Reflections on the Application of an Ethical Framework

The ethical principle of fidelity, which can also be understood as mutual respect, remains a powerful and meaningful concept in translation. Admittedly imprecise and indefinable, it also embraces what could be described as the ultimate goal of literary translation and the primary ethical principle guiding translators. It is not precise in its application simply because doing justice to a text may take different and surprising forms depending on context, perspectives and understandings. Different epistemological frames such as decolonial translation may call on translators to apply other notions of fidelity. It is useful therefore to consider some examples of how translators might respond in specific contexts.

In author-translator Michiel Heyns's English translation of Marlene van Niekerk’s Afrikaans novel Agaat (2006b), there is an interesting example of how the translator does justice to the original text in a way that matches Van Niekerk’s understanding of literature and what she seeks to achieve inher writing. In an interview with Hans Pienaar (2005:n.p.), Van Niekerk reflects on the value of intertextuality and significance, saying that, as a writer, she is principally keen “to complicate matters ... in such a densely patterned way that the text will not stop eliciting questions”. Van Niekerk is interested in the Derridean notion of works ‘calling’ for translation and participating in a conversation in which certain literary works “call upon and towards each other” (Meintjes 2009:76). When Heyns replaces references to Afrikaans literary book titles in the novel with titles drawn from the English literary canon such as works by William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne and WH. Auden, he changes the referentiality of the text from the Afrikaans canon to the English one (Meintjes 2009:78). This is an ethically considered movement of reciprocity expanding the referentiality of the original, as most of the translation’s English readers (except possibly South Africans) would be largely excluded from grasping the referentiality of the Afrikaans titles. By opening the referentiality up to a wider audience, Heyns achieves greater balance, “potentialising meaning” (Van Niekerk 2006a)—a loss offset by gain. Of course, it would also have been possible to open up referentiality by including appropriate English titles from literary canons other than the British one, or by retaining the Afrikaans titles and adding a phrase to allow the reader to understand the referentiality of the titles in a different way. There is always more than one way of achieving balance.

An example from the same novel relates to the notion of untranslat-ability and how this can be dealt with in an ethical way. Heyns (2006) translates the Afrikaans word liefhebbend, which encompasses everything “feminine, an active enfolding of language” with a quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s grandeur”: “over the bent world broods ...” (Van Niekerk 2006a). This is not an accurate rendition, but liefhebbend has a resonance in Afrikaans that is simply not covered by the dictionary translation of loving or fond. Heyns's translation respects the deep resonance and signifiance of liefhebbend, allowing the new reader to understand the “enfolding” connoted by the Afrikaans word.

We find another example of how fidelity and respect operate in finding novel ways to deal with translation difficulties, in this case related to censorship and politics that made certain sections of the text untranslatable for legal reasons. When Breyten Breytenbach’s The true confessions of an albino terrorist (1984) was published by Taurus, a small publishing house run by a group of Afrikaans academics resistant to the oppression of the apartheid regime, certain names and references in the text were censored at that time. The publishers dealt with this by leaving blank spaces in the original to mark the instances of censorship. This strategy generated a referentiality and humour that was in keeping with the Rabelaisian and carnivalesque humour of the text. Untranslatability thus led to the achievement of a creative balance. This resistive act of translation could be likened to some forms of decolonial translation.

Notions of translatability/untranslatability, cultural differences, differing perspectives or differing epistemologies might suggest the impossibility of achieving reciprocity and balance. However, as we have seen, solutions are found through a process of reflection and reflexivity. Often it is untranslatability at word level that gives the translator greatest pause as to how best to capture the fullness of meaning that a particular word may have in a particular culture, as in the above example of liefhebbend.

The notion of fidelity and the move towards reciprocity are reflexive tools to resolve difficulties such as how to represent otherness, epistemological differences and notions of untranslatability. I argue that it also provides the tools to deal with domestication and foreignisation. In a discussion on normativity, canonicity and breach in the translation of Mohammad Bakri’s 2002 documentary video Jenin Jenin on Israeli incursions into the Occupied West Bank, Baker (2006:98-101) provides the Arabic original together with its literal translation: “ What can I say, by God, by God, our home is no longer a home.” The literal translation is an anguished, poetic and religious cry reflecting, as Baker (2006:99) notes, “the repeated evictions from the lands of the narrator’s ancestors, repeated loss of home after home, dispersal of Palestinians across the world, the familiar site of endless refugee camps into which generation after generation is being squeezed”. This cry is translated in the subtitles as: “What can I say? Not even Vietnam was as bad as this. ”

Baker ascribes intelligibility “in the context of American political dominance” and the desire to “identify America as the aggressor and perpetrator of violence” as potential aspects of the translator’s logic. Applying the translation values discussed above, we might agree that the English translation truthfully represents the original in some way: that it is loyal in reflecting an underlying ideology of the text, that it does show an understanding of the meaning of the text, that it is trustworthy in the sense of following translation precepts, and that it is committed to achieving a translation that is meaningful to the audience. However, an empathetic understanding of the context of the speaker and the meanings that potentially proliferate from the use of “by God, by God” and of “home” offer a significantly different ideological, cultural and epistemological frame from those associated with the Vietnam contextualisation.

Phil Goodwin’s (2010) discussion of the same example illustrates the potentially different approach that might be advocated were the example from a literary text. Arguing that “the man’s tragic story has actually been subsumed into the anti-American, anti-Israeli polemic”, Goodwin (2010:37) makes the point that the translator:

may not really be very interested in discovering the real human voice behind the man’s distraught statement [or] they would notice that the man talked about his god and his home - not about Vietnam, not about the wicked hegemony of the USA, but about the terrible thing which had happened to him and his community while the world stood by and watched.

One might argue that the polemical and epistemological reframing of the text indicates that the translation is used to express an ideological point. But we are dealing with a documentary which may have been explicitly produced to bring home (domesticate) certain ideological points to an audience that can only understand such points if they are made within a frame that they understand—such as Vietnam and its consequences. In this sense, we might say that the translation was successful. However, this is unlikely to be our assessment if we were dealing with the translation of a literary text, in which case we might rather find that the translation has not considered all the ethical consequences of the translation decision or of the epistemological reframing of the text.

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