‘But What About Fidelity?’: Moving Beyond Translation’s ‘Christian Metaphysics’

If you haven’t yet seen Elliott Colla’s “Translation Theory, Practice, and Transduction,” posted to من أين لك هذا؟, then it’s time:

St. Jerome

The post is a a version of comments Colla delivered at a recent workshop, Towards an Arab Left Reader,” although they are relevant to anyone who translates work from a non-European language, and probably anyone with an interest in any sort of translation. Colla works to situate and particularize translation theories, which generally have fashioned themselves as universal:

Translation theory in the literary disciplines has been largely blind to this history, choosing instead to focus on a marginal slice of translation activity—literary translation—and imbuing it with a spirit of spiritual transcendence that is taken directly from the early Church.

Colla makes the practical observation that a concept of a faithful, “literal” translation might work well when moving between closely related languages that have similar grammatical and syntactic features, but that, in the relationship between Arabic and English, the concept of “literal” is pretty nonsense.

The point is not that these various differences are untranslatable, as some might say. It is true these language features do not exist in English. Yet, to say “there is no translation for them” is to insist, in a sense, that renditions must be literal. This is like saying that all hands must be left.

Indeed, Colla’s discussion brings us out of the world of the ideal and down, all-hands-on-deck, to the particular:

But what about fidelity? What about faithfulness to the original? Those who want to talk about faith are welcome to, but to do so returns us needlessly to a world of Christian metaphysics. Let us talk about works, not faith. Let us look at grammar and sense. Let us investigate context, resonance, and semantic fields. But let us put aside all talk of faith. While we’re at it, let us stop talking about The Word so we can start talking about words.

Read the whole essay at his blog.