Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird has been translated into more than forty different languages. It may serve as a parable for Bible translators.
How? Let’s look at three ways. Then we’ll consider three excerpts from one translation.
First, the story of this book is a parable for Bible translators perhaps because it’s nearly equal to the Bible in its popularity. There’s a must-read sacredness to it for many. It’s nearly as popular as the Bible for many readers in the USA and more popular than the Bible for several more readers in the UK. Claudia D. Johnson cites the following:
Using 5000 respondents, the researchers [of the U.S. Book-of-the-Month-Club and the U.S. Library of Congress’s Center for the Book in 1991] found that one of the three books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (it was second only to the Bible).
And Michelle Pauli reports:
The Pulitzer prize-winning classic has topped a World Book Day poll conducted by the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) [of the U.K. in 2006], in which librarians around the country were asked the question, “Which book should every adult read before they die?”…. To Kill a Mockingbird heads… the librarians’ list: it is followed by the Bible.
Thus, the book is read in forty some different languages worldwide, and is in English translation considered nearly as worthy to read as the Bible in America and thought even more worthy, by most librarians polled, in Britain.
Second, the book is maybe a parable for Bible translators because its language is like the Bible’s. It’s full of Bible metaphors and biblish and biblicisms already. Like the Bible, To Kill A Mockingbird references the language of and passages in the Bible.
(For example, I just read again last night, “Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.” There’s no explanation given for what this means, or where it comes from, just as when Luke 9:60 seems to give a quote from Matthew 8:22, perhaps from another source text even, then there’s no explanation for this riddle. And a few pages earlier there was this: “As a rule, a recess meant a general exodus, but today people weren’t moving. Even the Idlers who had failed to shame younger men from their seats had remained along the walls.” Did you catch those references? What’s an exodus and what’re the Idlers with a capital I? And why failed and why shame and how ironic and funny is it when one has failed to shame? to remain? the walls? Are these suggestions of the Hebrew Bible, some Aramaic, the Greek, late legal Latin?)
What I’m getting at in the parentheses above (in the question of biblical references) brings us to the third way To Kill A Mockingbird is a parable perhaps for Bible translators.
Third, then, to translate this novel is to position oneself outside its culture, and isn’t that important, as a parable, for Bible translators? Let me explain, and try to illustrate, this third point. The culture of To Kill A Mockingbird, as much as it speaks to EveryMan and to anybody, makes all readers today outsiders. Beyond “the South” in the United States just a few decades after the Civil War, it is very much a speaking out of the specific culture and subcultures of a little Alabama town. Most British librarians find this specific novel more important to read than the Bible, despite the fact that the book’s English is very not English at all. Nonetheless, the book is full of biblish like the difficult-to-read old English Bibles. Moreover, even American readers, those not from the South and even those from as south as South Alabama, are now some fifty years past this old English. Furthermore still, those reading the book in languages other than English of any kind are also not only linguistic but also cultural outsiders.
The moral of the parable is this: There is no shame in this outsiderness for readers or for translators. There is no effort to rid the book of its biblicisms or to upgrade it to natural English or to downgrade it to common English or to make it readable at any particular grade level. Part of the reasoning for leaving the English of the book alone may be that the book is largely written through the eyes of children who should, one might assume, speak a more common or less unnatural English. However, it turns out that a little rural girl speaks. She speaks, and thinks, in pretty sophisticated ways with quite challenging language. And there are high and low registers for her, and for several of the other characters.
So a translator is an outsider, and there’s no shame in that and no effort to make readers feel like they are reading something written just for and only to them. The story itself is a parable. And the book is safe enough already for readers. And the translator might find her own voice in it, safely. Harper Lee confronts sexism and racism and classism, and her readers borrow the eyes of a child, the ears of the child, her voices. There is injustice, and she speaks out. There is rape, some alleged rape, and she hears of it. There is a father who fails in the end, and she sees him through to the final page. I’m not giving too much away. Did I tell you she was a little girl? Most of us readers are not Miss “Scout” Jean Louise Finch from a small town called Maycomb where only men are lawyers and judges and jurors and only white men of a certain kind. None of us talks like her. Nor do we expect her to talk like us.
Now, let’s get to the illustration from a translation. It’s an Indonesian language translation. We’ll just look at three passages from the book.
(One reason I’m reading the Indonesian translation is because for four years I studied this language on Java, in Jakarta. My formal teacher was Ibu Noto, but even my English literature class teacher was a Muslim too, and so was my English writing class teacher. I’m mentioning the religion of my language teachers for four years because to them the Qur’an is much more important than the Bible. And to them To Kill A Mockingbird is also much more important than the Bible. As I read the Indonesian translation of To Kill A Mockingbird, I imagine how Mrs. Noto, and Mr. Williams [an Islam convert], and Mrs. Dali might translate it. They live on an island of prebumi, bumiputra, pure-raced natives. They live in a post-colonial nation state, where the Indonesian alphabet has been purified from its old Dutch influences, where the Chinese written language is outlawed. They live, as Muslims, in the world’s largest nation of people of Islam. They know social and legal injustices, but they are outsiders to the book and to its language. The actual translator is Ibu Femmy Syahrani,
Now, let’s look at those passages. Let’s look at the three places in her book where author Harper Lee used, respectively, the English words corncribs and translation and metaphors. These are words she only uses once in this the only novel she ever wrote. Then let’s see how Indonesian translator Femmy Syahrani renders the three passages and words.
corncribs : gudang jagung
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
“Mockingbird menyanyikan musik untuk kita nikmati, hanya itulah yang mereka lakukan. Mereka tidak memakan tanaman di kebun orang, tidak bersarang di gudang jagung, mereka tidak melakukan apa pun, kecuali menyanyi dengan tulus untuk kita. Karena itulah, membunuh mockingbird itu dosa.”
Notice here how corncribs are something not a big part of Harper Lee’s book. How many English readers today anywhere know what they are, or were? The Oxford English Dictionary lexicographers note that this is peculiarly “U.S.” English, with two definitions: “a. A crib or manger for corn. b. A ventilated building or granary, for storing Indian corn in the ear or cob.” Is this English “natural” or “common”? Should it be? Femmy Syahrani has “gudang jagung,” which is common and natural Indonesian for a “corn warehouse” or “corn storage building.”
The Indonesian translator does something else here. She leaves in transliterated Indonesian words the English name of the mockingbird. When it’s plural in English, she does not add the plural suffix in her Indonesian version because Indonesian grammar makes clear this is a generic plural, “each mockingbird / all mockingbirds.” What is gained is italicized attention to the importance of this titular and key word. What is lost is the mimicry of mockingbirds, how they translate the songs of other birds, how readers are drawn to the fact that the black man wrongly accused of raping a white man’s daughter is like a mockingbird, is killed sinfully, like a mockingbird. “Dosa” is the Indonesian word for sin, a common word in majority Islam and in minority Christianity in Indonesia. The translator forgoes the embodied metaphor of “sing their hearts out” and loses much by using natural non-metaphorical Indonesian instead: “menyanyi dengan tulus” which means they “sing with sincerity.”
translation : menjelaskan
Jem and I were accustomed to our father’s last-will-and-testament diction, and we were at all times free to interrupt Atticus for a translation when it was beyond our understanding.
Aku dan Jem sudah terbiasa dengan diksi ayah kami yang lebih cocok diterapkan pada surat wasiat, dan kami bebas menyela Atticus kapan pun untuk memintanya menjelaskan kata-kata itu kalau ucapannya tak kami mengerti.
For Harper Lee’s metaphorical use of the technical word translation, Femmy Syahrani decides on something presumably more natural, apparently more common, and ostensibly clearer: “menjelaskan.” The word means “clarification” as in a given explanation. There is no reason at all, however, why this translator couldn’t use the Indonesian verb for “translation.” Is she hiding, minimizing her voice here?
metaphors : metafora
The second thing happened to Judge Taylor. Judge Taylor was not a Sunday-night churchgoer; Mrs. Taylor was. Judge Taylor savored his Sunday night hour alone in his big house, and church-time found him holed up in his study reading the writings of Bob Taylor (no kin, but the judge would have been proud to claim it). One Sunday night, lost in fruity metaphors and florid diction, Judge Taylor’s attention was wrenched from the page by an irritating scratching noise. “Hush,” he said to Ann Taylor, his fat nondescript dog.
Hal kedua terjadi pada Hakim Taylor. Hakim Taylor tidak ke gereja pada Minggu malam; Mrs. Taylor yang hadir. Hakim Taylor menikmati waktu Minggu malam sendirian di rumahnya yang besar, dan pada waktu kebaktian dia bersembunyi di ruang kerjanya membaca tulisan Bob Taylor (bukan saudara, tetapi sang hakim tentu bangga andai bisa mengaku saudara). Pada suatu Minggu malam, tenggelam dalam metafora berbuah dan diksi berbunga, perhatian Hakim Taylor terenggut dari lembar kertas oleh suara garukan yang mengganggu. “Sst,” katanya kepada Ann Taylor, anjing kampungnya yang gemuk.
Harper Lee’s readers catch on the to fact that this Christian is also a Judge who neglects his churchgoing. Astute readers also get that instead of being a good Christian, this judge, he reads the works of his namesake, a politician and rhetorician, full of slick rhetoric in at least two senses, the works of one “Bob” Robert Love Taylor. Femmy Syahrani’s Indonesian readers are not likely to get any of that. What is offered them, nonetheless, is that Mrs. Taylor is an American, not an Indonesian Ibu Taylor. She goes to church.
The dog is named Ann Taylor. Again, the astute readers in English would get her namesake, the English poet for children. And it’s funny that she’s fat, but even more so that she’s a “nondescript dog” poking fun again at the poetry perhaps. The Indonesian readers have no idea that she’s anything but fat, and a dog with an English name, not a nondescript one, but a kampung dog, a common village dog. Is this the translator’s voice?
So we come to the phrase “lost in fruity metaphors and florid diction.” For the English reader, this cannot be a good thing. It’s the Judge’s own reward, or punishment, for staying home from church. “Fruity” is not sophisticated (and “metaphors” stand from the Greek root as something literary and rhetorical). For the Indonesian reader, there is an eloquence that seems either, well, eloquent or mocking of eloquence: “tenggelam dalam metafora berbuah dan diksi berbunga.” It goes something like, “drowning under metaphors fruitful and diction flowerful.” At least, there is an attempt, a good one, at mimicking the silliness here; and the Indonesian adds an alliteration with syntactic flair. (“Metafora” again retains the Greek root, in transliteration, without explanation; it’s surely literary and rhetorical even in Indonesian; it’s somehow a direct equivalent of Harper Lee’s English which is somehow a direct equivalent of some ancient Greek’s Greek.) The fun, of course, is the fruit and flora as buah dan bunga.
So What? What’s the punchline, the point, the moral of the fable?
Well, that’s quite enough for now. Besides I’m out of time again. There’s much to consider when translating central words like “Mockingbird” that have such metaphorical import to a story. There’s a lot to take in when thinking about an author’s lonely words, pregnant with meaning. There’s a good bit to ponder when making choices to render such critical phrases that point to the translator’s own processes. Parables take processing, so perhaps this is a fair one for that, even a fair one for Bible translators.