St Jerome on Translation as Hostage-Taking

There are probably as many strategies of translation as there are well-wrought translations, but there are grosso modo two principles to choose. The first is to reflect as transparently as possible the content of the original text, expunging any trace of alterity or otherness, so as to convey with minimal interference its unadorned or naked substance. Ironically, this known as the path of « la belle infidélité » [beautiful disloyalty]. The reader is left comfortable, untroubled, firm in the belief that a window has opened into another world which might be his or her own.

Jerome, the patron Saint of translation, had a rather military view of this first strategy, one betraying the imperial Roman culture he inherited. « The translator, » he wrote, « considers thought content a prisoner [quasi captivos sensus], which he transplants into his own language with the prerogative of a conqueror [iure victoris]. » [1]

There is indeed something appropriate in Jerome’s simile to this translation of two novels (Mourir pour Haïti and Les Vèvès du créateur) by the Haitian writer Roger Dorsinville. By all evidence, Dorsinville came to think of himself and his compatriots as captive to an alien power, that of « Papa Doc » Duvalier, and was poignantly aware of how he had, for a short while, been the conqueror’s unwitting translator.

George Lang, The Rule of François Duvalier in Two Novels by Roger Dorsinville


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