“Let a thousand translations bloom”

Mridula Nath Chakraborty on the controversy arising from the resignation of Amanda Gorman’s Dutch translator: 

Translators ferry across the meaning, materiality, metaphysics and all the magic that may be unknown in the mediums and conventions of their own tongue. The pull of the strange, the foreign, and the alien are necessary for acts of translation.

It is this essential element of unknowingness that animates the translator’s curiosity and challenges her intellectual mettle and ethical responsibility. Even when translators hail from — or belong to — the same culture as the original author, the art relies on the oppositional traction of difference. 

. . . If humans only translate what is known within their own four walls, or what is familiar to them within the boundaries of their own imaginations, something essential is lost both to translation — and to the profligate tongues that proliferate our humanity.

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3 thoughts on ““Let a thousand translations bloom”

  1. The article is interesting with lots of really good (often unknown) background in the links (Graeco-Arab translation, Buddhist translation, Indo-Persian translation, the deliberate mistranslation of the Treaty of Waitangi, etc. etc.).

    Chakraborti’s message seems to be “the more the merrier” — we need more, not less, people challenging the translation of texts outside their own culture and experience. But in the background there seems to be a complaint not just about identity politics as a criterion in choosing a translator, but the entire system that limits the number of translations to one, and the fact that the publishing establishment, controlled by the dominant ethnic/cultural group, has so much power over translation and publishing. Unlike Anna Karenina, over which the long-dead Tolstoy has no control, alternative translations of The Hill We Climb would be ruled out by copyright and current publishing interests.


    1. Good points!

      Many critics have pointed out that publishing houses are biased “gatekeepers” and it is unquestionably true. That copyright effectively allows one translation to monopolize a given piece of prose is also a reality.

      But what caught my eye in the essay, and seems most important to me, is that both aspiring authors and translators are artists who need to have the courage to follow their hearts or, as Thoreau put it, “Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”


  2. Chakraborty has some good points. David Bellos, director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, moves the topic even further in his book “Is That a Fish in Your Ear”. He discusses the common notion of only translating into one’s “native language” or “mother tongue”, especially in literary translation, with many interesting examples.

    Liked by 1 person

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