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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tradittore traduttore: Treacherous Translation & Backslang

Chad Post at three percent offers a lead to a post in US litblog Reading Ahead. Blogger Harold Augenbraum has been posting about US literary culture for about a year, and this post comes in response to a blogpost in the Guardian on 12 September entitled 'The new wave of French urban fiction.' The appositely-named Andrew Gallix offers an overview of what could be called banlieu fiction, explaining why it's so radical in France, particularly in its use of verlan (Arabic-influenced backslang) and also its desire and ability to bypass traditional publishing channels. He notes that:

Livres Hebdo points out that "More and more young authors don't want to be published by the big houses so are self-publishing via the internet". Antoine Dole has been instrumental in bringing them together and fostering a sense of community. In November 2006, this young writer produced the first issue of a home-made fanzine which showcased some of the "word activists" — rappers, slammers, bloggers — who were using blogs or social networking sites to bypass mainstream publishing. En attendant l'or soon became a word-of-mouth success via MySpace and a focal point for Les Décalés, a burgeoning literary movement which coalesced around Dole and Elsa Delachair.

Commenters on Gallix's post immediately raised the issue of translation: for example, GMcG commented,
Could be very interesting but will we ever see any of it translated into English? Given the comments regarding banlieue slang and pinches of Arabic it will probably be incomprehensible to even fluent non-native French speakers.

Reading Ahead makes a similar point, but with regards to the confines of the US market and its (in)ability to adapt/listen to macaronic texts. He points out, though, that writers like Junot Diaz have broadened not only ideas of literary form, but of literary languages as well, playing brilliantly and profoundly with what Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch'ien has called Weird English. Her book celebrates the changes wrought in 'traditional' English (itself a hybrid language created by conquests, trade and empire) as its global dominance brings it into daily parlance for millions of non-native speakers.

Sarah Ardizzone, who has translated Faïza Guène's two seminal banlieu novels, Just Like Tomorrow and Dreams from the Endz, mixes up Algerian slang like "bled" with contemporary British street slang like "bare butters" to give a sense of Guène's fast-paced, punning, slurring sounds (or soundz). In her translation note, she thanks a number of British teenagers who advised her on current words, which raises another question: not only is the slang used in "immigrant fiction" in some cases specific to one community, but even to one (age or other) group within that community. Does that have to match up with the same group in the "target" language community? And what happens to the translation as that "target" group moves on?

Reading Ahead mentions cinema as a possible middleman, citing Stephen Frear's film of Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette (which as far as I remember has very little slang). Gallix mentions Matthieu Kassovitz' La Haine as a reference point for non-French (and perhaps non-banlieu) readers approaching the new French fiction - a great example as the film is about young people from different communities within the banlieu hanging and chatting together. But its cinematic language is more inventive and contemporary than its spoken language. Perhaps Danny Boyle's film of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting comes closer -- and that was screened with subtitles in the US.

A final thought: translation scholars such as Lawrence Venuti, arguing for what he calls an "ethics of difference," have suggested that one of the functions of translation is to preserve the challenging and generative encounter with unfamiliarity -- so rather than translation smoothing over difficulties of cultural exchange, it could work to foreground knotty points to bring them into thinking and discussion, rather than hiding them under the cover of familiarity and easy parallels.

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