Collaborative translation = phone sex?

My poet colleague Kimiko Hahn and I were just talking about translation of the sort in which a native speaker of language X collaborates with a native speaker of language Y to produce a collaborative translation from X into Y, and she remarked, “It’s just like phone sex!” Of course translation isn’t exactly the same as phone sex – there’s no telephone involved, for one thing – but the wonderful new journal Telephone was most certainly on to something when it presented itself as a forum where poets can experiment with translation from languages they may or not master directly. The telephone simile works well to express something about the immediacy deficit incurred when a translation is created not within a single cranium but in the space between two communicating brains. Yes, even the communication between brains is mediated, because thoughts must be translated clumsily or incisively into speech and that speech uttered and heard – leaving so much room for distortion. But in fact this distortion can be productive, because it allows us some possible remedies for one particularly dire malaise that threatens translation in general and poetry translation in particular: the sort of slavish attentiveness to the letter of the original that causes the translator to lose touch with the proclivities and potentialities of the language into which she is translating. By splitting the translator into two actual separate persons, one of whom is responsible for safeguarding the original, the other for safeguarding the new text that is being engendered by the two together, the translating team can practice a sort of dual advocacy for the text’s incarnations. Of course, translators who fly solo can achieve the same effect (I certainly hope I succeed in this when I’m translating), but it’s good to be reminded of the play of directness and distance inherent in every act of translation.

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