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Conference Review: Reflections on 'Metaphors in Translation' Conference

Reviewed by Maëlle Nagot, University of Oxford

'Metaphors in Translation' Conference, St Anne's College, 26 February 2022

As the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) Research Centre has transitioned back to in-person events this academic year, the Metaphors in Translation conference on 26 February marked the Centre’s first large public event since 2020. The aim of the conference was to illuminate the connections between metaphor and translation by reflecting on the modalities of linguistic and semiotic transfer. As Matthew Reynolds pointed out in his closing remarks, even the simplest metaphor signals that ‘something translational’—a transposition of meaning—has occurred in language. Conversely, the act of translation often hinges on metaphorical and imaginative associations. Both processes are therefore to be placed along a creative continuum whose boundaries are perpetually redefined by authors and translators alike.

             This dialectic between rupture and continuity formed the crux of presentations in our first postgraduate roundtable discussion. Among the metaphors used to make sense of translation, Billy Beswick chose that of resurrection, focusing on the defence and promotion of indigenous Taiwanese culture. In this context, resurrection figures the survival of native languages through successive waves of Japanese and Chinese migration. In the late twentieth century, the Indigenous Voice Bimonthly magazine was founded with the aim of increasing cultural capital amongst indigenous populations. This movement gave birth to a revival of indigenous languages, specifically through the appropriation of Chinese characters with the goal of bringing them to a wider cultural market. Typographic transfer and translation thus came to voice political claims about linguistic and cultural revival.

             Isabel Parkinson also demonstrated the capacity of oppressed social groups to use translation as a means of emancipation. She discussed English translations of 1970s Quebec feminist writings, depicting the linguistic, social, and political disruption brought about by language transposition. Such endeavours were geared toward making experimental texts in French available to English-speaking audiences. To this end, feminist translators adopted an interventionist approach and engaged in inventive re-writing, relying on heavy prefacing and footnoting to reflect their ideological standpoint. This deviating method, Parkinson explained, radically subverted traditional views of the resulting text as a passive, ‘domesticated’ form retaining no trace of the translator’s work.

             The patriarchal perception of the translator as an inferior, subservient, and therefore feminine agent was also addressed by Trisevgeni Bilia. The recurring image of a secret intimacy between the agents involved in translation enables us to study the interactions between texts, paratexts, and their audiences. Bilia focused on the career of Greek poet, critic, and translator Manto Aravantinou, whose biographical and archival work on James Joyce offered novel insights into his Greek notebooks. Aravantinou interpreted these texts as productive, open spaces rather than as mere pieces of information and compared them to talismans shielding the author’s feelings. However, critics widely denigrated or overlooked her analyses, a silencing method which Bilia described as expressing gendered power dynamics in translation studies.

             Lastly, Hannah Scheithauer’s contribution emphasised the difficulty of articulating rupture and continuity, and of maintaining a consistent line of thought in a multilingual context. The Revue Internationale, she explained, was a concerted effort to unite French, German, and Italian authors on a common platform of critique. Translation became an emblematic metaphor which encapsulated the innovative, transnational purpose of the project as a whole. Not only was translation a practical requirement for the success of the journal, but it was a barrier against easy unification: the goal was to put forth the historical substance of languages—their existence as both synchronic and diachronic systems, essentially unstable and calling for perpetual transformation and revision.

             The act of translation was thus considered by all the contributors as a form of contextual mediation, and the failure of the Revue Internationale highlights the difficulty of negotiating language transactions and finding satisfying modes of expression. This challenge was the touchstone of Sophie Seita’s workshop, Visualising and Performing Translational Metaphors, as she invited participants to explore the materiality of translation. Her reminder that translation is always a dialogue not merely with the other, but also with the self, was later developed by Ayça Türkoğlu’s description of the practice of co-translation. The casual format of the workshop was ideally suited to match this conversational tone.

             Attendees were encouraged to choose various materials and play with them. The aim was to find ways to translate texts or speech acts into objects, thus establishing connections between the textual and the organic, the intellectual and the corporeal. Seita guided participants towards grasping the material dimension of language and translation. This was perhaps the most forceful manifestation of the inventive character of translation, as a means of creating new means of expression out of previously existing forms.

             Sometimes, however, invention requires short-circuiting relations between the old and the new, or between the source and the target. Such is the acknowledged purpose, as Patrick McGuinness argued, of pseudo-translation, a process which consists in composing a translated text that has no original. Rather than a fake or a hoax, pseudo-translation provides a means to free oneself from constraining considerations of fidelity, linguistic qualification, or aesthetic payoff. McGuinness argued that metaphor, which in Modern Greek means transport or removal, constitutes the essence of this writing practice based on the full acknowledgment of foreignness and otherness within one’s own language.

             This served as an apt introduction to our translators’ roundtable discussion, which brought to the fore different translational practices and underlined the relative importance of the mother tongue in a translator’s work. Peter Bush, Mohini Gupta, and Ayça Türkoğlu all learned standardised English as a second language and mentioned the sustained presence in their translations of the languages and dialects—respectively, Lincolnshire dialect, Hindi, and Turkish—with which they first came into contact.

             Bush evoked the process of active interpretation and re-writing involved in translating texts by a close friend, Juan Goytisolo, thereby illustrating Bilia’s intimacy metaphor. Showing the interdependencies between texts, images, and titles, he discussed the difficulty of translating titles which draw on running metaphors from the book. According to him, translating metaphor involves acquiring a sense of the tone and rhythm of the entire work, aspects which are built and sustained by the concert of different instruments playing different strands within an orchestra. Coining another metaphor for the translation process, he reinforced this idea with various examples from his translated works.

             Mohini Gupta focused on Indian poet Vinod Kumar Shukla, whose writings are notoriously fraught with poetic metaphors which are difficult to translate. Her methodical comparison of different translations of one of Shukla’s poems, including her own, corroborated Bush’s holistic hypothesis: the interpretation of metaphor is to be defined on a much broader scale than individual sentences. Furthermore, her version of the text under consideration offered a somewhat more contemporary poem than the earlier translation, with a looser syntax at times. Thus, the data she offered emphasised the enduring relevance of stylistic choice on the translator’s part, especially when working on poems.

             The question of style was also addressed by Ayça Türkoğlu through the notion of voice, which she considers to be at the heart of her translation strategy. The translator’s sensitivity to voice accounts for a desire not to ‘deforeignise’ the text: Türkoğlu defended a practice of translation based on the preservation of the slightly alienating effect of any foreign text. To this end, when translating from Turkish into English, she retains some Turkish elements in the target text, and refuses to surrender to the expectation that translations should prove forensically correct.

             When it comes to translating children’s literature, correction and fidelity truly become subsidiary concerns, as Hélène Boisson’s interactive workshop, Images and Analogies in Children’s Literature, demonstrated. Using a variety of examples, she led participants to investigate the transposition of texts and images from one language to another, and sometimes to question the feasibility of the process. Again, the participative format of the workshop created an ideal setting for creative exchange. The peculiar case of children’s books sheds light on the semantic and symbolic transfers which occur when juxtaposing words and pictures, once more supporting the hypothesis of the inextricability of metaphorical and translational processes. It also confirms the idea of a conversation in that children’s books are mostly designed to be read aloud by an adult: according to Boisson, that is why, in many cases, rhythmical considerations must be prioritised over faithfulness to the strict meaning of the original.

             Matthew Reynolds’s closing remarks offered an insightful conclusion to this event. As he explained, the significant degree of overlap between metaphor and translation simply proves that both phenomena equally manifest an effort to organise language difference. He therefore insisted on the political commitment entailed by any translational endeavour, which consists of a perpetual re-writing and remaking of meaning and form. This, he argued, is something that speakers do with language each and every day.

             After nearly two years of online conferences, we were delighted to welcome such a large and diverse audience to St Anne’s College. The organisers would like to thank all speakers and attendees for their enthusiastic involvement, curiosity, and patience throughout the event. For more information about the contributors, please visit https://www.occt.ox.ac.uk/metaphors-translation-conference.