Issues with translations – Walt Whitman and Jorge Luis Borges

A couple of summers ago, I was desperate for a job so I caved. This was not, in fact, the first time. I remember typing Leaves of Grass for a whole nickel a page before I knew how to type properly, painstakingly pecking out what was then incomprehensible text. During my summer and winter break of 2006, then a proficient typist who had learned a bit of Spanish, I got a pay increase and went to work for my dad, Ken Price, encoding Álvaro Armando Vasseur’s 1912 translation of Whitman’s poetry for the Walt Whitman Archive.

While working on the project, I did not reflect much upon the problems of translations, both within themselves and the issues and concerns in their representation on archives like the Whitman Archive. Frankly, I was too preoccupied about my quickly-approaching study abroad trip to Madrid. My mind was also engaged with memorizing xml code so I wouldn’t have to look up everything, and that was sufficiently taxing to keep me from having much time to ponderthe implications of the project I was working on.

Ever since I developed an interest in Spanish, translation has been very interesting to me. As many suggest, including one of my personal favorites, Jacques Derrida, translation is not possible, but it is inevitable. That is, one cannot ever hope to achieve a perfect translation of any given text, but people still try to do it anyway. This issue is, coincidentally something we were considering the other week in my literary theory class and one example examined was the difference between the phrase “a dog’s life” in English and the Spanish approximation: “la vida de perro.” The phrase in English, while not entirely positive, also can’t be completely separated from our thoughts of the animal we pamper and keep as a pet, who often has a higher standard of living than many humans and doesn’t have to worry about how to make ends meet. “La vida de perro” in the Spanish-speaking world, on the other hand, is just the opposite and certainly is not a life you want to have. In Spain the word “perro” carries with it especially negative connotations because of the influence of Islamic culture in which dogs are seen as dirty creatures, so to call someone a dog, or to imply that she or he is one could be quite an insult.

In his article “Transgenic Deformation: Literary Translation and the Digital Archive” which prefaces Vasseur’s translation on the archive, editor Matt Cohen grapples with several other concerns beyond the nitty gritty of translations including the big question of which texts are translated and why. Cohen cites Lawrence Venuti who asserts that “asymmetries, inequities, relations of domination and dependence exist in every act of translating.” The reasons we see certain texts translated and not others has everything to do with power relations that dictates which texts are deemed important enough to be translated, (and then represented on archives). Furthermore, the very process by which texts are represented on archives is, in a sense, a translation itself. Not only must one encode the text into XML, but the archivists must make creative decisions that translators make as well, such as how to display the text – whether to remain true to the author’s layout or to explore other options.

Issues of translation like this that come up in working on the Whitman Archive are issues that I suspect will also arise in my collaboration with Jared Lowenstein on his Orbis Quartis project, which is an archive of some early and rare works by Jorge Luis Borges. I think the way Borges’ language and his constant “language slippage” will be a particularly interesting idea to consider when looking at translations of the often multiple versions of his texts.

Gillian is a Student Assistant manning the SLab service desk and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

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