The paradox of translation
As a bilingual writer and speaker Dennis Lu ’18 knows the difficulty of translating creative works from one language to another.
“It’s harder to translate writings than to write a story in your first language. It takes more effort to convey meaning and foreign thought to a form that it was never intended for,” he said. Lu researched the process and product of translation in his own writing in a 2016 summer research project overseen by Professor Peter Grandbois.
Lu began his research by reading books on translation theory. “The first thing that I learned is that there is no such thing as a perfect translation. And I thought ‘Great, that’s my whole project,’ ” he joked.
Fledgling translators often make the assumption that a good translation is an exact reiteration of the original text in a different. But Lu argues that translation is about presenting concepts in a way that works within the context and language to which it is being translated.
“You can’t just translate word to word, or meaning to meaning, especially across cultures. You have to completely understand a text then translate it into a completely new form. It’s a creative process.” Lu explained.
This creativity and translation of voice is what give bilingual writers an integral role in American literature. “In the history of creative fiction writing there have been numerous writers who have come to the United States, learned English and became famous writing in their second language” said Grandbois. “Those writers are known for sort of reinvigorating language and the way we use it.”
After learning about translation theory, Lu then translated works from Chinese literature. “The idea was to focus on the differences between how the Chinese use language in poetry and fiction and how English speakers do,” said Lu.
While reading translated works, Lu began to notice that translators often retained style elements from their original language and context. This is something he practices in his own writing, not always to a warm reception by English readers.
“I always try to portray a bit of my foreignness and strangeness within American forms. Now I am learning different ways to do that,” said Lu. “There are things that I can use linguistically and reference culturally that resonate with me, because I’m Asian, but that could be really interesting to a non-Asian reader.”
Both Grandbois and Lu see the change that has taken place in Lu’s writing. “He is now opening himself up to these other ways to tell stories. It is reinvigorating his language and his process for how he shapes stories,” said Grandbois.
As Lu focused on his own writing, he composed three original pieces. His stories focus on authenticity and attempting to connect to one’s own past, which Lu sees as fundamentally linked in both his narrative and his creative process. “Being a bilingual writer means absorbing and observing the culture you’re in, while also staying true to who you are and what made you who you are.
Reconnecting with the past is the theme of Lu’s stories. While his protagonists navigate the culture that they are in, they are not able to completely assimilate into either the past or the present.
“They are kind of about authenticity. When you leave home at a rather young age you want to completely leave everything you encountered in the past and completely embrace the new culture,” said Lu. “Then you look back and found forgotten value in the past.”
Lu has gained experience in translating and in developing his voice. “Dennis’s project is very ambitious, it means he has to think a lot. At the end of this experience he will have changed both as a person and a writer in a way that others won’t get to experience.” said Grandbois.