Translating English into English

January 4th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Sociology  |  3 Comments

So it seems there’s going to be a censored version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word “nigger” with “slave”. My initial reaction was to agree with Doug Mataconis that this is both offensive and stupid. It struck me as being of a piece with the general tendency of white Americans to deal with the existence of racism by ignoring it rather than talking about it.

And I guess I still feel that way, but after reading Kevin Drum’s take I’m more sympathetic to Alan Gribben, the Twain scholar responsible for the new censored version. Gribben says that because of the extreme visceral reactions people have to the word “nigger”, most teachers today feel they can’t get away with assigning Huck Finn to their students, even if they’d really like to. So the choice was to either consent to this bowdlerization or else let the book gradually disappear from our culture altogether. I’m still a bit torn about it–and I think that the predicament of the teachers Gribben talked to is indicative of precisely the cowardly attitudes toward race that I described above. But I’m willing to accept that censoring the book was the least-bad response to this unfortunate state of affairs.

However, what most caught my attention about Kevin Drum’s post on the controversy was this:

In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it’s entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don’t think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader’s emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that’s exactly what it does.

That got me thinking a more general thought I’ve often had about our relationship to old writings: it’s a shame that we neglect to re-translate older works into English merely because they were originally written in English. Languages change, and our reactions to words and formulations change. This is obvious when you read something like Chaucer, but it’s true to a more subtle degree of more recent writings. There is a pretty good chance that something written in the 19th century won’t mean the same thing to us that it meant to its contemporary readers. Thus it would make sense to re-translate Huckleberry Finn into modern language, in the same way we periodically get new translations of Homer or Dante or Thomas Mann. This is a point that applies equally well to non-fiction and social theory: in some ways, English-speaking sociologists are lucky that our canonical trio of classical theorists–Marx, Weber, and Durkheim–all wrote in another language. The most recent translation of Capital is eminently more readable than the older ones–and I know I could have used a modern English translation of Talcott Parsons when I was studying contemporary theory.

Now, one might respond to this by saying that writing loses much in translation, and that some things just aren’t the same unless you read them in the original un-translated form. And that’s probably true. But it would still be good to establish the “English-to-English translation” as a legitimate category, since it would give us a better way of understanding things like the new altered version of Huck Finn. You would have the original Huck and the “new English translation” of Huck existing side by side; students would read the translation in high school, but perhaps they would be introduced to the original in college. We could debate whether a new translation was good or bad without getting into fruitless arguments over whether one should ever alter a classic book. And maybe it would help us all develop a more historical and contextual understanding of language and be less susceptible to the arbitrary domination of prescriptive grammarians.

Responses

  1. marcel says:

    February 10th, 2011 at 11:56 am (#)

    And what about the U.S. Constitution, most of which was written in the late 18th C., for all you originalists out there?

  2. Kieran says:

    February 11th, 2011 at 9:29 pm (#)

    The philosopher Jonathan Bennett’s Early Modern Texts, provides just this service, and it’s really useful.

  3. Peter says:

    February 12th, 2011 at 6:04 pm (#)

    Wow, this is a fantastic resource, and I had no idea it existed. Thanks! I already owe you for convincing me to learn R and LaTeX (and eventually Sweave) at the start of grad school (through your “workflow applications” essay). Now I’m doubly in your debt.

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