In another’s vineyard

Homer may have said “The day that reduces a man to slavery takes from him the half of his virtue,” but I couldn’t trace the name of this particular translator. Even if I could, can we say that Homer said this all by himself? I’m sure that most people who read this article would be, like me, illiterate in ancient Greek, so if this line hadn’t reached us in English we would never have benefited from its wisdom. Therefore, even though it may be unsafe to say it, I’m going to say that someone else stepped in and spoke for Homer, diving deep for ‘reduce’ ‘slavery’ and ‘virtue’ to introduce the statement to another time, another people.

Who owns a translation?

This question has been on the boil for at least 2,000 years. A couple of agrarian metaphors about it are worth sharing: England’s greatest medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who was a translator before he wrote poetry, said that translation is like ploughing an old field to produce new corn; and Dryden, who called translators ‘the metaphrasers,’ said that translators were like labourers who toiled in other men’s vineyards. Through both descriptions blow whiffs redolent of ownership, of rights, of very hard work to produce something from something.

Coming to our times… when a distinguished translator dedicated her translation to her husband, and final proofs were circulated, a crackling message reached me from the famous writer she had rendered successfully. “How can she dedicate my work?” I pointed out that the English-language version was the translator’s creation. The translator owned it. Legally and morally. Even the law that has always been against translators says it belongs to the translator and if there are publishers who pay translators less than their authors it should be a matter of some sorrow for everyone. What’s more, many translators even state their willingness to accept an inferior status. Some journals pay translators nominal amounts for their creations and thereafter take possession of it. In medieval times there were guilds to secure the rights of craftsmen and professionals but there was no such protection for translators: scorn, danger, and harassment attended their lives in Europe. The Quebec Declaration on Literary Translation and Translators — Item 3 reads: “ Respectful of authors and original texts, translators are nevertheless creators in their own right. They seek not only to reproduce a literary work but to move the work forward, to expand its presence in the world . Item 6 says, “As creative writers with specific skills and knowledge, translators must be shown respect and consulted for all questions related to their work. Translations belong to those who create them.” (trs Sherry Simon).

“Who is creative?” asked Howard Gardener and answered the question himself. “He who affects peoples’ lives”Further, the shifts over time in the selection and style of translations are important aspects of studying a language as part of its history of literary criticism. The condensed idea: translators live off the differences between languages and struggle to eliminate the same. How can they not be creative!?

Translation is no longer a minority interest with a token presence in a post-graduate course or a single session at a seminar. Everyone’s favourite worry is how translation is going to change academia that is filled with clever people who do not like change. Amidst all the talk of modernising curricula and strengthening heritage and identity, perhaps it could be suggested that the threat of alienation from the country’s cultural roots can be managed quite comfortably if we invest in translators the way the Caliphs of Baghdad did more than ten centuries ago. They weighed particularly valuable translations in gold and rewarded and acknowledged translators in public.

Mini Krishnan edits literary translations for Oxford University Press (India)

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