Positioning Translators – Theo Hermans (UCL) – Guest Lecture Cardiff University MLANG 29.10.14

theo hermans


Theo Hermans is from University College London (UCL) and works in translation studies and in modern and Renaissance Dutch literature. His guest lecture at Cardiff University was to develop his ideas in his recent ‘Positioning Translators’ paper. Theo edits the series Translation Theories Explored published by Routledge.

This was my first extra-curricular lecture at Cardiff University. We prepared for the lecture with a seminar in the afternoon run by my personal tutor, Dorota Goluch. I’d read Theo’s paper and it had been a little profound for me to take it all in yet after Dorota’s seminar I was feeling a little more confident in understanding the idea of ‘Positioning Translators’ and was ready fro the main event.

Theo Hermans entered a jam-packed MLANG lecture theatre and under the light of recording video cameras, got his talk underway. Many of the ideas and examples were taken straight from the paper, but Theo had an excellent way of simplifying the ideas and making them more accessible in the lecture than they were in the plain text of the paper. He started with the example of Antjie Krog, a SoutH African translator who was deeply emotionally affected by his interpreting work for the South African Truth And Reconciliation commission as it sought to uncover the wrongs of apartheid. He talked of First Person Displacement – the way in which a translator or interpreter can get caught up in their work. Antjie Krog found that by referring to the unjust crimes as he interpreting them by using the first-person, he could not separate his won identity from the dark sins perpetuated by the more evil elements of the apartheid instigators.

The lecture went on to develop how translators themselves are affected in their work and the various techniques they use to impose themselves on the reader. I think one of the biggest ideas that embedded in my mind from Theo’s talk was the nature of Irony in Translation. In a translated work there is not just a single voice talking. The author has his voice but the translator, in his work, has his own voice represented in the work. There is therefore two voices present, struggling against each other – the element of irony where the nature of what is being said has a duality. Different translators cope with this irony in different ways. Is the perfect translation where the translator is invisible?

The methods that a translator employs in his work could be dictated by the norms of the target culture. Clement Egerton translated an erotic Chinese work: The Golden Lotus by Jin Ping Mei – in 1939. Even in this not to distant era, the erotic nature of the text was seen as too raunchy for the prudish British audience. Egerton positioned himself by translating the full document but by keeping anything he deemed too ‘hot’ in latin text which interspersed with the main English translation. It meant that the novel was a full translation though he protected the interests of the casual reader and only the more high-brow latin speaker would be able to read the full heat of the original text.

I’d looked at politics in translation and how translators can affect the original documents as they migrate documents into the target culture. The lecture went into a lot of detail in the example of Justus Lipsius’ work of 1604, Diva Virgo Hallensis. Theo looked at the difference in two Dutch translations, that of Van Oosterwijck in 1605 and that of Numan in 1607. Van Oosterwijck positioned himself in a hostile manner towards Lipsius as he was a Calvinist and disagreed with Lipsius’ involvement in the Catholic / Calvinist schism that flourished in the Netherlands during that period. The later translator, Numan, who was a Catholic, was more sympathetic to the views of Lipsius, and in his work spent a lot of time deriding the previous translation of Van Oosterwijck. This was an example where different translators exhibit loyalties or hostilities towards the original author.

The talk progressed onto examining Discordant Narration where there is a ‘Moral or ideological discrepancy between narrator and author’.This developed the idea of Irony as ‘Discordant Narration is ironic’. Yet ‘While only some translation is ironic, all translation is echoic.’ I was getting a little confused as we moved on to ‘Deictic Shift Theory‘. A Deictic Centre is what is typically anchored in the ‘I-Here-Now’ of a speaker. The Deictic Shift occurs during a translated discourse as was previously evidenced by First Person Displacement (eg. Antjie Krog).

The positioning of translators is affected by the nature of the reader. There is compliant reading whereby the translator’s pretext is forgotten and the (translated) text is read as the original. There is also tactical reading which is edgework whereby the reader toggles between different deictic levels and does not necessarily subscribe to the reading position that is naturalised. As a reader of translated works, we must always be careful to try to see beyond the translator and envisage the original author’s mind and meanings.

The lecture concluded and Theo opened the floor to questions. I decided to ask him where the translator should be positioned. I wanted to see what Theo’s own views were on what is correct in translation. This experienced translation scholar dodged my question well by saying that the translator could be positioned ‘anywhere he likes’. Theo’s role was not to judge a translator or translation but to study the translator and translation from a disciplinary perspective. He was interested in the science of translation and presented his examples and ideas to us as a way of affecting our own ideas in the field.

The quote of the lecture was for me, from Dryden: A translator is ‘a labourer in another man’s vineyard’ – I liked this quote and shall try to use it in my essays.

I hadn’t fully understood all of the lecture yet it was presented really well and having read the paper and partook in the seminar and having attended the talk, I feel that I have taken away some good ideas and have a better understanding of Translation Studies.  This was definitely an enjoyable event and I’d recommend that people interested in translation keep an eye on the Guest Lectures at Cardiff University as they are open not just to students but to the general public as well.

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