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The power of the translator to break nations

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History Anna Aslanyan

Profile Books, pp.272, 16.99

No one ever raised a statue to a translator, disgruntled adepts of that art sometimes complain. I beg to differ, since I’ve seen one: the handsome monument to the 12th-century scholar-physician Judah ibn Tibbon, ‘patriarch of translators’, beneath the Alhambra in Granada. But if the brokers between languages and cultures still lack many bronze or marble tributes, the books that celebrate their calling have begun to pile higher. A few of them retaliate against the downgrading of translation skills with a mystagogic tone which repels curious civilians. Which makes Anna Aslanyan’s wide-angled and reader-friendly tour of her profession’s many roles, in literature, politics, law, diplomacy, business and data science, all the more welcome and appealing.

Aslanyan, a Russian translator who plies her trade in courts and libraries alike, tells of one linguistic go-between who secured not a mere statue but an entire dynasty. The 17th-century fixer Alexander Mavrocordato was foremost among the Greek Christian dragomans who — in every sense — interpreted the Ottoman empire to the western powers and vice versa. The sultan’s polyglot ‘minister of secrets’, ‘a grandee and a schemer’, the Mavrocordato clan’s founder lived to see his son enthroned as prince of Wallachia and Moldavia. He greeted this elevation not as an honour but ‘the ruin of his family’. Dodging the limelight, Alexander knew, can be wise.

Aslanyan covers huge swathes of territory with a pleasantly light touch. She skips from the interpreter’s potentially world-shaking job in diplomacy and war to the modern mysteries of computer translation and ‘machine learning’, and the traffic between languages in science, law and religion, as well as the wrangles and pitfalls of literary translation. Dancing on Ropes switches scene and theme so swiftly that it intermittently has a diffuse, even scrappy, feel. Yet it never bores, baffles or hectors — a singular achievement in this business. Her book, with its title borrowed from Dryden’s essay on translating Ovid, where he likens his plight to ‘dancing on ropes with fettered legs’, nicely complements David Bellos’s equally entertaining Is That a Fish in Your Ear?


However far she travels, Aslanyan often returns to what we might call, with a nod to Robert Ludlum, the Mavrocordato Dilemma. Translators and interpreters may seek, and deserve, visible distinction. Too much prominence, though, can lead to shoot-the-messenger scenarios which impede the task in hand — and menace the mediator. In 1821, as the Greeks revolted against Ottoman rule, the last chief dragoman at the sultan’s court, Stavrachi Aristarchi, was ‘accused of high treason, exiled and killed’. Poor Stavrachi might have settled for the crown of Wallachia instead.

In literature, Aslanyan argues, ‘it’s only natural that the translator’s fingerprints should show’. She deals briskly with the abstruse disputes over ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ elements in the translator’s palette, and calls for a flexible ‘hybrid of the two’. She crisply explains the distinctions — and overlaps — between translation as dictionary-hugging metaphrase, as context-enriched paraphrase and as looser imitation. She shows why the ancient ‘fidelity vs freedom’ stand-off can never reach a final outcome, and traces the course of quarrels between literalists and freebooters from the time when crotchety St Jerome defended the liberties taken in his Vulgate Bible on the grounds that ‘I have not translated word for word, but sense for sense’. But who gets to defines the sense? With contentious biblical vocabulary such as the Greek ekklesia (church, or congregation?) and Hebrew almah (virgin, or young woman?), divisive translations might break nations.

They still may. In July 1945, when a US ultimatum demanded Japan’s surrender, the prime minister Suzuki played for time with a decision to mokusatsu the document — ‘kill with silence’, or kick into the long grass. After American translators spun the word as ‘treat with silent contempt’, ‘the fate of Hiroshima was sealed’. Aslanyan also trawls the memoirs of linguists lumbered with the duty of interpreting for Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, and for the top Nazis arraigned at Nuremberg: a motley crew of mouthpieces who veered between self-effacement and self-advertisement.

Illuminating glimpses of real-world interpreting come in her accounts of courtrooms, hospitals and battlefields, where ‘terps’ — caught ‘between the foreign devil and the deep blue sea’ — risk worse fates than reviewers who omit their name. The post-war abandonment of local Afghan and Iraqi interpreters by UK and US authorities leaves a bitter aftertaste, on any tongue. Meanwhile, deep cuts to British public-service interpreting in the wake of bargain-basement outsourcing has led to ‘a vicious circle of poor wages and poor workmanship’. Might low-cost, high-output computer translation save the day?

Aslanyan usefully surveys the field. She finds the software that depends on giant data-sets sort of works because (depressingly) ‘most things people say have already been said before’, but concludes that the human touch still counts at critical moments: ‘It’s too early to concede defeat.’ To cite one of her examples, while Google Translate renders the lovely French idiomon m’a posé un lapin as ‘they put me a bunny’ — as it just has for me — we’ll need minds rather than algorithms to oversee the process (it means ‘I’ve been stood up’). Aslanyan shows why we still need to keep a date with translators — not on a pedestal, or in the shadows, but companionably at our sides.

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