The Translator’s voice: Polly Barton’s Residency at The Queen’s College
One stunning aspect of being alive in the 21st century is the sheer amount of translated fiction available to us. Books from all around the world seemingly just appear in Waterstones or Blackwells ready to be enjoyed in the language we happen to speak and read. Oftentimes the fact that an author may not have composed a work in the language, in which we are engaging with it, does not cross our minds. In the field of translation studies this phenomenon has been described by Lawrence Venuti as the ‘Translator’s invisibility’. He, alongside many others, points it out as a problem: if the success of a translation is determined by a reader’s inability to parse it as such, we as a reading culture are discouraged from observing translation as itself a valid area of study and are thus blind to the practices that shape it. Polly Barton’s residence at The Queen’s College Translation Exchange, subtitled ‘The Visible Translator’, aims to address this phenomenon by centering the translator herself.
In the residency’s events, Barton has been openly and candidly discussing her work as a translator: from the minutiae of the craft and the socioeconomic realities of the occupation to the philosophical implications of professionally standing at cultural borders. In one of the events I attended – a conversation between Barton and Oxford’s Dr Juliana Buriticá Alzate – the discussion began at a place where the translator is forced into visibility: their profession. As a commercial endeavour translation is embedded in the modern publishing industry, which translators mostly rely on to make a living. This fact exerts certain regulatory pressures on the occupation that readers are often blind to. The discussion between the two translators brought to mind an earlier exchange I had had with Barton.
During a talk about her translation of Mieko Kanai’s Karui Memai (to be published in May of this year as Mild Vertigo) I was able to glance at an extract published in The Paris Review, which was passed around during the session. While reading over it I noticed that the units of measurement in the passage confounded me. The narrative follows the stream of conscious of a Japanese housewife and the section I was reading at the time dealt with her move into a new apartment and her internal musings on this. Her thoughts whizz through a variety of features about the space before settling on the knick-knacks that daily living accumulates. It was in the discrepancy between these two that I noted an editorial curiosity. The floor space of the apartment in Barton’s translation is described in a long section, which interrupts the flow of the passage with a series of measurements:
in terms of the size of the apartment—the open-plan room was about twelve tatami mats large, and then there was a six-mat room with tatami flooring, a three-mat utility room off the kitchen, and two rooms eight mats and seven mats in size with Western-style flooring—she couldn’t help but feel it was somewhat luxuriously spacious for a family like hers.
The striking feature here is that the very common unit for floor space in Japan the tatami mat (jou) is preserved despite being most likely incomprehensible to most readers of The Paris Review (for reference 1 tatami mat is about 1.653 m2 or 17.79 ft2). I commended the boldness of this editorial decision in the back of my mind and read on to find the following passage giving the dimension of a home training device cluttering up the luxurious space:
it hadn’t been all that expensive but weighed sixty-six pounds and two ounces and was three feet and nine inches wide, five feet and three inches deep, and four feet and ten inches tall.
The frantic enumeration is made to mirror the earlier passage, where the switching of scale creates a dizzying effect. For me, however, the switching of a different type of scales had created dizziness. The translation had gone from accommodating the most Japanese of measurements tatami mats to using the least common type of measurement in Japan. After the 1868 Meiji Restoration the country switched from traditional measurements, such as normed tatami mats, to the metric system, making imperial measurements very rare. Consulting the free sample of the eBook in Japanese on Amazon, I found that my intuition was correct: the original passage used kiro and senchi, the Japanese equivalents to kg and cm. And not only that, but the imperial conversions made the device less voluminous by about 1cm3! Now the loss of 1cm3 in translation is perhaps not that much, but it is a very easily quantifiable way of illustrating that translation does not imply equivalence. Instead in translation equivalence can perhaps be understood as something the translator must create following a formula where legibility is inversely correlated with accuracy.
Coming from the tatami mats of the earlier passage, the formula here seemed entirely inconsistent. Why leave ‘cm’ on the cutting block when ‘tatami mats’ were allowed to stay? Meeting the translator herself, I was able to ask this question. Barton told me that the editorial guidelines of The Paris Review had required the use of imperial measurements, hence why the metric units were converted. However, apparently, the unit of ‘tatami mat’ was ironically illegible enough that it passed as a Japanese-ism that did not require translation, or so the editor thought. It was not parsed as a unit of measurement worthy of translation, but rather as a foreign element in an exotic story.
I want to suggest at this point that the visible translator can remind us of a translatedness inherent to our own perception of the world. Neither we nor the editors of The Paris Review inherently experience the world or our rooms in tatami mats or cm2. Instead such units are created and passed on by us and, out of a mixture of necessity, convenience, and bias, we create narratives of normativity around them. The translator finds her task in mediating between these different realms of normativity. They stand at the intersection and have to strike the right balance between making readers comfortable and uncomfortable with the translatedness that is inherent in their perception of the world. On more than one occasion, Barton illuminatingly spoke of the process of appropriating the other for the sake of one’s own comprehension and all the pitfalls and difficulties that arise from it.
I want to end on another anecdote from Barton’s talk with Dr Alzate. The two speakers had moved on from the idiosyncrasies of the profession and began discussing the appropriation of the other through a gendered lens in translingual contexts. They spoke in particular of one illustrative passage from Aoko Matsuda’s short story ‘Enoki’, which both had translated from Japanese. The narrative tracks the consciousness of the Chinese Hackberry known as chibusa enoki (trans. ‘Breast Hackberry’) in Japanese folklore. The tree is characterised by nubs that grow at its base that are said to have the appearance of female breasts and ooze sap. The passage I am thinking of occurs after the tree, here only referred to as Enoki without the gendering chibusa, ponders its own disgust at the humans’ characterisation of its nubs as breasts:
After years mulling over her inexplicable sense of disgust, Enoki concluded that what she truly objected to was the way in which humans used their own yardsticks to affix meanings onto things that had nothing to do with them. They did this to objects around them, and even to elements of nature.
Barton pointed out that the beauty of the passage lies in its fable-esque nature of revealing by estranging, while simultaneously critiquing the exact human capacity that enables such familiarisation of the other. Exactly because we have made the tree familiar can we make it tell us that that familiarisation is problematic, thereby striking a very delicate and very human balance. The comparison to the translator here also seems apt: at once enabling and problematising transcultural exchange.
The two translators then brought this to bear on language, which itself is the category that is deconstructed and then reconstructed in her craft. It blends with other elements through which we see the world, such as gender, capital, and nations. Dr. Alzate spoke in particular of the knotty example of grammatical gender and how the complexity of a tale, such as ‘Enoki’, is enhanced in translation. Languages such as Spanish (into which Dr. Alzate translated the short story) give us ‘the tree’ or ‘the hackberry’ as ‘el árbol’ and ‘el almez’ implying an association with masculinity through the language itself. The story in Spanish translation thus has to bear this additional weight of signification, which the translator must consciously engage with.
All this is to say that making the translator visible does not merely affect those of us interested in translation, but rather affects the ways we all speak with one another. Throughout the residency, Barton, alongside the wonderful team that have chaired, organised, hosted, and generally enabled the events, has been exploring how everyday language offers knotty and problematic ways in which individuals relate to one another. When I measure a room in the US, it is not equivalent to measuring a room in Japan. When I make a hackberry speak in Spanish it is not the same as when I do so in Japanese. ‘The Visible Translator’ makes apparent the translation that we are all engaged in constantly. She speaks in a voice that has the power to estrange us from our own.
Kanai, Mieko. 2022. “Tap Water.” The Paris Review Issue 242, translated by Polly Barton. https://theparisreview.org/fiction/7950/tap-water-mieko-kanai
Matsuda, Aoko. 2020. “Enoki.” In Where the wild ladies are, translated by Polly Barton: 171-180. London: Tilted Axis Press.
Venuti, Lawrence. 1986. “The Translator's Invisibility.” Criticism 28(2): 179–212. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23110425