Notes On Translation

My reading of Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, a thought provoking book, offered up this question:

Is [a] text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?

When reading a translated text, currently Walter Benjamin’s collection of essays Illuminations, and specifically his essay The Task of the Translator, this question is unavoidable.

Richard of The Existence Machine raised the same question recently to reply to an argument that, “… if you can’t read Handke in German don’t bother since Handke’s main interest is the language.” Thomas Bernhard made an analogous point:, “[Translation] doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it.”

Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator requires time to unpick. The essential substance of a work of literature is not its words or sentences, it is what is contained in addition to this information: the unfathomable, the ‘poetic’. The role of a (good) translator is to render this mysterious quality in a new translation. Rendering the unfathomable ‘perfectly’ in a new language is impossible, but the translator aspires towards  a ‘language of truth’, transcending the original and the translated language: “If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is – the true language’.

The task of the translator is finding and communicating the artist’s intention, a successful translation produces an echo of the original: “The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond the transmittal of subject matter’.

To strive for linguistic fidelity is almost always an error, truer the further away a translator is from the origin of a work: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully”.

Benjamin, like Pound, sees a translator as extending the life of a literary work, as each generation translates a static original: “For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a translation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change”.

As Alberto Manguel has said, “Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today”. Yet what are we to do while Borges awaits the translator who is able to unlock his intention. Not reading Borges, even in a flawed translation is an unsatisfactory but acceptable compromise. To end with another quotation from Grossman.

Imagine how bereft we would be if only the fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable.

6 thoughts on “Notes On Translation

  1. Hmmm. I find Borges pretty straight forward – the prose at least. I never gained much from reading the spanish original, to be honest. I was actually discussing this with my husband – who can also read spanish – because I wanted to reread some Borges but I could only find english translations at a decent price (and distance). We ended up agreeing that Borges isn’t about language anyway. (also, I have a pet peeve with Manguel: I enjoy Manguel as a concept – I love the themes of his books, for instance – but I always get so annoyed at how he always squeezes in the I-read-for-Borges-when-he-was-blind or Borges-is-God or my-library-is-bigger-than-yours in no matter how long the article…)

    (I need to update my rss feeds! I missed your blog migration!)

    • Manguel does get annoying the more you read of him, particularly the essays. I should have stopped at The History of Reading and The Library at Night. It is in his essays that his weaknesses become apparent. Mind you, had I been Borges’s reader, I probably wouldn’t shut up about it either.

      Which of the translations have you read that best convey Borge’s form and meaning? Do these works also convey the essential quality of the stories? I am surprised that you say that Borges isn’t about language; I suspected there was symbolism I was missing by not reading his works in the original. You reassure me.

      Thanks for visiting my migrated blog, Claudia.

      • I got Andrew Hurley’s translation. It’s not perfect, obviously, and unnecessarily contrived at times. Borges prose is usually so spare and simple that I feel translators try to make it look unnecessarily “stylish” by adding complicated words that are not there. What I meant is that one doesn’t read Borges for the elegant turns of phrase but for the ideas and for his capacity to dazzle with erudition. I’m so busy most of the time trying to make sense of the layers of metaphysical possibilities and intellectual references that I can’t say I delight on the writing – unlike other authors you read for aesthetic pleasure even though the premisses or plot are yawn worthy.

        The best parallel I can find is Stanislaw Lem – who I suspect to be underrated because sci-fi has got a bad literary rep. If a polish person tells me I am missing out on his amazing writing and “voice” or something like that, I wouldn’t be at all worried. I’m already amazed by his stories as it is.

        • Yes, I see what you mean about Borges use of language, though could never be sure what made it through in a translation. I shall be less dissatisfied that I am missing something by reading Borges in translation.

          I’m ambivalent about sci-fi, if only because I equate it so strongly with my teenage years. Stanislaw Lem, though, intrigues me (as does China Miéville). Are you able to recommend a good starting point with Lem?

  2. Such interesting stuff.

    Is [a] text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible?

    You could ask the same thing about non-translated texts too, I suppose. Certainly no realized project matches perfectly the artist’s original vision, and there is always that gap between the intended transmission and the actual reception, a lack of understanding created by anything from a writer’s idiosyncrasies to a reader’s personal baggage or inattention or imagination, or the time or culture gap between writer and reader, and so on and so forth. There is always some degree of “translation” going on in the reading process. Sometimes it detracts but other times it makes things even more interesting.

    All that said, I’ll admit that I still do prefer to read in the original language whenever possible! 😉

    • I don’t recall if you read Edith Grossman’s book, Emily, but the point she labours to make is that the act of translation is equivalent to that of original creation. I thought she overstated the case, but agree the role of the translator is under appreciated.

      All the reasons you list can widen that gap between intended transmission and actual reception, but none more than time. Language changes constantly over the centuries, transforming the meaning, for contemporary readers, of those classic literary works we choose to read. The point Benjamin makes, that I enjoy tremendously, is that fresh translations can revivify a literary work for a contemporary audience (Grossman’s Don Quixote), whilst the work in the original language becomes more distant as time progresses.

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