translation and linguistic marking to reinforce the otherness of speakers and stories. As a writer, I have to work to unlearn as well as learn about how to describe other ways of living and thinking. Training in anthropology helped to an extent but there are embedded fictions of authenticity and exoticization there as well. Writers need to stay constantly aware of what messages their words are delivering.

Brian Dolton said...

Interesting point about "Inglourious Basterds". I recently watched the Spanish/Mexican film "Bendito Infierno" (aka "Don't Tempt Me") which also used three languages - Spanish in the "real" world, French for Heaven, and English (English English, not American English) for Hell. Interesting cultural choices, I felt. As was the fact that Gael Garcia Bernal was cast as a devil, and thus got to speak English through the movie (whether actors of other nationalities retained their accents when speaking French or Spanish, I am not fluent enough to tell).

Anonymous said...

@EGauvin -- Except, in the case of the Harry Potter books, the American edition removed various "British" elements and replaced them with American words, on the questionable basis that American kids would see "jumper" and not be able to figure out what it meant from the context or check a dictionary or parents.

As an American I found that annoying, but it's fairly standard practice, to the point where I came across one book by a British writer, set in London, where in the American edition everyone was using dollars.

No, really.