Monday, November 28, 2016

Translator's Affinity

Translator's affinity (TA) isn't a new term, but it hasn't been used much. It may mean the translator's empathy with the text or with its context, as in Ali Darwish's book (see Sources):
"... the translator's affinity to either the source text or translation… and situational affinity may act as a reinforcing positive or negative factor in defining the overall translation strategy."
In this post, however, I will use it to mean empathy with the original author.

I first became conscious of it when discovering Ezra Pound's Cathay. It's a Modernist American poet's very free translation of poems by the classical Chinese poet Li Bai (701-761, known as Rihahu in Japanese). It's been widely admired by such great English poets as T. S. Elliot, W. B. Yeats and Carlos Williams. Ford Maddox Hueffer declared,
"The poems in Cathay are things of supreme beauty. What poetry should be, that they are."
T. S. Elliot opined,
"[He is] the inventor of Chinese poetry... through his translation we really at last get the original... translucencies."
And what is especially relevant to Pound as a translator is that he has been widely admired by Chinese critics too:
"Hsieh Wen-tung, for instance, has ignored the obvious mistakes Pound has made and said that Pound's poetic acumen made up for the loss."
Here's a brief sample:
***The Jewel Stairs' Grievance***
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
Yet there's a mystery about Pound's translating. He didn't know Chinese. He worked from notes by Ernnest Fenellosa. Fenellosa was an outstanding authority on Japanese art, but he didn't know Chinese either. His notes were really lexical glosses, not translations. Wai-Lim Yip (see Sources) says,
"One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central consciousness of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance."
What Yip called clairvoyance, I attributed to TA. But how to explain it? I thought I found an explanation in Chinese graphic art. By the early 1900s Pound was living in London.
"Between June 1910 and April 1912 the British Museum held a comprehensive 'Exhibition of Chinese and Japanese Paintings' housed in the museum's newly-constructed White Wing. There were 108 Chinese paintings and 126 Japanese paintings reflecting the persistent interest in the aesthetic sources for the fashionable Japonisme and Chinoiserie of the time – plus an aesthetic attraction to the colour, precision, unity, imagery and techniques of oriental art."
Moreover the curator of the exhibition was Laurence Binyon, director of the department of Japanese and Chinese paintings and prints at the museum, with whom Pound formed a long-lasting relationship of friendship and admiration.

Therefore I concluded that the bridge from Pound to Li Bai was Chinese graphic art, and that in positing any TA one should not only look at the translator and the author but also seek out the bridge that links them.

A much more recent example of TA that I have encountered is translator Prabha Sridevan's empathy for Tamil author R. Chudamani. Part of a post on this blog in June was about Prabha. To find it, enter Prabha in the Search box on the right. Here there's certainly a cultural link, since both translator and author are Indian Tamils living in their homeland. But there is also another bridge. I was once asked in a radio interview whether a work by a woman author would be better translated by a woman translator. On the spur of the moment I couldn't think why, but now I see a reason in TA between women, in this case mature women.

For a final example, I turn to something from my own ongoing experience. For 20 years now I've been translating and retranslating an Arabic poem called Al-Talaasim / The Talismans and I'm still not satisfied. "Retranslating" because there's already a published translation in an anthology (see Sources); and a student once floored me by declaring in class that she preferred the published translation to mine. Yet there's something that draws me back to it, and I think it's a case of TA. The poet was Elia Abu Madi (1890-1957), a member of the Lebanese diaspora in the United States. To understand the bridge between me and him you need to know something about the structure and content of the poem. It has five stanzas and all of them end with the same short line lastu 'adrii / I do not know; and the final stanza ends with the couplet
lastu 'adrii. Wa limaadhaa lastu 'adrii?
lastu àdrii. /
I do not know. And why do I not know?
I do not know.
The first stanza, in one of my several attempts, goes like this:
I don't know where I came from but I arrived,
And I beheld a pathway in front of me, so I started walking.
And I shall go on journeying whether I like it or abhor it.
Where did I come from? How did I see my way?
I don't know.
The bridge IMHO is the poet's agnosticism, something rare in Arabic poetry and indeed in any poetry.

Can what has been said about Translator's Affinity be extrapolated to Interpreter's Affinity? I think it can, but that's another story.

Note that TA is a feeling. It can't be taught, though it can perhaps be cultivated once it's formed. It's something intuitive, natural.

Ali Darwish. Translation Applied! An Introduction to Applied Translation Studies: A Transactional Model. Melbourne: Writescope, 2010.

Ezra Pound. Cathay, Translations by Ezra Pound, for the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihahu, from the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenellosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga. London: Elkin Mathews, 1915. The text of this edition is available online by clicking [here] or going to

Ernest Fenellosa. Wikipedia, 2016.

Wai-lim Yip. Ezra Pound's `Cathay'. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969. Available from Amazon.

Ira Nadel (University of British Columbia). Cathay: Ezra Pound's Orient (Penguin Specials). 2016.

Mounah A. Khouri and Hamil Algar (translators and editors). An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Available from Amazon.

Elia Abu Madi. Click [here] or go to

Ezra Pound in 1913. Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Source: Wikipedia.

This post is now available for downloading at Click [here] or go to


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