22 February 2009

Dream of the Red Chamber

In a corpus-based comparative study of Chinese to English translations done by first-language Chinese speakers and texts written by first-language English speakers, Guangsa Jin of Peking University, China, admits that "it is difficult to find comparable material for fictional works usually containing many cultural elements which are unique to a nation. Surely, one cannot find an English novel which is comparable to the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber (《红楼梦》)." This remark points to a shortcoming of most translation studies: they focus only on the linguistic aspects of translation and not the literary aspects. This shortcoming also works the other way: literary critics that study texts written by second-language speakers often focus on the literary aspects and fail to take into account the linguistic aspects. This gap between linguistics and literary criticism has long existed and makes the work of evaluating second-language literary texts unnecessarily difficult.

1 comment:

  1. Criticism of translations quite obviously is a legtimate activity of the linguistically-bent literary critic. The evaluation of a work's translation, however, becomes unnecessarily narrow without considering the content/context of the literary work. Quite naturally, a gap between linguistics and literary criticism would exist if the translation is debunked as hopelessly incompetent in the first place. However, the translated literary work may be evaluated from other planes -- like its universality.
    Some of the best compositions in other languages come to us in translations. Although we realize that a lot is taken away from their enjoyment because they do not reach us wth the original flavour and vigour of the language in which they were first written, we still marvel at the power with which they jolt us. They may be about other people, other voices, but they do not cease to be meaningful. It is quite easy to realize that they have become the property of mankind because they depict man as a universal being, afflicted by the same pains and triumps wherever he may be; only the accidents differ--the substance is man. Such epics as Homer's "Iliad" and "Odysssey," "The Song of Roland" and others, have become part of the universal fabric of literary treasures--they have even surfaced in other forms but with the same substance in other countries other than their land of origin.
    It is this value which often stands out when critics, using the totemic or archetypal approach, unearth universal patterns of man, as well as traces, according to Wilbur Scott, of the Jungian "universal unconscious (which shows) that civilized man perserves, though unconsciously, those pre-historical areas of knowledge which he articulated obliquely in myth." ("Five Approaches of Literary Criticism.)
    Bad translations are an abomination, to be certain. But one has no business translating if he is not competent in the first language. Competence here does not necessarily mean the qualification of a native speaker. All too often native speakers may miss that "quaint nuance" peculiar only to literary expression. Nevertheless,the second language writer must always be prepared to be evaluated from a "linguistic" angle -- that approach being itself a function of the formal approach.
    Has any one surfaced as a serious "literary critic" who does not possess "linguistic credentials" in the first language? Good translations make good literature.
    This also becomes a good argument for the literary critic to be an acceptably competent creative literary artist before putting on the hat of an arbiter of valuable literature. -- ALBERT B. CASUGA