Irascibility, Colloquialism, and the Paradoxes of Translation
Martin Luther’s 1530 circular letter on translation belongs to a genre that has long been a mainstay of the emerging field of translation studies: the irascible open letter defending one’s own translation against carpers. St. Jerome wrote one as well; so did Erasmus of Rotterdam, in defending his new Greek text and Latin translation of the New Testament in 1518. (The other mainstay genre in the field is the humble translator’s preface that admits to every possible failure, apologizes for inadequacy, and hopes that a better translator will come along in the future and do the brilliant source text justice. Full disclosure: I lean more strongly in the Jerome-Erasmus-Luther direction. My new book Aleksis Kivi and/as World Literature is among other things a book-length irascible self-defense.)
This paper will look closely at Luther’s letter, under three headings: (1) Why is Luther so angry? (G.K. Chesterton called him a bully; but if he is, what makes him one?) (2) What does he mean by the famous principle that “You’ve got to go out and ask the mother in her house, the children in the street, the ordinary man at the market. Watch their mouths move when they talk, and translate that way. Then they’ll understand you and realize that you’re speaking German to them”? (3) How do you translate that focus on “speaking German” into another language, say, English? Do you pretend you’re speaking German, even though you’re actually speaking/writing English? Or do you read Luther’s emphasis on “speaking German” as code for “speaking the target language,” and simply push everything over into English?
Douglas Robinson is Chair Professor of English at Hong Kong Baptist University. His area of speciality is Translation.
The talk will be given in English.
All welcome. Drinks and nibbles provided as usual.