George Steiner
George Steiner; drawing by David Levine

Translation, it might be argued, is something that should be done rather than discussed. “Is life worth living? Depends on the liver. La vie vaut-elle la peine? Question de foie.” Very neat, but what is there to say here that is not self-evident? Despite the long history of this craft, curiously little of general importance has in fact been said about it—at least in the English-speaking world. But this is not George Steiner’s mental world and the strongest element in his much discussed three-ply is German. In Germany translation has been very important indeed. The practice of translation, and the theory, not to say the mystizismus. This may do something to explain Steiner’s almost scandalous involvement with his subject.

After Babel is a very long book. Too long, some will say. And a very elaborate book. Perhaps too elaborate. No doubt this or that part could have been slimmed down, yet it is difficult to get a critical hold on this thing called translation, to make it dense and resistant enough to engage the mind, and a full-scale treatment was needed. And long overdue. For a little reflection shows that our customary approaches are not only tired but implausible. We distinguish between the close or faithful and the free, “creative” version (which now tends to mean that the writer does not know the language he is translating from and hopes that you don’t either). But close to what? Why, to the content of the original which must be responsibly transferred into another linguistic medium. And yet we know that in writing of any quality, even perhaps in the simplest utterance, this notion of a separable “content” is the idlest fiction. There would be no problem if language corresponded precisely to an agreed, stable reality “out there” or “in here.” If words were labels stuck on to things, then the words could be interchanged freely. The fact that they do not stand in this innocent relation to things is what makes translation problematic.

So Steiner plunges in, muddying the deceptively transparent waters with a will. He claims the widest range of reference, starting as far back or as far down as he can. He asks, What is translation? The answer, proposed in his first chapter, is that “a human being performs an act of translation, in the full sense of the word, when receiving a speech-message from any other human being.” We translate when we read an older book in our own language. Communication between man and woman, child and adult, servant and master entails translation. I toss a mouthful of air at you and you decode or translate it into meaning. I may of course communicate without words, though an animal can do so far better, and Steiner peers back to the momentous occasion when we “chose language,” rather than some other sign system. However, linguistic and primarily inter-lingual translation is his main concern and this leads him inescapably to an inquiry into the nature of human speech. The subtitle of his book is “Aspects of Language and Translation.” Perhaps it should have read: “Translation as an Aspect of Language.” Apart from anything else, this might have checked a tendency to omnivorous swallow.

A hardly less fundamental question, Why do we translate?, launches the long second chapter, “Language and Gnosis.” The answer, as the title of the book indicates, is the affair at Babel, the fact—which Steiner rightly struggles to make us see as astonishing—that instead of speaking a single language, or a handful of languages, as his common biological constitution suggests he should, man speaks countless languages. Some 5,000 at present, perhaps twice that number in the past.

The mythic disaster at Babel, found in one form or another in many cultures, dominates the book and gives it its imaginative, often poetic élan. The myth is enforced by the elder Bruegel’s magnificent Tower of Babel on the cover. The huge, chocolate-colored building fills the whole picture frame, with row after row of blank, black arcades rising into the bruised, violet sky. Construction is still going on but already smoke pours ominously from the upper right of the tower. The tower fell and the consequences of its fall have been with us ever since. But although Steiner’s subject is “after Babel” he is also concerned with what happened before. Much of the argument swings between these two poles.

Before Babel, according to Cabalistic and other mystical lore, man spoke God’s own idiom, the Ur-Sprache of Eden in which word and thing were exactly congruous. Hebrew, preserving as many have thought fragments of this lost tongue, is “obscurely revela-tory of the divine process.” Others have felt the same about Homeric Greek. There is a sense in which all poetry aspires to this condition. We say that the poem, at its purest, reaches “beyond language,” that is, it may be, beyond our present linguistic divisions to language itself. It is a not uncommon experience that when a line of great poetry surfaces in the mind one does not at first know what language it is in. For a moment the words are not “in” Greek or English or Italian but simply in poetry. Perhaps we should say, in language—in the lost single speech of paradise which has here broken through.


Along a very different line of thought (it is a measure of this book that it sets such various lines of thought going), Steiner argues that this archetypal notion has issued in our own day in Chomsky’s transformation-al grammar with its deep structures or formal universals and the belief that “all languages are cut to the same pattern.” The opposing or “monadist” view (“after” Babel, as the universalist view may be said to draw strength from the situation “before”) has also flourished in this century, even if it is now under attack, in the work of men like Whorf who stressed the irreducible singularity of every individual language, each standing at its own angle to the universe and embodying its own view of reality.

There is apparent paradox in the fact that while the monadist position theoretically denies the possibility of translation whereas linguistic universalism seems to provide it with its strongest support, Steiner obviously prefers the former position and indeed indulges in a detailed and no doubt controversial dispute with Chomsky which I am not qualified to umpire. He does his best to be fair, of course, scrupulously holding the ring, but this judicious posture sometimes leads him into trouble. On a number of occasions the arguments for contending doctrines are marshaled, with much close foot-notage directing us to the literatures, after which Steiner steps in and declares a draw. Have we struggled through so many obdurate pages only to learn that the issue must remain moot?

This can be disappointing, even irritating, but it bears directly on the book’s finest perception. In most of the great arguments which it reports, both sides are right. Babel was a genuine disaster, a fall into linguistic apartness which we must mourn and, if we can, overcome. Every act of translation explicitly seeks to overcome it. This was at the same time a most fortunate fall that released the manifold energies of our individual, separate(d) languages—so many local raids on the total plenitude of being. Here too translation plays its part, celebrating, and preserving, diversity even while it restores a partial unity. Before and after Babel; the single Adamic speech and the enriching diversity of speech as we know it; the universalist and monadist views of language: there is finally no conflict here but rather a dialectic, “the dialectic of unison and plurality” that is at the heart of translation. Between the original and the new version, there is as Steiner puts it a shaping tension, and the true translation, far from englobing or simply repeating the parent text, preserves its otherness. Translation lives between languages and while it draws them together serves also to keep them apart. The original is brought home into the receiving language and culture and yet retains something of its alien identity there.

We are back with the question of language and Steiner’s third chapter (surely far too long), “Word against Object,” examines some of the duali-ties inherent in our linguistic medium. None of these dualities (physical/mental, temporal and yet determining our sense of time, private/public, true/false) is irrelevant to his theme, yet treated at this opulent length the effect is distracting and weakens the thrust of the book. Thus the third duality is prefaced with an account of the current philosophical debate on “private language” and finds room for a survey of modern poetry from Mallarmé to the present. The fourth duality, true/false, allows for a good discussion of language’s power to convey not only information but misinformation, to say the thing that is not, and thus to transcend reality, creating alternative realms which help us to bear the constraints of biological necessity. This fictive power (“We can say false things that resemble true,” the Muses told Hesiod, “but when we wish we utter truth”) is vital to the way language works in literature and may well have its special bearing on translation. It deserves its place here, but did it have to be introduced by an account of the status of truth in recent philosophic debate?

A more predictable chapter, “The Claims of Theory,” takes a useful look at the literature, and to some it will appear that the book might well have started here. I disagree, but there is a case for thinking that the preceding 235 pages could have been condensed into a single, ranging, introductory chapter. The title of the present chapter is properly ambiguous. While feeling the need for something beyond the critical taxonomy of individual procedures, Steiner is doubtful if there can be a “theory” of translation. This is a fruitful position, even if some of his reasons for adopting it strike me as dubious. He writes: “We have [among other lacks] no working model of the fundamental neurochemistry and historical aetiology of human speech…. How then can there be, in any rigorous sense of the term, a ‘theory of translation’?” Is it vulgar antiscientism to believe that meditation on the mystery of human speech can proceed without the aid of neurochemistry—particularly in a book that begins with an epigraph from Heidegger?


But Steiner is determined to have it both ways. Earlier on, a discussion about what neurophysiology “may” have to tell us about the human brain and the generation of language runs headlong into a classic interdict from the Vedas: “Knowledge shall not, finally, know the knower.” To keep a simultaneous eye on the wisdom of the ages and the latest news from the laboratory seems to me impossible. Sir Charles notwithstanding, Steiner will one day have to decide where he stands and my hope is that he will elect to cast his lot with the sages and poets and mystics rather than the men in white coats. They are not pointing in the same direction.

The chapter ends briskly with the words “some examples follow,” announcing what Steiner calls the workshop section of his book, surely rather its heart. At all events, “The Herme-neutic Motion” offers the most densely attentive study of literary translation that we possess. The wide range might be expected; we expect him to reject the provincial assumption that translation means primarily translation into English. What might not have been looked for is the closeness and delicacy of local inspection, the pounce on minute inflections. Merely to list a few of the main heads of the discussion, the kinds and the performances that exemplify them, may do something to suggest the richness of these pages.

There is first the inspired literalism found (momentarily) in Browning’s curious Agamemnon, more steadily in Chateaubriand’s Paradise Lost, and reaching its highest level with Hölder-lin’s Sophocles. Influenced by Walter Benjamin’s compelling if enigmatic essay, “The Task of the Translator,” Steiner breaks with what one might call the normal English, and French, view which sees successful translation primarily as linguistic and cultural assimilation, and makes a powerful case for the strictest literalism. Here, the translator takes his life in his hands and “brings his native tongue into the charged field of force of another language,” submitting to it his own sensibility and the genius of his own language. “Paradoxically,…the most exalted vision we know of the nature of translation [Hölderlin’s Sophocles] derives precisely from that programme of literalism, or word-for-word meta-phrase which traditional theory has regarded as most puerile.”

Steiner looks next at what may seem something of a sport, “synchronous” translation which tries to stand on the same temporal plane as the original. This is illustrated by the great French lexicographer Émile Littré doing Dante into a contemporaneous langue d’oil and, a stranger venture, Rudolf Bor-chardt creating for his Dante Deutsch a “medieval” German of his own confection and a fictive or alternative German past that included a Divine Comedy. (A Borgesian instance of language’s true/false duality in action.) No less interesting is the account of the difference, for the translator, between the “close distance” separating English and French and the far greater but thinner, culturally inactive space through which the translator of Chinese must move.

Finally, a summit, translation that seems to reveal the process “whereby the mind can pass from one language into another and then return,” Pierre Leyris bringing off the seemingly impossible feat of turning Hopkins’s knotted Saxon into French. At a still higher level, all trace of labor gone, there is the translational eschaton which Steiner reserves for his closing pages: the solemn, solipsistic triumph of Beckett moving between his own magnificent English and his own no less magnificent French.

To house this diverse material Steiner has devised a new theoretical model of his own. Understandably dissatisfied with the traditional triads (e.g., Dryden’s metaphrase, paraphrase, imitation), he proposes a four-part structure. There is first the moment or movement of “initiative trust,” the translator’s exposed sense that there is “something there.” (He contrives to smuggle literalism into this seemingly rather vacuous category.) Second, the act of aggression into or against the original. Third, importation which brings it home into the receiving language, itself likely to be modified in the process. Fourth and most difficult, what Steiner calls restitution or reciprocal enhancement. The translator has broken into and disrupted the integrity of the original and for this he must make amends by creating a condition whereby energy flows in both directions, not merely from source to version but vice versa since translation can illuminate and enrich its original.

This is suggestive but I am not yet convinced of its general theoretical validity. It may be of value mainly to its creator, helping him to order his material. It is not clear, for one thing, how far Steiner’s fourfold represents different kinds of translation (as the ensuing analysis mainly suggests) or whether it points to theoretically discrete moments within any single act of translation. Sometimes it seems to provide little more than a new way of formulating judgments we could have reached without its aid. Thus to illustrate the concept of restitution Steiner takes some versions of the Priam/Achilles scene from Iliad 24. Chapman splendidly distorts; Hobbes is too thin; Pope has his own epic force but cannot meet Homer’s moral clarity; Lattimore, with his “peculiar cadence, part Longfellow, part Eisenhower,” persistently flattens. This leads to the unexceptionable conclusion that no version is “adequate to the original.” Does it help to rephrase this as “none restores the balance of equity”? I merely raise the question; the test of Steiner’s model is how it stands up to one’s own further reading in this field.

The book might have ended here but a further chapter follows that is in its way no less good. Having just brought his subject into close focus, Steiner now spreads out once more and argues that the very warp and woof of high Western culture has been composed of “translations” of a relatively few thematic constants: “Formal variation generated by, playing against an implicit constant is a central mode of Western art and letters.” The argument, of great humanistic and “comparative” interest, is conducted through a series of readings: Dryden and Pope redoing Horace; the messenger’s speech from Euripides’ Hippoly-tus refashioned (unity within variety) by Seneca and Racine; versions of pastoral lament from “Lycidas” to Auden’s elegy for Yeats. A culture, as Steiner puts it, “advances, spiralwise, via translations of its own canonic past.”

We think of Confucian China as peculiarly given to ancestor worship. And yet the West, so long as it kept its identity, was in its own way no less governed by ancestral pieties. We see this most clearly today as we prepare to abandon our stored and hoarded riches, our res, and sink back into the world mass. Should we take this step, it would carry us beyond Babel (and beyond translation), in the sense that linguistic diversity and “all the sweet remembered demarcations” (in David Jones’s phrase) would be eroded and finally lost. This would however not mean the realization, on a new ecumenical level, of the old dream of returning to the lost unison of Eden. Merely a relapse into a flattened, technologized pidgin.

This Issue

October 30, 1975