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29 Aug 2012 – Book Review of Reflections on Translation, Susan Bassnett, published by Multilingual Matters, 2011

I was recently asked to write a review of Susan Bassnett’s recently published autobiographical work, Reflections on Translation, for the ITI Bulletin. The article as it appeared in the bulletin is below.published by Multilingual Matters

When I was around seven years old, growing up in England, somebody told me that there was a word in the Scots language, tartle, which actually means “the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.” Of course, not only was this highly amusing to me, but the word – or rather, what was behind it – stuck with me. Why did we not simply have this same word in English too? Its existence bothered me, at the same time it whispered some ophidian secret to me, which I would only begin to explore later on. There were gaps, silences, in our language, and therefore our understanding. These gaps were unnerving, but also addictively, tantalisingly seductive: I wanted to look between them.

I use this example to introduce this wonderful collection of essays by translation studies expert, Susan Bassnett, as in my view, Bassnett’s reflections on translation are simultaneously reflections on difference, on the ‘gaps’ in between, as Basnett says in her introduction, ‘because the task of the translator is to negotiate difference’.

This work brings together a decade of writings, mostly for the ITI Bulletin, covering a range of topics, including ‘the translation of different literary genres, in particular poetry, news and media translations, linguistic problems and aspects of cultural translation. There are essays on the translation of humour, on the language of kinship, on gestures, on jokes, even an essay on what happens when translation goes horribly wrong.’ From her search to convey the sounds of water in poetry in English to discussing illness in Italian, this book is full of fascinating insights and observations about our world of language and signs.

Bassnett’s upbringing almost certainly played a significant role in the creation of a mind where duality and fluidity are key adjectives. Born to monolingual parents, but taken at an early age to another country where she quickly learned to speak a second language, (Danish), she soon worked out that she could ‘use this fact to her own advantage’, as a child ‘who could change in mid-sentence and slide between both languages, in and out like a serpent from its lair.’

This image of the snake is particularly fitting, the translator often seen as effecting what Bassnett describes as a ‘metamorphosis’; shedding skin and sliding between boundaries, inhabiting dangerous territory, often described by Bassnett herself as a kind of ‘no-man’s land’. A figure seen in many cultures as treacherous, the translator is to be feared and is almost certainly dangerous, evoking feelings of mistrust and betrayal, the traduttore/traditore which, as Bassnett points out in her essay ‘Dangerous Translations’ has very serious connotations.

The cluster of often contradictory conceptions around the name ‘translator’ would appear to be similarly serpentine. Are we those self-effacing ‘transparent filters through which words passed almost by alchemy’, serving to highlight the degree of the ignorance around what it is that we as translators actually do. Or are we the person who causes or effectuates loss, as Bassnett notes, ‘articles about translation are weighted down with words such as ‘betrayal’, ‘infidelity’ and ‘untranslateability’’. As she rightly points out, there is often much more gained than lost in translation.

Does the translator, as suggested, possess some element of the mystical about them? As one bestowed with the power to effectively ‘bring a dead work back to life’, the translator is a figure who has the ability to be, as the poet Charles Tomlinson describes it, ‘transfus’d by the soul of your original’(Tomlinson, 1982). This translator-alchemist, with a foot in both worlds, is somehow able to effect a metempsychosis, as described by the great critic Walter Benjamin, ‘whereby the soul of the original assumes another form in another language’.

At the opposite end of the scale, we have the image of the translator as decision-maker/editor. It is the translator who decides which strategies to use in the translation, what to leave in and what to take out; who ‘has to exercise judgement and make conscious choices.’ Always the pragmatists, as Bassnett so warmly and wisely notes, ‘recognising the impossibility of perfection is what, in my view, makes a good translator.’

In Bassnett’s own words, ‘translation theory has devoted little attention in recent years to the pragmatics of translation and to the subjectivity of the translator as a factor in the translation process.’ In my view, this collection offers a fascinating and timely insight into the subject of one woman who is ‘engaged in translation’. Responding to the great critic George Steiner’s question, ‘…What is the tone of self?’ (Steiner 1975:125) Bassnett answers that the various strata of languages in her head which, like sediment, will less ‘reveal’ one true language of self than, in a distinctly more Lacanian way, behave ‘rather like the skins of an onion: peel them away and you have nothing left’.

In Bassnett’s world, languages ‘inhabit’ her psyche, jostling for position, pushing each other out; they are warring, struggling elements, as if possessing a life of their own. This theme of language and power, voice vs. silence, runs throughout the book, with some fascinating essays on nationhood and cultural identity as expressed through language. Throughout the book we find the metaphor of liquidity; of languages flowing like currents, linguistic tides, coming in and going out, of languages in constant motion, of plasticity and ‘play’. As Bassnett so succinctly puts it, this dissolving of boundaries ‘is the paradox of those who exist in more than one language: to be plural and not singular.’

Bassnett writes that ‘Sometimes…a translator translates something because through the process of translating he or she finds a clue to their own identity’. With impeccable style, she has crafted us a portrait of one gifted with unique sensitivity, combined with pragmatism and humanity. She is a fascinated and fascinating observer of human behaviour with a deeply held love of and feel for cultural difference; one who makes visible ‘invisible’ notions such as ‘performability’, ‘silence’ or ‘summer’, through comparing them with what they are not. Even ‘English’ itself does not escape her analytical gaze. At times scholarly, at times resolutely practical, this book is essential reading for, as she puts it, ‘anyone who cares about the movement of languages across boundaries’. This book represents the unique ability of the translator, in the author’s own words, ‘to shift perspective, to look simultaneously from within and from without, to question oneself and one’s own culture as much as one questions the other.’

19 July, 2010 – A Ray of Hope in Colombia’s Troubled History

Some weeks ago, I was given the opportunity of collaborating on the translation of the official website of the Comunidad de Paz, or Peace Community, of San José de Apartado www.cdpsanjose.org situated in the region of Uraba, Colombia. This Community has, uniquely, declared itself neutral in the midst of paramilitary and guerilla activity. The aim of the translation was to raise awareness for this unique and brave community, who live under the daily threat of violence and the destruction of their existence and livelihood. So, in the spirit of their endeavour, the following is a brief outline of the people and their mission, taken from extracts available at: http://www.colombiasupport.net/sanjose/join.html

The beautiful landscape around the Comunidad de Paz

On May 4, 1966 Don Bartolomé Catano came to the beautiful lands of the Serrania de Abibe, a fertile and mountainous region of Colombia – land well-suited for raising cattle and for cultivating corn, cocoa, avocado, yucca, plantains, rice and coffee.

Seeking the opportunity for independence after working for others since he was 7 years old, at 36, Don Bartolomé got married, bought a small plot of land and began to raise pigs and chickens. He built a small house with a zinc roof.

After a short time 17 other peasant families had come to live in the area. Together, they worked the land, planted food and sold avocados, cocoa beans and other products. They also organized the BALSAMAR cooperative to market and process the cocoa beans, rather than selling to middlemen.

They also built a school, a health centre and constructed the road. They called it San José, according to Don Bartolo:

‘Because he is the patron saint of the peasants who till the land. Sometimes, I am afraid but I keep it inside. Where do I go? God gives me peace. I examine my conscience and I do not owe anything to anybody. In 30 years here I have no enemies.’

On 17th August1996 armed men burst into the local council buildings and brutally murdered Don Bartolo. In February of 1997 paramilitaries entered the town at night, dragging the four remaining leaders of the cooperative from their beds and beheading them, leaving their bodies in the street. The paramilitaries closed down the market, and forbade the selling of foodstuffs and the tending of crops, accusing the villagers of running a supply post for the guerrillas.

The Comunidad de Paz in context

This account repeats a scene that for the majority of this century has taken place all over Colombia: a war against the poor. In the 1950s and 60s it was called ‘La Violencia’. Now it is called the ‘War on Drugs’. The name is not important to the people who suffer from it. The root cause of Colombia’s tragedy lies in the poverty of so much of its people despite being country of great natural resources. 90% of the wealth is owned by 2.5% of the population. From this situation three guerrilla movements were formed, amongst them the FARC – the oldest in Latin America – and the ELN in the 1960s.

A constitutional democracy in the eyes of the world, the reality is that the military has been given carte blanche to control the population during most of this century. According to the Comisión Colombiana de Juristas there are 10 people killed every day for political reasons. Since 1988, 30,000 have been killed, with an average of 3,000 a year – more killings than during the 17 years of Pinochet in Chile. The targets are peasant leaders, such as Don Bartolo; labour leaders, teachers, grass roots organizers, priests, nuns, human rights activists, NGO’s leaders, lawyers, journalists. In fact, anyone who thinks independently.

The army and its paramilitary allies carry out nearly three quarters of the killings. The rest is carried out by the guerrillas. The army, constrained by international public opinion from doing the killings itself, has allied with landowners, drug lords and even powerful multinationals, to create the paramilitaries. They do their dirty work – killings, disappearances and horrible torture–knowing that in 97% of the cases of killings in Colombia no one is ever convicted. Any attempt by anyone to organize a legal opposition in this “democracy” has been eliminated.

Drug dealers have become land owners. Big international capital wants to join the elites to “develop” areas such as San José where there is a coal mine nearby. In Uraba a canal is being planned to replace the Panama Canal. People have fled in terror when paramilitaries arrive, producing one million internal refugees – more than Rwanda, according to UNICEF.

Paramilitary, guerrilla and army actions have escalated since 1996, creating a context of terror and death by killing humble unarmed people–mainly peasants–in open violation of international human rights codes.

Foundation of the Community

Seeking to protect and strengthen the unity of its members and their constitutional rights, the inhabitants of 28 settlements, with San José de Apartado in the centre, declared themselves a Comunidad de Paz on March 23 of 1997, in the presence and with the support of Pax Christi Holland, members of the Dutch Parliament, the Diocese of Apartado, Justicia y Paz , CINEP and the then Mayor of Apartado, Gloria Cuartas.

This peace initiative developed a program based upon absolute neutrality regarding the opposing sides in this ‘war’ and the creation of a Committee to deal with any violations of their commitment and rights on the part of the armed groups.

The people commit themselves not to bear arms, munitions or explosive materials; not to provide logistical support to the opposing groups; not to produce, provide or manipulate information for the sides of the conflict and not to turn to any of the actors in the war to solve personal, family or community problems.

The community seeks a stable peace and, through active neutrality and participation, tries to recover civilian and communal spaces. This peace initiative springs directly from Don Bartolo’s influence in the community. It seems to recover his deep desire to live freely, work his land and think as one wishes, respecting everybody else’s right to do the same. In the same way, Peace Community members want to give value to their rights and autonomy as citizens and Colombians.

A community under attack

Since it declared itself a Comunidad de Paz, San Jose has seen the death of 38 members – 33 executed by paramilitaries and five by FARC guerrillas. On February 11, 1998 whilst returning from harvesting crops, four people – among them a boy of 16 and another of 14 – were confronted by a heavily-armed paramilitary group. They threatened them with decapitation, holding machetes to their throats. Despite public commitment by the Colombian government to dismantle paramilitary groups, no effective action has been taken and they still operate on and off a checkpoint on the road leading to San Jose de Apartado from Apartado.

A new hope

This is an alternative for the civilian population to express resistance and gain autonomy, a dignified life and a peaceful expression of opposition to the political status quo. It is unique in Colombia because it redefines popular power – focusing on exercising fundamental rights as citizens in a democracy – and breaks the dynamics of war and injustice, creating a space for survival.

In the middle of an atrocious reality created by both paramilitary and guerrilla groups, civilian peace initiatives – even those as fragile as the San José de Apartado Peace Community – represent one of Colombia’s greatest hopes.

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