Whence Translation is Dragged up out of
Just as translation is a form of its own, so, too, may the task of the translator be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet.
Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”
(Transl. by H. Zohn)
The writer is not a priest, not a shaman, not a holy dreamer. Yet his work is dragged up out of that darksome well where the essential self cowers, in fear of the light.
John Banville, “Fiction and the Dream”
Ever since translation has become an object of theoretical reflection, its position vis-à-vis the original text and thus original writing has been an interesting topic of discussion. Although some will argue that there is no or only a slight difference between original writing and translation, both being a ‘form of writing’, already the conceptual distinction between ‘original’ and ‘translation’ suggests that there might exist an ‘essential’ difference, a difference in the thing as such. In the history of translation theory this difference has always been explained to the detriment of translation, being a secondary form of writing ‘after’ the original, lacking the uniqueness of the original. Literary fame, although often boosted by translations, has always been exclusively reserved for writers, not translators. Historically translation was conceived of as an equivalent rendering of the content of an original (Cicero, St. Jerome); later on, in the Renaissance, translations were expected to produce the same effect on their readers as the original had on its audience. Consequently a translator should produce a text as the original author would have written had s/he but spoken the target language. The translator must act as if s/he were the original author speaking another language. In this respect it is only logical that, to give but one example, The Trial is a novel originally written by Franz Kafka although he didn’t write a word of it. This view of the relationship between original and translation dominated translation practice for centuries. The central principle was and still is faithfulness; freedom and literalness being the means to realize it. Some elements should be highlighted:
- In a traditional sense, translation is about doing the same thing again in another language; it is tributary to a logic of identity, although it produces mere difference;
- Translation (as a work of art, as a literary text) is considered as a secondary product, to translate is a secondary form of writing, a writing ‘after’ the original;
- Translation is about making equivalent texts (equivalent in meaning, equivalent in effect on the reader), but there seems to be no measure for this equivalence;
- To translate and being a translator has a fictional or theatrical dimension: it is about ‘acting as if’, writing as the original author would have written if he had spoken the foreign language. Consequently the appearance of translations (book cover, author’s name) is that of an original.
These elements illustrate the problematic relationship between original writing and translation, and it is only in the course of the twentieth century that the anomalies of these norms are rejected in translation theories based on difference instead of identity: translation may – even has to – differ from the original, it does no longer have to pretend as if it was an original. It has its own nature. Walter Benjamin was one of the first to interrupt the problematic traditional discourse on translation and to point at the “proper nature” and even the “dignity” of translation by trying to define its proper nature, ‘clearly differentiated’ from original writing. We can’t go further into Benjamin’s alternative theory here, but we can pick up on his attempt to identify the difference between translation and original writing, the opportunity for which is given every time a writer tries to figure out what his writing is all about, where it is coming from, what its intentions are. “Fiction and the Dream” by John Banville is one of these texts. We want to comment on a few passages and confront them with the question whether the same can be said about translation (or ‘writing in translation’).
Fiction and the Dream starts with the account of a man’s dream experience. It was a heavy dream, that took “the whole night to be dreamt”; the whole of the man’s person, his existence, was involved in it, the details being “uncanny, absurd, terrifying, and all freighted with a mysterious weight”. But no matter how many details the narrator could remember, the truth of the dream, its real message cannot be revealed: “Some great truth has been revealed to him, in a code he knows he will not be able to crack. But cracking the code is not important, is not necessary; in fact, as in a work of art, the code itself is the meaning.” Now this is classic psychoanalytic dream theory on the one hand – what Freud calls the “Traumgedanken” can never be presented as such, they are always already distorted – Freud’s word is “entstellt” by the “Traumarbeit”, the mechanisms by which the dream hides its ‘real’ message. All we get to know are the signifiers, the code, that hides what it only seems to reveal. Freud didn’t hesitate to use the German word for translating – übersetzen – to describe the dream’s work. A strange kind of translation: it hides the real meaning of the original text, it doesn’t want the reader to detect the true meaning of the original text of the dream. On the other hand this is classic aesthetics too. Since Hegel we know that form and content of a work of art are a unity that can’t be separated without damaging the work as a whole. This idealistic art theory is the basis for one of the most famous theses on translation, Roman Jakobson’s statement on the untranslatability of poetry in his essay ‘Some Linguistic Aspects of Translation’ (1959). It goes as follows:
In poetry, verbal equations become a constructive principle of the text. Syntactic and morphological categories, roots, and affixes, phonemes and their components (distinctive features) – in short, any constituents of the verbal code – are confronted, juxtaposed, brought into contiguous relation according to the principle of similarity and contrast and carry their own autonomous signification. The pun, or to use a more erudite, and perhaps more precise term – paranomasia, reigns over poetic art, and whether its rule is absolute or limited, poetry by definition is untranslatable. (Jakobson, 1959, 265)
This seems to be a first analogy between writing and translation: just as the original text of the dream is hidden in its code and can’t be represented or rendered in another narrative, a poetic text or a story, a text whose form or code is constitutive for its meaning, can’t be translated i.e. transposed into another text, however strong the assertions that it faithfully renders the original may be. Both, original writing and translation, are blocked. But when we take into account Freud’s interpretation of the dream work (“Traumarbeit”) as a translation, we must admit that translation precedes any so-called original rendering of an event, be it a dream or something else.
Banville’s dreamer tries to tell his dream to his wife during breakfast. But at the moment he’s coming to “the crux of the thing”, his wife “yawns, mightily”. She is not interested. The dreamer’s / writer’s furious reaction indicates an attitude that, too, can be linked to translation; he says: “All right, I’ll show you! I’ll sit down and write out the dream in such an intense and compelling formulation that when you read it you, too, will have the dream” (my italics). And he concludes: “The novelist’s aim is to make the reader have the dream – (…).” This, of course, is as ambitious as it is naïve, just as naïve as the Renaissance theory of translation requiring the translator to produce the same effect on his readers as the original had on its audience. As if we could measure that effect. As if the yawning of the public isn’t always possible.
In a third step Banville’s narrator relativizes his assertion, calling it a “dangerous assertion”. A writer is not a priest, in a “mixture of arrogance and humility” he only seems to be committed to an “ethereal faith”. It is a delusion to think that a writer would have access to a wisdom far beyond that of the uninitiated – his readers. And he quotes Kafka: “The artist is the man who has nothing to say”. What the artist has to say only stems from the “madness of art”. And he continues: “The writer is not a priest, not a shaman, not a holy dreamer. Yet his work is dragged up out of that darksome well where the essential self cowers, in fear of the light”. So the text produced by original writing is dragged up out of a region we don’t have access to, a region where things (our “essential self”) hide in fear of presentation. Banville states that he doesn’t know the mechanism that turns the original experience into a literary text. A theory of creativity should account for that. What about translation? Does it have access to that hidden / hiding region also? Should a translator try to get access to that region of hidden essentials? Should he do ‘as if’ he had access to that region? Should he reproduce the madness of art? Is a reproduced madness still madness? Should he double the “fabulous nonsense” the original consists of? These are serious questions probing the essence of translation.
The final conclusion of Banville’s narrator again invokes a link between a hidden / hiding region and writing of fiction:
The writing of fiction is far more than the telling of stories. It is an ancient, an elemental, urge which springs, like a dream, from a desperate imperative to encode and preserve things that are buried in us deep beyond words.
Again: if translation is more than reproducing the story (the easiest part of a translator’s work), what is it then? What about the translation of texts that result from this “imperative to encode”? Does a translator have access to things “buried deep beyond words”? I am pretty sure this is not the case. Let me put this as a thesis: a translator only has access to words. The word is his medium, not some dark experience, not something beyond words. The surface of the words is the only thing he/she has access to. For him/her the Biblical truth counts: In the beginning was the word. All the rest is bad theatre.
R. Jakobson, 1959. ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation’, in R.A. Bowker (ed.) On Translation. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 260-266.