On Death and Translation

In his “Meditation XVII,” John Donne uses translation as a metaphor for death – perhaps a sentiment that hits a bit too close to the mark for many working translators. Donne writes, “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice.” This rather upbeat view of death is simultaneously a pessimistic view of translation – though perhaps not so much as that of the Romans who famously believed that “all translation is a polite lie,” all “translators, traitors.” At least for Donne, the violence done by translation is a natural part of the cycle of life.

But then, it is still violence. The agents of Donne’s translation work are age, sickness, war, and justice (i.e, execution). Throughout history, some of the most prolific bodies of translators have been employed by bloodthirsty enterprises – all nation’s militaries for instance, have large translation units for intercepting enemy messages. Colonialism is another obviously ravenous impulse that engenders large volumes of work in translation. Perhaps there is an inherent connection between violence and translation, though I am not inclined to believe this to be true, in light of my own motives for translation. Still, even when there is no violence in the translational act, there is death, and even a peaceful death involves pain, change, and loss.

This realization is nothing new – it is commonly understood that something is always necessarily “lost in translation.” Translation is the shedding of a body, a body of language and culture. In fact, the best translators are not satisfied to leave the cast-off body alone; they must dissect it. Scalpel in hand, they pick the flesh apart, separating the tiniest pieces from the corpse and subjecting them to intense scrutiny. It is not a task for the squeamish, but those who neglect an exploration of the textual corpse’s viscera will produce, at best, a shallow translation (even if it is technically accurate). These long hours in the translator’s mortuary are a necessary step in literary translation, for picking apart a text to study its anatomy is the core work of all literary reading.

What happens in the wake of this violence is the other crucial stage in the translator’s work. Here, the translator must determine if she is Victor Frankenstein, cobbling pieces together to create a monstrosity, a thing to be pitied by the soft of heart, or rejected and railed against by the more callous. The other choice is to employ a more careful creative force, akin to that contained in Donne’s belief in the power of a resurrection to new life. He writes, “God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.” The careful translator’s creation is born not of Frankenstein’s hubris, but of faith.

Good reading – the sort performed by the committed literary translator – does violence, deconstructing that it may produce understanding. It requires the translator to open up the body and move inside it, to view the inner working of that which will pass away in the course of her work. It is when she turns her hand to re-creating that the restorative powers bring the deceased to life in a new body, suited for the new world in which it will be sent out to live – a resurrection or reincarnation. It is these skills, both their violence and healing, that make translation possible.

Shelly Bryant divides her year between Shanghai and Singapore, working as a poet, writer, and translator. She is the author of seven volumes of poetry (Alban Lake and Math Paper Press), a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai (Urbanatomy), and a book on classical Chinese gardens (Hong Kong University Press). She has translated work from the Chinese for Penguin Books, Epigram Books, the National Library Board in Singapore, Giramondo Books, and Rinchen Books. Shelly’s poetry has appeared in journals, magazines, and websites around the world, as well as in several art exhibitions. Her translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012. You can visit her website at https://shellybryant.com.

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