I almost forgot about this Coetzee piece on translation, until Bookboojum’s post on Coetzee reminded about it. It’s a really wonderful account of some of the questions authors deal with when their books are translated into other languages:
Phrasings planted in Waiting for the Barbarians for their generic Far Eastern associations naturally aroused the interest of my Chinese translator. The crucial passage in the book was the following, spoken by the Magistrate:
I … am no less infected with [the vision of Empire] than the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barbarian until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should be (or if not he then his son or unborn grandson) to climb the bronze gateway to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant that symbolised eternal domination.
“It would be highly appreciated,” wrote my translator, “if you could help clarify what Summer Palace and globe surmounted by the tiger rampant … refer to. I wonder if [they] refer to the Old Summer Palace in Beijing that was destroyed by British and French allied force in 1848.” The question may seem simple, but it holds surprising depths. It may mean: Are the words Summer Palace intended to refer to the historical Summer Palace? It may also mean: Do the words refer to the historical Summer Palace?
I, as sole author, am the only person able to answer the first question, and my answer must be that I did not consciously intend to refer to the palace in Beijing, and certainly did not intend to evoke the historical sack of that palace, with its attendant national humiliations.
At the same time, I did intend that enough of an association with imperial China should be evoked to balance and complicate, for instance, the association with imperial Russia evoked elsewhere in the book by the phrase Third Bureau, the arm of the security forces for which Colonel Joll works.
As for whether the words in question do refer to the palace in Beijing, as author I am powerless to say. The words are written; I cannot control the associations they awaken.
But my translator is not so powerless: a nudge here, a nuance there, and the reader may be either directed towards or headed off from the Beijing of 1848.