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A Translation for Our Time?

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A print of Samuel Johnson walking with James Boswell, published in The Graphic, December 1884

Do contemporary approaches to translation tell us something about our times?

Samuel Johnson was the first to offer a brief history of attitudes to translation, observing how some periods produce many translations, others very few, and how each period tends to privilege different criteria when translating. He notes that the Greeks did not translate texts from the Egyptians, that eminent Romans tended to learn Greek and experience it directly rather than make or read Latin versions, that “the Arabs were the first nation who felt the ardour of translation,” when they conquered parts of the Greek empire and sought to acquire their new subjects’ knowledge for themselves. 

Moving to modern times, Johnson analyzed different approaches before and after the Restoration in 1660. The writers before the Restoration, he decided, “had at least learning equal to their genius”; when tackling classical texts, if they couldn’t “exhibit their graces and transfuse their spirit,” they made up for it by translating a great deal, and they “translated literally, that their fidelity might shelter their insipidity or harshness.” The wits of the Restoration, on the other hand, Johnson claims, having “seldom more than slight and superficial views,” hid “their want of learning behind the colours of a gay imagination” hoping “that their readers should accept sprightliness for knowledge, and consider ignorance and mistake as the impatience and negligence of a mind too rapid to stop at difficulties, and too elevated to descend to minuteness.”

From the Romantic period onward, such observations on how other times and cultures have translated became commonplace, with both English and German critics remarking on how remorselessly the French reduced any foreign text, however idiosyncratic, to their own way of writing. It was understood at once that this kind of radical domestication had to do with the confidence of French culture, though philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), biblical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), and German language scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) all believed it prevented the French from learning anything at all from the many translations they made. 

Schleiermacher was convinced that, in contrast, it was the destiny of “the German people to incorporate linguistically, and to preserve in the geographical center and heart of Europe, all the treasures of both foreign and our own art and scholarship in a prodigious historical totality, so that with the help of our language everyone can enjoy, as purely and as perfectly as a foreigner can, all the beauty that the ages have wrought.” This would be done, he decided, with a radically non-domesticating approach, taking the reader as far as possible toward the foreignness of the foreign text, something German was better equipped to do than other languages, he believed. The poet and critic Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) agreed: “Of all the languages into which prose and verse translations of Homer have been made, from the Syriac to the English, none can approach the original text with such happy fidelity as German.” 

So, while the French appeared to believe that French style was already the proper template for everything, the Germans believed their language was the most flexible instrument to reflect every style.

In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche observed that, “The degree of the historical sense of any age may be inferred from the manner in which this age makes translations and tries to absorb former ages and books.” The more a culture becomes aware of the real differences of other cultures and other times, as the Germans had become, the less likely it is, he wrote, to try to “take possession” of the other the way “in the age of Corneille… the French took possession of Roman antiquity.”

But what of our own time and our culture? Are we reducing everything we translate to standard English, whatever that might be? Or are we struggling to get close to the otherness of foreign texts? 

What strikes anyone listening to the discussion of such issues in the translation world among its academics, practitioners, and publishers is the huge range of opinion and approaches advocated, the extreme eclecticism and general vagueness about what is entailed in translation. Reviewing any number of books in translation over the last thirty years, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no dominant approach in our age: accurate and inaccurate, fluent and clumsy, all translations seem to be equally praised and criticized (though rather more the former than the latter). Two opinions, however, do emerge as so universally held as scarcely to need articulating. 

The first is that translation is always a good thing, politically, ethically, aesthetically. The translator brings cultures together, promotes understanding, undermines nationalism, contributes to avoiding conflict. It’s something we should all be doing and feeling good about doing, and congratulating one another for doing.

The second is that literary translation is not only entirely possible, but, somewhat surprisingly, that it can often match or even improve upon the quality of the original. The press release announcing shortlists for the UK’s Society of Authors 2019 Translation Prizes uses the verb “capture” again and again to suggest that the winning translations have left nothing of the original unexpressed; hence readers can feel confident they are missing nothing by reading in translation. Of one work we hear that it “equals, and sometimes even surpasses” its original, while another is praised for how it “captures the music of [the original’s] terrestrial spheres, showing that translation is, in fact, our universal language.” 

Turning to the academic world, one is struck by how rarely translations are carefully compared against originals, how little is said about language competence. Instead, if we consider the kind of texts regularly included in anthologies of translation theory—from Schleiermacher’s seminal work “On the Different Methods of Translating” (1813), through Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” (1923), Octavio Paz’s “Translation: Literature and Letters” (1971), and Jacques Derrida’s “Des Tours de Babel” (1985)—it’s not hard to see how a pervasive romantic idealism, mysticism even, comes to underwrite those effusive contemporary panegyrics that would have translations improving on their originals and saving humanity in the process. 

We’ve already heard Schleiermacher speaking of his dream of “a prodigious historical totality,” in which every book ever written can be enjoyed by everyone. Here is Benjamin: “In translation the original rises into a higher and purer linguistic air… the predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfillment of languages…” And again: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.”

Derrida, after giving enormous weight to the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, reaches the following conclusion:

Nothing is more serious than a translation… For if the structure of the original [work] is marked by the requirement to be translated, it is because in laying down the law, the original begins by indebting itself as well with regard to the translator. The original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking—and by pleading for translation.

This mysterious speculation that any written text is immediately “lacking” completion because it is not available in all the other languages of the world has become a staple in translation theory, perhaps because by elevating translation to a categorical imperative it implicitly confers great and solemn importance on a field that was largely ignored in universities until some twenty years ago. In general, it’s astonishing how much respect is still afforded to these bizarre and muddled texts. 

Paz, though he never reaches the dizzy heights of Benjamin and Derrida, is equally positive and emphatically universalist: “Translation within the same language is not essentially different from translation between two tongues, and the histories of all peoples parallel the child’s experience…” And again: “Although language is not universal, languages nevertheless form part of a universal society in which, once some difficulties have been overcome, all people can communicate with and understand each other. And they can do so because in any language men always say the same things.”

Any talk of untranslatability, for Paz, can only be the result of an “inordinate attachment to verbal matter,” or becoming “ensnared in the trap of subjectivity.” “Throughout the ages,” he goes on, “European poets—and now those of both halves of the American continent as well—have been writing the same poem in different languages… a symphony in which improvisation is inseparable from translation and creation is indistinguishable from imitation.”

Essentially, then, all these approaches to translation underwrite the age’s appetite for globalization and feed a zeitgeist that favors the cultural melting pot in which any individual can fully possess any cultural expression, and no profound difference or incomprehension is admitted. 

Is there a problem? Or is my unease mere grumpiness? “To a thousand cavils,” Samuel Johnson wrote, defending Pope’s translation of Homer, “one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside.” That seems a persuasive, salutary, no-nonsense attitude, especially when tempered by Johnson’s insistence on scholarship and accuracy. I’m as ready as anyone for a world teeming with translations. After all, I’ve been responsible for quite a few myself. 

But let us recall that, for all their enthusiasm, the theorists I’ve mentioned, with the exception perhaps of Paz, are nevertheless aware of an otherness in a foreign text that remains elusive to translation—unconquered, uncaptured. And even as Schleiermacher launches into his vision of a German language adapting itself in a thousand ways to “bring those two utterly unconnected people together”—the original author and the reader of the translation—he nevertheless remembers that at best the reader will only “catch a glimmer … of the original language and the work’s indebtedness to it.” Certainly this is Nabokov’s position in “Problems of Translation: Onegin in English,” when he suggests, lepidopterist as he was, that the translation will have the same relation to the original as a butterfly mounted in a collector’s case will have to a butterfly in its natural state. 

Nabokov’s analogy is discouraging and I think inaccurate; there are plenty of very lively translations fluttering around. But what underlies both his and Schleiermacher’s thought is the understanding of translation as an invitation toward a meeting that is exciting as it is difficult, between quite different mind sets, different cultures, different languages. “All humans are under the sway of the language they speak,” Schleiermacher acknowledges, “so that it is impossible to think with complete clarity anything that lies beyond its boundaries.”

What is exciting about translation, then, is not the notion that it has delivered a hundred percent—something Schleiermacher would never have signed up to—or that the entire world of human feeling can be made available to us in our own idiom—a fantasy that will only induce complacency—but its encouragement to move toward, or at least become aware of, what we do not know; translation as a wake-up call, and an instrument to spur us to more effort, not to have us sit back and applaud another successful worldwide publishing phenomenon.

To close on a provocation, it’s perhaps worth observing that current enthusiasm for literary translation in the Anglo-Saxon world has come at the same time as a steep decline in language learning.