The task of bringing into English the first volume of Éric Plamondon’s 1984 trilogy forced Dimitri Nasrallah to confront his own ambivalence toward translation:
I’m always a little let down when, in reading a literary translation, I come across a passage that appears, in its new language’s context, to be little more than a carbon copy of the original. This in itself, I feel, is a difficult idea to translate, but anyone who’s read literature in translation must surely be aware of the vague discrimination I’m referring to: a sense that though specific words have been dutifully rendered into English, some deeper and arguably more significant import of the thought process has been left behind in the original language, creating a needless foreignness to the narrative.
Of course, translation is the conflicted act of overcoming and preserving that foreignness. I hesitate to use a more prevalent word like exoticism in this case, which strikes me more as a trending perception (or merely a misperception) of what a distant reader’s imagination perceives to be the attractions of a book’s source culture. The foreignness I have in mind has more to do with hegemonic values that exist in cultures, society-specific patterns of thought and rationalization that rise up into the way an author writes, unconsciously. What is a translator to do with these undercurrents that suffuse the language but are not ably represented by the word, when a language and its idea threaten to separate?
(illustration by David Plunkert)