Beware Of The Fallible Filter And Unreliable Narrator: Enhancing Professional Trust

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During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation by the Literary Division entitled “Beware of the Fallible Filter and Unreliable Narrator: Enhancing Professional Trust,” presented by Susan Xu, the senior lecturer in the translation and interpreting program at the School of Arts and Social Sciences of SIM University, Singapore. She recently completed her PhD thesis at the National University of Singapore on a topic related to autobiographical translation, and her session was based on her findings and conclusions.

Susan explained that the “fallible filter” and “unreliable narrator” are two forms of untrustworthiness in literary narratives. In the former, the narrator invites readers to enjoy irony at the expense of the character. In the latter, the author conveys a secret ironic message to his readers via the narrator.

She also clarified the difference between the “implied author” (showing the psychological and ideological points of view of a character’s consciousness) and the “real author” (showing the visual and linguistic style of the narrator’s consciousness). “Character and narrator are not the same person. The character lived in the past; the narrator is older, evaluative, and more experienced,” she summarized, indicating that there’s also a difference between the “implied translator” (whose name is indicated in the book) and the “real translator” (a collective effort by translator, proofreader, editor, etc.)

Throughout her session, Susan quoted a political autobiography to illustrate how fallible filters are transferred and transformed in the translation process in order to help translators reflect on their own practice and enhance their professional trustworthiness. The examples she presented were drawn from an autobiography written by Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, who passed away early this year. He wrote all his memoirs in English, his native language, and the book analyzed by Susan during the session was “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey,” which was published in two separate, but similar editions: a 400-page Chinese edition by Lianhe Zaobao and a 388-page English one by The Straits Times Press.

Susan reminded us that translators run the risk of inadvertently interfering into biographies with their own voice and perspectives. These interferences can happen in the form of reorientations (weighing in on redundant or inadequate information), self-reflexiveness and self-referentiality (using the translator’s own idioms, polysemy, word play, and paratexts) and contextual overdetermination (omitting the author’s self-contradictions and erasing or creating irony.)

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In order to avoid bringing in this “other voice,” translators must analyze foreground elements present in the narrative, so they can identify the author’s distinctive linguistic pattern. In Lee’s book, these foreground elements are marked by syntactic contrast (sudden brevity) and underlexicalization (either noticeable suppression of a term or substitution of a complex expression with a single simple term.)

One of the most relevant interferences Susan identified in Lee’s book was the manner in which characters were presented. For example, the author showed a certain level of disrespect for the father figure introduced in the book and depicted his grandmother as a nagging, authoritarian person. All of these notions are implied in the author’s choice of words, but the translation into Chinese seems to have been culturally adapted to remove derogatory depictions of these two key persons and make sure that the respect traditionally shown for elders in Asian culture is upheld.

After introducing these concepts, Susan drew conclusions from her studies in autobiography translations:

  • The point of view in the interplay between the narrator, character, and readers accentuates an implied author who largely adheres to the generally perceived normative view of the autobiographer.
  • The factual, attitudinal, and ideological discrepancies present an altered persona of the implied author, who departs from the norm of the autobiographer.

  • The discrepancies are translator-unconscious in his effort to attune the narrative to the dominant ideology in the target-language culture and project a positive image of the implied author among target-language readers.

Lastly, the presenter gave us some tips on how to enhance our professional trust: “Every word choice makes a difference. Examine the foreground features in order to reflect the authorial tone. Also, adjust your point of view and align your consciousness with that of the narrator or character."

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. She also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators.