Africa: The Problems of Translation

One of the things I’m working on while I’m here at Vermont Studios is getting down all the stories I gathered in Uganda. I’ve already been working on this, but it’s a tedious project (someone recently told me I should have gotten a foot pedal for transcribing, something I hadn’t even thought of, but after many long hours working on this I see the value in not having to use one hand to keep turning the machine on and off so that you can just keep typing).

I have never done any translation. And in some ways I wouldn’t say I’m translating these stories either–someone else translated and I am just transcribing. But this, too, poses its own challenges. I have three different people who translated, and they speak English to different degrees and with different styles. As I go through the stories, then, I need to decide several things: what is merely erroneous wording that is the result of the translator searching for the right word or phrase in English vs. what is a kind of repetition of language that is true to the speech patterns of the speaker? What is a speaking style that is perhaps true to an “African” speaker but not inherently Batwa? (the translators were African but not Batwa, so they may be translating in a way that represents the Batwa speech pattern or they may be translating in a way that highlights a different speech pattern that is not Batwa). And what material is perhaps stylistically true to the speaker’s speech patterns but not essential for the story in written English form? For instance, I can’t see rendering all of these stories exactly as told because there would be a great deal of repetition, so I am making decisions about shaping the stories anyway. I am weeding through and finding the unique elements from each speaker’s story so that the whole adds up to an interesting and true representation of their stories, but so, for instance, we don’t have five different versions of the method of Batwa making fire (of all the fascinating elements of Batwa life in the forest, I’m not sure why this one is so essential–it’s clearly a cultural tidbit that has been reinforced over the years, but I’d hate to break it to them that a Boy Scout in the U.S. also knows how to do this, certainly not the most essential aspect of Batwa culture to convey to an American audience. But then too am I making judgements on how to portray another’s culture? Or is such post-colonial angst self-defeating in a project like this). It’s a fascinating project for me, but it’s also quite alien to the way I work. Some great material, but it’s much slower going to get at that material than I would have expected with many challenging questions I don’t really have the answers to. But onward…

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