I went to London Book Fair with the intention of sitting and listening to all the wise publishers talk, keeping my ears open for something to help me bring all my crazy dissertation ideas into a neat little plan. The Literary Translation Centre had many interesting talks, where they discussed promotion of translated fiction and the issue of prejudice against minorities both inside and out of the country. But with my combined interest in the digital medium, the talk ‘Translating Conrad’ had me sold.
Chair Dr. Stanley Bill introduced the three speakers Dr. Magdalena Heydel, Jacek Dukaj and Catherine Anyango, having translated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into words, visual art and digital art, respectively.
The conversation started off saying how classic authors were limited to their ways of expressing their ideas, and today we have technology to bring these classics into a new generation and a new medium. Stories like Heart of Darkness, where Conrad packed visual impressions into words, have a lot of emotions to play with, opening the argument of using visual technology and art to express the story.
Catherine Anyango’s illustrations were especially powerful, and as I remember the story, a true way of expressing Conrad’s vision. But an argument we need to be aware of when translating into another art form is: is it a translation or an interpretation?
Catherine Anyango turned the words of Conrad into images and illustrations by playing with colours and moods mirroring the story, and she specifically mentions the ethical issue of who owns the narrative, something she says to have stayed true to in her translation. The visual could help and compliment the text where the words might not make as strong an impression as they ought.
I was brought back to my undergraduate studies as Dr. Magdalena Heydel started talking about her translation of the text into polish. The discussion of what is British literature and where does Conrad fit in, she started with an important point to make: Conrad, as a polish man, was not a polish writer. Dr Heydel opened up the interesting question of whether there is a difference in a writer writing in their second or first language and whether that affects the easiness or difficulty in translating someone’s words. She said compared to Conrad, Virginia Woolf writes just as complex sentences, but she is more difficult to translate into Polish.
Further, Dr. Heydel talked about the difficulties and challenges when translating a classic text into another language for a modern reader. She decided to remove the archaic style in her translation, and she spent a lot of time picking the appropriate words to trigger the same emotions Conrad’s words does.
Another challenge she talked about was how social and cultural language has changed since Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness. The challenge of classic texts is the words that we no longer use. Dr. Heydel took a risk by analysing what Conrad meant with his chosen words and translated those into Polish words carrying the same meaning in Conrad’s time period. How does one translate a classic text for a modern reader, without changing what the author meant?
This is near to impossible as one would have to know the author’s thoughts behind the text was, and a translator may end up changing the author’s views by changing a word. The translator then has the power to make the author more or less racist depending on which words they use in the translation.
This discussion raised a question for me: Are we supposed to translate classics based on what we know of the author (racist, feminist, etc.) or should we focus on it as a stand-alone text?