Translation: An Act of Treason or of Honest Integrity?


The more I read about translation, the more fascinating I find it. Despite my experience in the field stretching over more than a decade, there is something new to learn about it every day.

Well-known translator Gregory Rabassa sees translation as treason. He has translated many masterpieces from Latin America’s boom time that took off in the sixties, often described as “magic realism.” Some prominent authors he translated are Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and more. This impressive cultural heritage would have never found its way across the globe without translators like Rabassa.

How is Translation Treason?  

Usually, translators start off by rendering a word-to-word translation of the original, without interpretation. But when an original is particularly artistic, translation can be highly subjective, “based on choice and a rather personal one at that.” What reconciles these extremes is a kind of intuition or feel about the writing. The trick, it seems, is to feel your way into a writer’s imagination. The result is treason. Rabassa’s book opens with the old Italian cliché “traduttore, traditore” (translator, traitor). Translation, Rabassa says, is impossible, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Much is lost in translation, but the spirit, which gives life, survives. More about Rabassa can be found in his memoir, “If This Be Treason” as well as in this New York Times article.

Gabriel García Márquez considered his English translation of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” better than the original.

Translation as an Act of Integrity

On the other side is the comedian Chris Bliss. He admires Rabassa and values the art of translation highly. He sees it as a vehicle not just for greater understanding within individuals, but also for change. According to Bliss, every act of communication is an act of translation, and comedy is translation too. He looks at translation beyond the traditional “language A to language B” concept.

Comedy translates thoughts, facts, current events and more into punchlines. If these are created with honesty and integrity besides skill, audiences laugh and remember. The punchline can have a real world impact and change the conversation. According to Bliss, viewers of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show with honest humor are better informed about current events that any viewers of all major news networks, where honesty and integrity aren’t always a priority.

Good comedy or punchlines are inherently viral and have crossed countries faster than many other news events, even before the current media channels were available. People cannot wait to pass on great jokes.

Bliss ends with a great cartoon by Joel Pett that appeared in USA Today in 2009, on the day the Global Climate Summit started.  The cartoon has a 14-word punchline that can improve understanding and lead to change about the global warming issue. The image is protected, but well worth viewing.

To answer the opening question, even the translator described as traitor acts with honesty and integrity. He is doing his utmost to deliver a translation of an artwork by relaying to the best of his abilities not only its content but also the feel of it and its spirit.
Look out for the next posts on international literature and German comedy.