Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Pornography, all in a day’s work for a lecturer in translation

Even though I do tend to vary my course material as much as possible, taking in new developments, assuming a different perspective on a subject and so on, a few things return every year. Since 0809 I have included a questionnaire in the two hour session on translation and ethics, which again took place today.

The questionnaire contains nine real-life situations – albeit slightly modified for the purpose of the questionnaire – taken from personal experience or from the experience of people I know. Ethical issue number six has been the same for the past three years, with a reason.

You are a translator with some interpreting experience. You also have a smooth voice. You are asked to translate the audio description of a foreign porn movie. Later on, the same company enquires whether or not you would want to do a voice over for another porn movie. Do you accept the project?
1. Yes
2. No
3. Depends (explain:...)

It might be worth knowing that students fill in the questionnaire anonymously. Two years ago there was hardly a person who dared to come out about possibly accepting that job. Last year that number was slightly up. This year, however, about one in four students would accept that job. Other than a few smirks and laughs, the topic was never discussed really, leaving the case to the imagination of the students whether this is more an ethics of service or an ethics of representation.

Later on today, the Translation Group was happy to welcome Dr. Gillian Lathey from Roehampton University. The topic of a guest seminar, Invisible Storytellers, the role of translators in the history of English-language children’s literature, had little in common with the case mentioned earlier. Or so it seemed.

During the talk it became clear that Charles Samber, translator and transformer of the fairy tales of Charles Perrault into popular children’s stories in the late 1720s, also was a translator of pornography, or whatever was considered as such (one student dubbed it ‘distasteful’ in the questionnaire) at the time.

This not only raised a few eyebrows but also a few comments, not least that the rather lax attitude in morality of the time was abandoned soon after that. In the 1740s texts were rewritten and existing translations were retranslated. All the more strange as this all happened during the reign of the same British sovereign, George II, who reigned from 1727 to 1760.

Along with the comment that the 1720s was the time of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders too, Defoe’s link with children’s literature is obvious, the idea came to me that this perhaps was the same time as well when the medieval Dutch tale – originally French for that matter – of Van den Vos Reynaerde was sexed down.

The raunchier version of Van den Vos Reynaerde is said to have been one of the inspirations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Dutch tale has been translated into English by Caxton as The Historie of Reynart the Foxe, and even Shakespeare’s Tybalt is said to have been mirrored on the character Tybeert from the story.

Concluding the seminar was my comment that I thought Puss in Boots had appeared first in Shrek. Real boots of Spanish leather! Tsjakka!

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