Ethical Literary Translation

The contextual and dynamic nature of ethics implies that, while there may be a general level of consensus on what is ethical, there will inevitably be differences. Indeed, the nature of ethics, of literature and of translation militates against any tightly constructed map or model of translation ethics, but leads rather to a series of questions and considerations. What is achievable, however, is a topography or landscape for ethics in translation. For the elaboration of such a topography, we need now to consider a variable route map or series of questions to support the translator.

Over the course of the chapter, the focus has been on literature as an act of reading, which includes the notions of understanding and interpretation, with the translator performing this activity in the dual role of reader/translator. Underlying the discussion has been the notion that there is a responsible (ethical) way of reading which does justice to the literary text. This responsible way of reading for translation has been distilled by Chesterman (1997) into certain values which relate to the role of the translator: truth, loyalty, understanding, trust and excellence. The ethical translator aims to provide a translation that bears an ethical relation to the original, one that is loyal to the author, the literary text, and the new public - in short, to deal effectively with conflicting loyalties, to understand the meanings of the text as effectively as possible, to perform the translation in a manner that gives due consideration to the ethical role of the translator, and to aim for excellence in the performance of the translation.

Most discussions of what is ethical in translation consider ethics from the perspective of what is expected of a translator. George Steiner (1992:312) adds an important nuance to the discussion by asserting the need for “initiative trust, an investment in the belief, underwritten by previous experience but epistemologically exposed and psychologically hazardous, in the meaningfulness” of the text. Without trust in its value, there would be no reason for the translator to respect the text. This “generosity” on the part of the translator is an opening up to risk and the disruptive effect of the text, to Butler’s (2004:227) notion of putting “our own epistemological certainties into question, and ... openness to another way of knowing and of living in the world”. Steiner (1992) proposes four movements in his hermeneutic motion: the initial movement of trust, the second movement of invasion and appropriation of the text (rendering it familiar), the third movement of incorporation with the risk of transformation, and the final (ethical) movement of reciprocity and restoration of balance. This reciprocity may entail loss but it also enhances and gives back. For Steiner (1992:318), balance is the substantive meaning of the notion of fidelity in translation; the translator only achieves fidelity by striving “to restore the balance of forces”. Fidelity is therefore ethical:

By virtue of tact, and tact intensified is moral vision, the translatorinterpreter creates a condition of significant exchange. The arrows of meaning, of cultural, psychological benefaction, move both ways.

(Steiner 1992:318)

Steiner’s conceptualisation of trust reminds us of our earlier discussion of the nature of literature—we read literary works because we believe they have something to say. Although containing aspects of Chesterman’s notion of truth, Steiner’s idea of fidelity is stronger, including the concept of balance, of succeeding in achieving a “significant exchange” which equates to the notion of doing justice to the text, as presented by Hillis Miller’s (2009) discussion in For Derrida. Fidelity represents mutual respect between the two texts, between the two literary contexts—respect for the otherness not only of the text but of other worlds outside the text. This respect entails an ethical negotiation of fidelity, which allows the translation to reflect back on the original, and the original to reflect forward to the translation. Can otherness be acknowledged, and only through a reciprocal movement can we decolonise rather than colonise the text. Ricoeur (2006:10) frames this somewhat differently as a form of “linguistic hospitality ... where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home”. This linguistic hospitality represents a move to de-provincialize the target language and recognise its own foreignness (Ricoeur 2006:9). Ricoeur would view fidelity as akin to discovering “an other within the very depths of the self [our human identity']” (Kearney 2006:xix).

Steiner’s notions of fidelity and respect, and Ricoeur’s of linguistic hospitality and de-provincializing languages, suggest an expansion of translation values to include the ethical responsibility of respect for otherness—an exhortation not to erase or assimilate—and, as Sandra Berman (2005:7) suggests, “a moment of reflection in which an ethical relationship to others and to the self, to language and its international dissemination and transformation, might be conceived”.

This ethical responsibility is emphasised in Daniel Schwarz’s ethical literary critical approach to reading Elie Wiesel’s Night (1982, originally published in 1960). Schwarz (1998:222) proposes five stages of what he terms the “hermeneutical activities of ethical reading and interpretation”, which move us from a superficial reading and interpretation towards an increasingly sophisticated and in-depth interpretation, finally reaching a fuller conceptual and ethical understanding of the text. His five stages are useful in describing and mapping the process of reading for translation. These are: (i) immersion in the process of reading and the discovery of imagined worlds; (ii) the quest for understanding; (iii) self-conscious reflection; (iv) critical analysis; and (v) cognition in terms of what we know.

The first stage in his process, immersion, calls on the reader to open up to the imagined world of the original (Schwarz 1998:222). In suspending the sense of our own world, we pay attention to the moral universe of the imagined world of the novel and may be required to suspend our own moral universe. The second, the quest for understanding, focuses on the text. As the author is not present to direct our reading, “[w]hat the text says now matters more than what the author intended, and every exegesis unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its moorings to the psychology of its author” (Ricoeur 1991:148) and, as such, other meanings proliferate. In the third stage, the ethical responsibility and respect of the translator are invoked, and

The Ethical in Literary Translation 47 self-conscious reflection requires the reader to adjust his/her perspective in order to allow other perspectives to be understood. Schwarz’s fourth stage of critical analysis represents the move from signifier to signified -“for no sooner do we understand what the original signifiers signify within the imagined world than these signifieds in turn become signifiers for larger issues and symbolic constructions in the world beyond the text” (Schwarz 1998:223). It is therefore not possible to speak of a “correct reading” of the text, because different readers will respond differently and their interpretations will be a function of their background, “experiences of reading a particular author”, knowledge of the author and their own values. Those responses will depend on “how willing I am to suspend my irony and detachment and enter into the imagined world of the text” (Schwarz 1998:224). Like the ethics of translation, ethical critical analysis reminds the translator to reflect on the distance between his/her perspective and that of the author.

In the cognition stage, we draw on our reading experience to crystallise our understanding and conceptualise our ideas of the text. Our readings of other texts converge “into our way of looking at ourselves and the world [... and we use these] to make sense of our reading experience and our way of being in our world” (Schwarz 1998:222-226). In this stage, Schwarz emphasises the ethical component of the “transaction” between the reader and the text, a transaction that can be assimilated to Steiner’s notions of reciprocity and balance, and to Ricoeur’s notion of linguistic hospitality. The five stages of reading parallel the movement of translation towards balance and exchange, providing a trajectory of intense (self(reflection, reflexivity and decentring. The translator follows where the text leads. The culmination of the ethical responsibility of the translator is the achievement of reciprocity and balance (meaningful exchange).

 
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