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The Philosophy and Economics of Translation: Myth and Reality


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Manoj Kumar Mishra photoWorks are being translated throughout the world, but the way they are chosen and translated show that there are certain uncomfortable facts regarding translation we cannot afford to ignore or sidetrack. We have to probe questions like is there really a need for translation, and, if yes, why, who decides what is to be translated and when, can the market and the reading habit of the public influence translation, who can promote translation of works and how, does translation remain simply an academic affair in the process of being translated, which sort of work is translated and why, and why there are no takers for translation, in order to understand the philosophy and economics of translation and find out why many works are not accepted the way they should have been and how we can help them achieve the place they deserve. There is a need to understand the attitude that affects both readers and translators in order to understand why certain works are translated into many languages of the world and well-received, and why a work, despite getting the highest literary award of the author's country is not translated from the regional language into other languages of the world. This reflects on the attitude of those who worship everything foreign and belittle everything indigenous. Their idea of what is good and what is bad, what is worth reading and what is not, what is outdated and what is not is received from the country they admire or accept as their role model. If the country concerned appreciates a work by awarding it the highest honors, they accept and praise it, but if it rejects it for reasons other than literary, they shun it. This guides them when they decide whether or not a work deserves their attention or when they choose to translate a work into the language of their country.

The writer and the publisher have different temperaments; one creates, the other sells.

A writer depends on a publisher for getting his work published. The writer and the publisher have different temperaments; one creates, the other sells; one is guided by the laws of literature, the other by the laws of the market; one thinks of what to say and how to say, the other thinks of what to sell and how to sell; one is interested in the nuances of literature, the other is interested in the money he hopes to make; one thinks of the literary merits of a work, the other thinks of the profit he intends to make; one listens to his conscience and writes, the other feels the pulse of the public and publishes. They are thus poles apart.

A writer is not guided by what the public wants; he listens to himself and writes what he considers proper, but the man responsible for taking his work to the public caters to the needs of the public whenever he decides to publish a work. The harsh realities a publisher thinks of while making a decision about a book does not augur well for writers and translators. No publisher would waste money on a project that he fears will not bring him profit. The market thus decides whether the book is to be published or not. A writer should not remain at the mercy of the market and the publisher, but this is a harsh reality we cannot afford to gloss over. The writer depends on the publisher for taking him to the public and the publisher depends on the reading public for the profit he intends to make by publishing the book. The writer is thus dependent on the public for the recognition of his work but despite his being dependent on the public for the success or failure of his work, he cannot shape his work according to the taste of the public.

The writer and the market pull in opposite directions. The publisher cannot accept what the market rejects, but a writer is not afraid of rejection. It is his vision that he considers important, and even if he feels that the public will reject what he considers proper for them to know, he is not depressed because his artistic defense and explanation of what he considers proper for the public to know and ponder on is important to him, but those who are guided by the market will shudder at the very thought of launching something onto the market they know the public will reject instantly. There will thus be no takers for the work that the public does not accept or approve. Many a time the nonplussed public cannot decide what to read, what to choose, what to reject, what to appreciate and what to ignore. Unscrupulous publishers corrupt the public's taste first by providing it trash and then give it what the corrupt taste demands. Corrupt the taste and thrive is the philosophy of those publishers who want to become prosperous overnight.

The media also shapes the tastes of the public these days but it is guided by its own mercantile interests when it promotes or condemns a work. A work will be promoted if it promotes and safeguards its interests, but if it is perceived as a threat to its interests it will be condemned and dumped. A work that censures the people who control the media or their interests will never be appreciated or approved; it is bound to be condemned. In this age of media activism, the ground required to be prepared for the success of a work will thus never be prepared and the work will die an inglorious death. A translation of a work will not be liked by a person whose fortunes are going to be affected by its publication. The media is therefore choosy about the work it loves to promote. That narrows the choice of the media down and the sort of work that it will promote. The media war witnessed in recent times and the depth to which they stoop to raise their popularity indices shows how the whole endeavor is primarily non-literary and commercial. The camps the writers are divided into and the rivalry they exhibit have made matters worse.

The media can neither afford to ignore the pressures of the market nor its own commercial interests when it comments on a work. A discussion on the air or an agreement between a publisher and the media to make a work popular does make the work popular or boost its sale. The media creates a taste, which eventually decides whether or not the work will be accepted. These are some of the harsh realities we cannot afford to overlook.

A mediaperson shapes the thoughts and attitudes of the reading public to a work. He gives his expert opinion on a literary work although he is not grounded in literature. His comment is considered so sacrosanct that if a work is condemned, it is shunned by the public, but if it is praised, there is a mad rush to buy it and discuss it with their friends and acquaintances. The literary merit of a work alone does not guarantee its acceptance by the reading public; its acceptance depends to a great extent on the publicity it gets in the media. The media thus creates a favorable ground for a work to be accepted. There have been best-sellers in the recent past and we know how best-sellers are created and sold. The media thus plays a very important role in deciding who is going to be promoted and when. This media activism has got nothing to do with literature; this is a non-literary endeavor but it counts more than the literary merits of a work.

The same market that influences publishers influences a translator also when he decides whether or not he should translate a given work. If it is only the money he gets or intends to get that makes him decide to translate a work, he will not translate a work that he thinks will not sell. This sort of translation does not remain an academic pursuit because it is not only the literary merit of the work that prompts him to select it; it is also its saleability that he thinks of before he decides to translate it. He thus cannot ignore the reading habit of the public.

A work helps us familiarize ourselves with the culture of the people it is about. A work in a regional language, if translated into another regional language, will give the people of the target language an opportunity to understand the culture of the people he has heard about but not interacted with. If this, and not money alone, prompts a translator to translate a work, an environment conducive to the growth of regional literature will be built. Steps should be taken to promote translation because translation brings the cultures of the people speaking the source language and the target language closer together.

A work is guided and shaped by the laws of literature as long as it is in the hands of the writer, but once the work reaches others it is guided by the laws of market. A work of literature thus depends on the market for its survival. A pure literary work that might have disdained the market in the process of being shaped eventually depends on the market for its success, acceptance, and longevity. The situation is not as simple as it sounds. Should a work of pure literature depend on the market for its survival? Will it not thrive if it refuses to respond to market forces? Should it compromise its literary merit in order to get accepted in the market, and if it does so, will it be what the writer intended it to be or will it become what the market wants it to be like? These are some of the questions writers and translators face every day.

If a writer decides to write what the public wants to read, literature will go down the same inglorious road the movie industry has gone in the recent past. He cannot accept the dictates of the market because he is temperamentally averse to it. A translator does not know how to break this vicious circle of market and management and help a translation achieve its goals.

An agency other than the government, and competent translators are needed to promote translation. Since translation is a difficult job, only a good translation can do justice to the work and present it to the reading public in the form in which it deserves to be presented. Steps must also be taken to encourage, and reward translators and publish their works. If we permit the market to decide what is to be translated and when, which work is deserving and which is not, which work should be read and which should not, there will be no promotion of regional literature. Identify translators, encourage them to translate works, recognize their contributions by awarding them the way writers are awarded, ensure that they do not have to remain at the mercy of the market for the publication of their works and organize seminars and conferences for dissemination of ideas, are some of the steps we have to take in order to promote literary translation. Care must be taken not to make the whole endeavor sound jingoistic because a jingoistic and toffee-nosed approach will spoil whatever little has been achieved so far. This is not a writer's or a translator's "to be or not to be"; it is that society's "to be or not to be" that eventually produces literature. Society must set its priorities, which will eventually decide the future of both literature and translation.

 

 









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