Cracking the Code

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.