The role of the translator

role-of-translatorThis week three years ago a great American novelist and short story writer passed away in his house in Cornish, New Hampshire. J. D. Salinger was born in 1919; his mother had Scots-Irish origin and his father was a Polish Jew. He is best known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye, which has reached the bestseller status with over 65 million copies sold worldwide. I think everyone of us has read it in their teenage years. But what I like the most are Salinger’s short stories. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, “Teddy”, “Just before the War with the Eskimos” – once you read them you can never forget them. I absolutely agree with Richard Yates, who described Salinger as “a man who used language as if it were pure energy beautifully controlled, and who knew exactly what he was doing in every silence as well as in every word.”

I would like to pay a tribute here to Salinger’s genius and encourage you to get familiar with his spectacular literary legacy. I would also like to use one of his stories as an example for today’s note on different views on the role of the translator. In “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” there is a scene of a girl falling down and twisting her ankle. Let’s have a look:

“Eloise looked up at the ceiling again. “Once,” she said, “I fell down. I used to wait for him at the bus stop, right outside the PX, and he showed up late once, just as the bus was pulling out. We started to run for it, and I fell and twisted my ankle. He said, ‘Poor Uncle Wiggily.’ He meant my ankle. Poor old Uncle Wiggily, he called it. … God, he was nice.”

A translator encounters here a case of intertextuality. Salinger uses a popular character of a series of children’s stories by Howard R. Garis. Uncle Wiggily is an elderly rabbit that walks with a cane as he is afflicted with rheumatism. It is also a case of a word play: ‘uncle’ and ‘ankle’ sound almost the same in English. Is it at all possible to translate ‘Uncle Wiggily’ into any other language? Let’s see how professional translators have dealt with this issue.

Beautiful translation

A Polish translation by Agnieszka Glinczanka and Krzysztof Zarzecki:

“Eloiza utkwiła z powrotem wzrok w suficie. – Kiedyś – powiedziała – przewróciłam się. Czekałam na niego zawsze na przystanku, przed samą kantyną, i kiedyś zjawił się za późno, autobus już ruszył. Zaczęliśmy biec i ja się przewróciłam, skręciłam sobie kostkę. A on mówi: „Biedny pan Kostek.” O mojej kostce tak powiedział. „Biedny, mały pan Kostuś”, tak ją nazwał… Mój Boże, morowy był.”

The Polish translation uses a functional equivalent, substituting ‘Uncle Wiggily’ with a functionally similar pun ‘Pan Kostek’. The Polish equivalent of an ‘ankle’ is ‘kostka’ and ‘Kostek’ is a male first name.

Faithful translation

And an Italian translation by Carlo Fruttero:

„Una volta, – proseguì, – sono caduta. Lo aspettavo sempre alla fermata dell’autobus, in faccia allo spaccio militare, e una volta lui è uscito in ritardo, proprio mentre l’autobus ripartiva. Ci siamo messi a correre, e io sono caduta e mi sono stortata una caviglia. Lui ha detto: „Povero zio Wiggily”. Parlava della mia caviglia. Povero zio Wiggily, l’ha chiamata..* Dio se era carino.”

Here * the translator inserts a footnote, explaining who Uncle Wiggily is. Then the translator gives us another way to interpret the word play, explaining that “to wiggle” in English means “to move about, to fidget”. We have here an example of a different idea about the role of the translator. The Italian translator decided not to search for an Italian equivalent but to leave the original name “Wiggily” and to provide the reader with an explanation of how to understand it. Which solution is better?

Translator or traitor?

Following the first strategy the translator aims to adjust the text to the norms of language and cultural, aesthetic and cognitive horizon of the Polish reader. The reader can enjoy the word play and the reading continues uninterrupted. The second strategy results in the reader being aware that what he is reading is a translation; the translator introduces the reader to the American cultural world and communication community, informs him of the existence of a character called Uncle Wiggily, and lets him ponder on the implications of the verb “to wiggle”.

What is the purpose of translation then? Friedrich Schleiermacher comments on this question, saying that either the translator leaves the author in peace and brings the reader towards the author, or leaves the reader in peace and brings the author towards the reader.

Which strategy do you find best in this particular case? Which solution would Salinger prefer with regards to his work? Must it be true, as Voltaire said, that translations are like women – either beautiful or faithful?

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