“Traces of translation” – doesn’t that sound terribly grand? For me, this string of words summons up images of battered and bruised drafts covered in browned tea and coffee rings, with a helping of blood-red scribbles from my supervisor. These unsightly traces, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh’s TheStarry Night or a sanguine piece by Vincent Castiglia if you squint for long enough, reveal the presence of the all-too-human (and, ergo, very tired) translator and revisor at work. And yet, when the pages end up in the recycling bin, those unique little traces are gone forever. For others, the traces of translation only become visible in some poorly-worded sign or a hilarious hotel notice, probably slapped together by some dubious online machine. These may merit a quick smirk and are then banished from our minds.
When we dive into the language that frames Translation Studies, there’s nearly always a mention of ‘fidelity’ – this idea that the translation outcome needs to be as close as possible to the source text. In the 1980s, feminist translation scholars in Canada were right to call out this sexist framing, which likens the text to a woman and/or the female body. Nevertheless, zealous adherents to the concept of fidelity continue to push their view, unwavering in their belief that everything in this world is streamlined, comparable, and fully translatable. In the past, particularly when it came to translating religious texts, this outlook stirred up heated arguments and disagreements. These spats then resulted in nothing short of genocide – just look at how Pope Innocent III dealt with the Cathars in Languedoc as they distanced themselves from the Catholic Church. And, at times, this fervent dogma didn’t even make much sense. Spanish inquisitors, who favoured the older versions of the Bible in Latin above all, would hunt down, torture, and murder translators who worked from Biblical sources in Hebrew – despite Biblical Hebrew being the main source language for nearly all the Books in the Old Testament.
Nowadays, before we allow our promiscuous little texts to be burnt alive at the stake, we may want to reframe the debate. Haroldo de Campos, a Brazilian poet and translator, frames translation as a beneficial act of cannibalism – odd as that may sound. The translator devours and consumes the foreign text, boils and digests its content and context in their stomach, absorbing it as nourishment, and then spits out a translation. Whilst this liberal approach to translation is a breath of fresh air (or a slab of fresh meat) to some, we’re stuck in this sticky, limiting frame of power: Which culture or language can devour the other? Which cultures or languages are delectable, and which ones are unreservedly rancid? And, central to the plot of Mean Girls, who can sit with us at the cannibals’ table?
Within all of these fiery debates, we quickly lose view of the translator, the (all-too-often) invisible figure who helps us see meaning in what was previously blather. We overlook the traces of the translator within the text, unless a benevolent publisher has given in to adding a translator’s note. And we are ignorant of the traces of text that are tattooed on the translator’s skin once the job is done.
As I sit here with the original script of the Catalan drama, La Pell Escrita (2017), by Manel Bonany, I’m able to look into the eyes of a woman that I have never met and never will. That’s because she’s dead in this world. Traces of her only live on in the text. Despite the seemingly irreversible spell of death, I know her intimately through the pages in my hands. I can utter her words, embody and act out her movements, and follow her journey from this life to the next as she makes her way through some strange sort of limbo. I can even do it all over again, searching for any meaning that escaped my eyes the first-time round. As I read her story and begin to weave it into English, I cannibalise her, but in doing so, I resurrect her. As Spivak rightly states, translation is indeed the most intimate form of reading – and you don’t get more intimate than breathing new life into someone who is stone cold dead.
As I worked through the text of La Pell Escrita, running my highlighter over the finer details that would soon need extra attention, I realised how different this transgender woman’s life is to those who I know at home in Ireland. If we were to present this woman as she is in the original text on a stage in Belfast, would her story still inspire? Would her lived experience as a transgender woman resonate with local trans* women? To remedy this difficult snag, I began working with local trans* activists, taking from their lived experience to fuel the translation process, interweaving the local and the foreign, letting both leave their mark. In an ever-globalised world, these local interactions, upsetting as they may be to the cult that upholds fidelity, are necessary textual and dramaturgical features that anchor this complex piece within its new moorings. The original text is still there, peering back at us through the mortal veil, but the new marks, these enriching traces left behind by the local community, mean our cannibals’ feast is ready to be served. Although these traces, somewhat like the brown coffee rings on previous drafts, are invisible to some members of the audience, it is fair to say that meaning, albeit somewhat cryptic, is still present within the piece. And what’s more, the meaning continues to be relevant even as we dance across geographies, languages, cultures, and social contexts. You just have to scratch the surface a little.
And what about the traces of the text that are left blotted on the mind of the translator? The experience of translating La Pell Escrita leaves its mark on me as I turn this experience into a piece of poetry:
Tá sí ag damhsa
i mo chroí istigh.
Tá sí beo sa téacs,
nó ar an ardán,
ach tá sí marbh
sa saol seo.
in the depths of my heart.
She’s alive in the text,
or on the stage,
yet in this life
Richard Huddleson / Riocárd Ó hOddail is an Irish third-year PhD candidate at the Centre for Catalan Studies, at Queen Mary, University of London. Their research is practice-led and looks at how queer plays from the Catalan Countries can be translated and relocated on the Irish stage.