26 August 2007

George Steiner

[from George Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language & Translation]

We must not trust the translation whose words are entirely ‘un-broken’. As with a sea-shell, the translator can listen strenuously but mistake the rumour of his own pulse for the beat of the alien sea.

Yet ‘mis-taking’, to grasp in place of, to transliterate, as it were, between seizure and surrogation, is indispensable. We have seen that serious understanding depends on a linguistic and cultural experiencing of resistant difference. But the transcendence of difference, the process of internalizing the probabilities of non-communication, of acute doubt as to whether the thing can be done at all, demands Wahlverwandschaft (elective affinity). At close linguistic-cultural quarters the translator often finds himself in a state of recognition. The hermeneutic and praxis of his decipherment and subsequent restatement are those of mirrors and déjà-vu. He has been here before he came. He has chosen his source-text not arbitrarily but because he is kindred to it. The magnetism can be one of genre, tone, biographical fantasy, conceptual framework. Whatever the bonding, his sense of the text is a sense of homecoming or, as the sentimental tag precisely puts it, of a home from home. Poor translation follows on negative ‘mistaking’: erroneous choice or mechanical, fortuitous circumstance have directed the translator to an original in which he is not at home. The alienness is not one of differentiation undergone, circumscribed as a moment in the dialectic of transit, but a muddled, vacant disaccord which can, in fact, be independent of linguistic difference. Thus there are within our own tongue and culture numerous works with which we have no just relation, which leave us cold. Positive ‘mistaking’ on the contrary generates and is generated by the feeling of at-homeness in the other language, in the other community of consciousness. The point is a central one. Translation operates in a dual or dialectical or bipolar energy field (one’s preference between these terms being simply a question of meta-language). Resistant difference — the integral and historical impermeability, apartness of the two languages, civilizations, semantic composites — plays against elective affinity — the translator’s pre- and recognition of the original, his intuition of legitimate entry, of an at-homeness momentarily dislocated, i.e. located across the frontier. At close quarters, say as between two European languages, the charge is maximal at both poles. The shock of difference is as strong as that of familiarity. The translator is held off as powerfully as he is drawn in. Translucency comes of the unresolved antinomy of the two currents, of the vital swerve into and away from the core of the original. Some such picture seems to obtain in the micron spaces between high-energy particles drawn together by gravity but kept apart by repulsion.

But notice how ‘positive mistaking’, the translator’s recognition or Narcissism on which the business depends for half its logic, sets odd psychological traps. Once the translator has entered into the original, the frontier of language passed, once he has certified his sense of belonging, why go on with the translation? He is now, apparently, the man who needs it least. Not only can he hear and read the original for himself, but the more unforced his immersion the sharper will be his realization of a uniquely rooted meaning, of the organic autonomy of the saying and the said. So why a translation, why the circumvention which is the way home (the third movement in the hermeneutic)? Undoubtedly translation contains a paradox of altruism — a word on which there are stresses both of ‘otherness’ and of ‘alteration’. The translator performs for others, at the price of dispersal and relative devaluation, a task no longer necessary or immediate to himself. But there is also a proprietary impulse. It is only when he ‘brings home’ the simulacrum of the original, when he recrosses the divide of language and community, that he feels himself in authentic possession of his source. Safely back he can, as an individual, discard his own translation. The original is now peculiarly his. Appropriation through understanding and metamorphic re-saying shades, psychologically as well as morally, into expropriation. This is the dilemma which I have defined as the cause of the fourth, closing movement in the hermeneutic of translation. After completing his work, the genuine translator is en fausse situation. He is in part a stranger to his own artifact which is now radically superfluous, and in part a stranger to the original which his translation has, in varying degrees, adulterated, diminished, exploited, or betrayed through improvement. I will come back to the consequent need for compensation, for a restoration of parity. This need is obsessive in the distances, at once resistant and magnetic, of Hobbes to Thucydides, of Hölderlin to Sophocles, of MacKenna to Plotinus, of Celan to Shakespeare, of Nabokov to Pushkin.

After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation

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