thoughts on translation

I’m reading through some scholarship on translation for a manuscript chapter right now. In a few conversations with friends about the book project, I’ve been prodded a couple of times to consider using translation as a key concept more actively. I guess when one’s talking about bilingualism, it makes sense some folks would immediately think of translation. Especially those in comp lit.

To date, I haven’t done much research on the topic, although I get the sense that this area has seen a recent burgeoning in scholarship. Now I have to catch up, since it seems like I’ll have to incorporate translation as a key concept in one of my chapters.

And I came across this passage in Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation”:

“There is a large number of people in the Third World who read the old imperial languages. People reading current feminist fiction in the European languages would probably read it in the appropriate imperial language. And the same goes for European philosophy. The act of translating into the Third World language is often a political exercise of a different sort. I am looking forward, as of this writing, to lecturing in Bengali on deconstruction in front of a highly sophisticated audience, knowledgeable both in Bengali and in deconstruction (which they read in English and French and sometimes write about in Bengali), at Jadvapur University in Calcutta. It will be a kind of testing of the post-colonial translator, I think.”

And I started thinking, what must it be like to lecture in Bengali–a language you probably haven’t used for a while–on deconstruction–which is so wild on rhetoricity that it’s hard enough to discuss intelligently and intelligibly in English already–in front of a highly sophisticated audience, knowledgeable both in Bengali and in deconstruction–who, no doubt, will be keenly listening to you since some will be curious that you are a huge celebrity academic at Columbia and some will already have judged you as one thing or another based on their views on U.S. universities, the scholarship that’s produced from U.S. universities, and those who leave the country to get jobs in U.S. universities. It must be terrifying.

Of course, Spivak being Spivak, she can look forward to it. And I’m sure the post-lecture conversations will be fantastic too.

I then started thinking how I would feel if I were asked to talk about my research in Korean in front of a very learned audience. I would probably need a month’s preparation. What’s strange, though, is that I really haven’t come across that problem. It’s because I can do everything regarding my research in English. Initially, I thought that I would have to do quite a bit of translating and also reacquaint myself with the conventions of academic writing in Korean. Since then I found that others would actually prefer that I do my things in English due to the heavy emphasis on English in Korean universities. I initially also thought of writing in Korean for domestic journals. Actually, I think I’m strangely discouraged from doing that. I don’t know why. People kind of assume that I’d be more comfortable writing in English now, and they just expect me to write in English. On the one hand, I think these folks are being considerate (“Oh, you don’t have much time  anyway; no need to put in the extra time to relearn writing in Korean”). On the other hand, I also think there’s a little bit of dismissal there (“Oh, you can’t possibly write in both languages; if you’re good at one, naturally you’re not as good in the other”). I’ve kind of gone along with writing in English for domestic journals (I did it once; I don’t want to ever do it again; it was a horrible experience) mainly for convenience. Mainly I just nod along when people say that I must be more comfortable with academic English because I’m afraid that they’ll just heap work after work on me otherwise. But there’s also a part of me that says I’m pretty sure I can write in Korean. I wrote all my papers in college, for example, in Korean. Well, most of them, since some of the papers for my major (English) I wrote in English. And I graduated summa cum laude. How hard can it be to get back in the thick of it?

It does require time, though. And it is hard at the moment to motivate myself to do it. There is no pragmatic incentive. Ultimately, I would like to write in Korean and write for an audience that is bigger than just an academic audience. I’m kind of perpetually exhausted doing other more immediate things, though, while also wondering if this means that I’m being careerist.

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