Truthful Mediators, Thieves, or Tricksters?

Dr. Sabine Strümper-Krobb

ECLA’s fifth Annual Conference kicked off with a lecture titled “Truthful Mediators, Thieves, or Tricksters? – Translator Figures in Fiction” from guest lecturer Dr. Sabine Strümper-Krobb. The lecture concerned her work on the role of translators in fiction.

Dr. Strümper-Krobb raised several provocative questions. What are the ethics of translation? To what degree is the translator also an author?  Is true neutrality possible in translation? She examined the official discourse behind translation, how these terms are followed or not followed in fiction, and the seriousness with which translation is regarded. Additionally, she investigated various contractual codes of conduct for translators, and she demonstrated that their promises of accuracy and honesty are structurally similar to pre-modern oaths.

The lecture contained light moments as well. Dr. Strümper-Krobb gave a humorous example of an unreliable translator in a short story by the Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi called “The Kleptomaniac Translator.” The story is about a former kleptomaniac who, once reformed, goes into translation.

At first it seems the theft-prone protagonist has become an upstanding member of society, but eventually it is discovered that while he is no longer stealing physical objects, he has been stealing fine objects from works of fiction and replacing them with cheaper equivalents. Stately manors become modest homes with significantly less acreage, diamond broaches, silver finery, and other opulent objects disappear entirely.

The friends of the protagonist were ready to tolerate his theft of real objects, but find his fictional appropriations unacceptable and he is run out of town. Although this is a humorous short story, it touches upon the serious issue of fidelity in translation and the sense of betrayal that comes with less-than-complete conveyance of the facts.

Her lecture was followed by an interesting discussion, with questions that ranged from the validity of comparing fictional tropes to the work of real translators, to the epistemological problems inherent in the notion of truth. The experience was a rich overture to a week of lectures, seminars, and presentations dedicated to gaining a deeper understanding of the questions and difficulties raised by the theory and practice of translation.

David Duncan (PY ’10, USA)

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