A Translator is a Sort of Amphibian

Interview with Renaud de Spens, who translates from Chinese and Ancient Egyptian into French. He lives in Beijing.
Interview conducted by Filip Noubel.

How did you become involved with the language(s) and culture(s) you translate from? You represent a particularly interesting case since one of your languages is a dead language and tow of them are both hieroglyphic. Can you tell us more and whether there is a correlation here?

This is probably due in part to comic books (the Papyrus collection by Belgian author De Gieter) relating Ancient Egypt my parents used to read to me when I was three or four years old. But the real breakthrough happened when I was 10 years and a half or 11. Ancient Egypt was part of the school history curriculum, and I had paid my first visit, on my own, to the Louvre Museum to see the Ancient Egypt section. I recall how fascinated I became with hieroglyphs. They seemed to speak to me – that is indeed the magic of pictographic scripts: they allow for interpretation even when one doesn’t know anything about that language. One can spot a bird here, an arm there, or a guy who stares at us from his eye in his profile view. It is exciting to think that this game of decoding links us with spirits long gone; one feels privileged, following signs in lines with a growing excitement. Since the colors of the glyphs drawn by the Ancient Egyptians look like they have been painted just the day before, thanks to mineral pigments they used (which are incredibly stable over time compared to biological pigments), the figurative shape of the writing is an invitation to decoding fired by imagination. After my visit, I found at the Louvre’s bookstore a booklet for 10 francs, which provided the basics of hieroglyphs. I invested my pocket money to purchase it and this is how I got started.

My passion for Chinese language came later. There was a Chinese teacher in my school, back then, there were no more than two or three Chinese language school teachers in the whole of Paris. In view of my AST I had to choose an optional minor subject and without hesitating I took up Chinese as an opportunity. More than the shape of Chinese characters, I was drawn into Chinese by the smell of the textbooks printed on rice paper at that time, and by the smell of Chinese ink. I also enjoyed a great deal the similarities with Egyptian hieroglyphs (the key system, the phonetic elements).

Do you have a definition of literary translation or a theory of literary translation you are close to?

I believe that when you work with classical and eastern languages, you have a different approach to literary translation. Ideally, what is needed are two separate translations : one that is a bastard type of translation which is close to the original text, remains as faithful to prosody and the semantic environment as possible– such translation is dedicated to the lovers of the language of the work. This distinguished and delicate methodology facilitates the understanding of a text and allows the reader to end the translation in his or her mind based on his or her own sensitivity. The other translation, a noble, smooth and refined one, is aimed at bringing to the reader of the translated text the same feelings experienced by the readers in the original language. This can be achieved only by using a translation that is perfectly mastered, pure and colloquial, free as much as possible of any exoticism, a language that translates the meaning and not the words. Both approaches are humanistic. The first one because it is pedagogical and allows the reader to progress in his or her learning process , and the second one because it makes other cultures more accessible and puts them in the context of universal culture.

If I need to choose between the two options, when I write for the general public, I always choose the second option in order to avoid any misunderstandings. For example in my Impertinent Dictionary of China, I took a long time to think about the translation for the Chinese term of人肉搜索, literally Human Flesh Search Engine as it is usually translated in Western media. In fact in Chinese the term ‘flesh’ also refers to the muscles and nerves and when this term was conceived, it was meant to refer to a search guided by a human, collective and social intelligence as opposed to the algorithms of a computer-based search engine. Thus I made the choice of translating it as ‘online citizen investigation’. This translation is certainly less exotic and much more neutral, but it allows the reader to approach the concept without any preconceived notions and it describes this phenomenon, which indeed has nothing to do with cannibalism, much more accurately.

To me the purity of the original meaning is essential. Thus I always translate the English terms of ‘soft power’ into French as ‘puissance douce’, for example. Indeed when we use the term of ‘soft power’ in French, we create a false sense, just as in Chinese, as what is understood is actually a form of ‘cultural influence’, thus something closer to the ‘smart power’ and thus different form the ‘soft power’ as defined by the US author Joseph Nye according to whom ‘soft power’ goes beyond ‘cultural influence’ since it encompasses all means except the use of brutal power. Those false senses can have a dramatic impact and contribute to a more violent clash of civilizations.

Do you have advice for young translators on how to improve skills of literary translation?

This might sound obvious but the translator is a sort of amphibian. He needs to feel comfortable in both cultures, and must keep part of his mind and body in one culture and the rest in the other culture. A good translator is a quantum being who exists at the same time in two cultural and linguistic states. It is a role game and a reincarnation. In other words, in order to convey a thought expressed in a foreign language, one needs to understand that thought thoroughly. To do so one cannot remain at the surface of translations provided by dictionaries but must become passionate about etymology and philology. Once one becomes familiar with the cultural subconscious of the author in the original language, he becomes a real translator. I also think that it is best to avoid any exotic words or expressions, since the text to be translated is shaped by its original culture in one way or another, via the topics, the sensitivity or the forms of narration. Thus there is no need to add anything extra.

Do you have any translation rituals?

I do not relate to translation as a ritual, because every translation seems to be a first-time experience. It is very similar to when you meet someone and fall in love. Perhaps this is because I am not a professional translator et do other things.

Besides literary translation, do you have another job? Is so, what is it?

I do, because for me translation is a bit like when you drill in archeology : it allows me to maintain my technical skills and my knowledge about certain cultures by sampling some elements, but it shouldn’t prevent me to produce comprehensive work and my own work.

Why does literary translation matter?

For the translator, it matters because it maintains the spirit alive and develops intelligence both on the analytical and emotional levels. For the reader it matters because it allows to practice cultural exogamy which is a healthy way to develop as humans, cultures and societies compared to being self-centered. There is a reason why the Greek word ἰδιώτης – the local person is the origin of the French word ‘idiot’.

About Renaud de Spens