Friday, February 28, 2014

Margaret Atwood on Childhood Translating


It's always encouraging to have support from someone famous. Margaret Atwood is a familiar name to Canadians, and to fans and students of English literature elsewhere. She was recently invited to give a talk about a subject of her choice at the British Library in London.

Here's what she had to say about her own childhood translating. (The emphasis is mine.) It also says something about her motivation.
As it was the WG Sebald lecture, Margaret Atwood told her audience at the British Library, she was entitled to make it as freeform as Sebald's writing, full of "peripatetic" wanderings, mixing up memoir with other genres, and just plain 'odd'.

Though this was a warning not to expect a linear argument, let alone a theory of translation, her beguiling autobiographical digressions in Atwood in Translationland were not there just for fun. They illustrated that "we spend much of our childhood translating"; that it's a universal activity, not one confined to professional translators. Atwood recalled a childhood divided between Ottawa (where her parents listened to bemusing BBC radio broadcasts) and a cabin in Quebec, where the local language was French and she would try to decode the writing on cereal packets.

Other puzzles included the symbols used in cartoon speech bubbles to indicate extreme emotion, hints of sex in murder mysteries, and phrases such as "interfered with" in newspaper crime reports (she blundered in decrypting "child molester", Atwood said, assuming it meant a child willing to collect moles).

And then there was nonsense verse, such as Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky ("helpfully some translation is provided, though by an egg")
Margaret was born in Ottawa. She therefore had the advantage, and took it, of growing up in contact with two languages. Ottawa is situated right on the border between predominantly English-speaking Ontario and predominantly French-speaking Quebec.
Far from depicting them [translators] as nuisances bound to distort her words, she viewed translators sympathetically, as serious Alices lost in bewildering Atwoodland, and potentially as her most intimate creative partners: "Nobody is going to be reading more closely than a translator.
Notice that her childhood translating wasn't communicative and she wasn't taught it. It was for her own understanding and amusement and it came to her naturally from her everyday environment.

References
John Dugdale. Margaret Atwood translates translation. Guardian Unlimited, February 20, 2014. The article is here.

Margaret Atwood. Wikipedia, 2014. Click here.

Image
Source: The Guardian, 2014

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