sunshine and puppy dogs

In case you are feeling overwhelmed with the beginning of the new semester and need a shot of encouragement, here you go.

(NB I am not a new professor and so have no business reading this letter. But perhaps there are some who will care to comment.)

Among the many happy thoughts offered, I’ll single out this one:

We all know the little secrets of “scholarship” too, such as using others’ work rather than doing the work for ourselves, and taking credit for it; citing sources without having read them; lifting citations and quotations and sometimes translations from secondary sources without acknowledging the secondary sources from which they came. It is re-search, and not much different from what Francis Bacon observed in his day: “if one turns from workshops to libraries and marvels at the enormous variety of books one sees there, on examining and looking more carefully into the subject matter and contents of those books, one will surely marvel the other way; for seeing the endless repetitions, and how men keep doing and saying the same things, one will pass from admiration of variety to wonder at the poverty and scarcity of those things that have up to now possessed and occupied the minds of men.” This is still why most “scholarship” doesn’t last. It is new bottles for old wine.

And I’ll ask, somewhat off topic, is it ok to use other people’s published translations when studying for an in-class translation assignment? a final exam in a language course? a program or department language proficiency exam?

My hunch is that the decision to use another’s published translation in one’s own published work, with or without proper credit, is already made in these situations.

Now I will never be able to read as many languages as I might want to, and in the case of those few that I am somewhat familiar with, I can hardly read them like the newspaper. This means that however purist my intentions, I am going to have to rely on other people’s translations if I want to be exposed to more than the few titles I might be able to slog through in my lifetime with the help of a dictionary.

But at what point do I become dishonest in my use of another’s translation?

3 Replies to “sunshine and puppy dogs”

  1. “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” ––Igor Stravinsky

    I am no linguist, but I wonder if this might be similar in some ways to composition. Funnily enough (in light of the above quote), Stravinsky maintained that he had not used Russian folk melodies in writing The Rite of Spring. Later scholars, with time to pick the piece over, have found dozens, maybe hundreds.

    In writing, I think one is responsible to cite the sources you’re aware of having used. However, it’s a fool’s errand to try to list definitively all the influences on a given work. We cannot avoid some degree of unconscious “plagiarism.” Translations from foreign languages are no different in this. Cite them if you can, but having read them, it’s only to be expected that they will continue to affect your work in ways you might not even notice.

  2. I’d argue there are two boundaries in maintaining honesty in translation:

    1. You understand everything you are borrowing from other translators.
    2. You add adaptations every time they occur to you (the living ought to take precedence over the dead)

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