Words Matter, and Student Translators Have “Mercy”

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“Lovers of world literature,” invoked the end-of-semester calendar announcement, “consider attending Polyglossia, a public reading of works translated by members of the Davidson College seminar ‘Theory and Practice of Literary Translation.’… Refreshments will be provided.”

Words, I thought to myself, matter. Ditto refreshments. That night, the happy babble of scholarly polyglossia filled the Carolina Inn, as students and professors in evening attire mingled over champagne, sparkling cider and hors d’oeuvres. The air conditioner finally caught up with the crowd about the time seats were taken. Perfect.

“Everyone in this room is guilty sometimes of forgetting that we are perpetually at the mercy of translators—always!” said Associate Professor and Chair of Classics Keyne Cheshire, who co-taught the class with Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies Caroline Beschea-Fache.

The Polyglossia chapbook cover, produced by students and Sharon Broome at Central Services. Click to enlarge.

Just think about that: In any language, we are indeed at the mercy, at some point, of some translator, somewhere. This night in the Carolina Inn, six Davidson students rose to offer some details of just how.

They worked from across a diverse range of traditions: a wartime radio address delivered by De Gaulle from London; a previously untranslated 1992 Gamoneda poem from Spain; a page of idiosyncratic screenplay from the recent French blockbuster The Intouchables; a ribald Roman comedy by Plautus from the first century B.C.E.; an ambiguous Greek ode by Sappho six centuries before Plautus; and a feminist revolutionary’s poem in Chinese about an early 1900s visit to Japan.

Just as telling as the original readings and translations were the students’ commentary on their projects, collected in a handsome chapbook. A sampling:

• “To complicate matters, cárdenas does not correspond directly to any color in English…. And while I believe that ‘purplish lilies’ is the best option, it still is far from perfect. Alas.” —Peter Bowman ’16, on Antonio Gamoneda’s “Book of the Cold”

• “Rather than carrying over de Gaulle’s repetition as it appears in French (which reads clumsily in the word-for-word English translation), I employed a more conventional form of Anglicized repetition common to oration.” Taylor MacDonald ’15, on de Gaulle’s “Appel du 18 juin”

• “In addition to subtitling-specific obstacles, translation of this scene poses the problem of cultural differences in humor….Translating slang was the second major hurdle.” —Anita Richardson ’16 on The Intouchables

• “The colloquial language, frequent expletives, and improper grammar in my translation echo Plautus’ lowbrow language.” —Bri Lazenvnick ’15 on Casina

• “I learned to understand that there is no literal translation in Chinese, or at least not for Qiu Jin’s classical, elevated, symbol-ridden verse.” —Jessie Li ’15 on “Thoughts During a Visit to Japan”

• “Sappho’s verses once filled nine books, but today, only one complete poem exists…. These verses, beautifully arranged according to a strict Sapphic meter and the melodic sounds of their words, were also once sung, but the music is gone as well. Instead of counting these facts as true losses, I took them as opportunities to play with the words themselves.” —India M. Watkins ’15 on Sappho’s “Fragment 31”

Yes, words matter, and, indeed, we are perpetually at the mercy of translators. Thanks for the thoughtful take on that reality!


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