The Everyday Business of Translation

George Steiner

  • The True Interpreter by Louis Kelly
    Blackwell, 282 pp, £15.00

Translation was, until recently, the stepchild of critical attention and literary theory. Translators themselves were poorly-paid drudges. Views on the nature of literary translation turned on a dichotomy as ancient as Horace and Quintilian (who, themselves, took it over from Greek predecessors): as between the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’, as between goals of utmost fidelity, represented by an interlinear version of the original, and ideals of active echo or re-creation in the target-language. From Renaissance theorists and Dryden onward, a threefold historical scheme was standard: there are word-for-word transfers; there are attempts at faithful paraphrase but in a style native to the tongue of the translator; and there are diverse orders of ‘free’ translation or recasting which can range all the way from the Augustan stylisation in Pope’s Homer to the ‘variations on a source-theme’ which we find in Mallarmé’s Poe or Pound’s Propertius. With rare exceptions, it is around these two formal poles and in terms of this executive triad that treatises on the theory and business of translation are constructed from classical antiquity to the early 20th century.

Now the situation has altered. There are literary-academic journals and institutes devoted to the study and dissemination of literary translation. The question of the nature and limits of the transfer of sense between languages is being investigated by philosophers, psychologists, linguists and literary critics. Translators are, themselves, emerging as fully-licensed members of the literary community. I.A. Richards’s finding, in 1953, that the transfer of a Chinese philosophic-poetic concept into English ‘may very probably be the most complex type of event yet produced in the evolution of the cosmos’ would now strike one as hyperbolic but plausible. St Jerome is again claiming his place as patron of letters.

The sources of this change are various; and engage the entire current condition of literacy. With the sharp decline in western society of a direct knowledge of Greek and Latin, the need for translation became more palpable than at any time since the Middle Ages. Concomitantly, western aesthetic and political sensibility shifted to new horizons: to the cultures of Asia, in particular. Again, translation was the only mode of access. From the time of Browning and Swinburne to that of Robert Lowell, Anglo-American poetry has, under a modernistic veneer, been anxiously conservative. It has assembled the treasures of the past and mimed them with passionate nostalgia before closing time. Hence the primal dramatic function of allusion and quotation in Eliot and Joyce; hence Pound’s borrowed personae and Lowell’s ‘imitations’. In this dynamic custodianship, every vein of translation, from the most literal, as in Louis Zukofsky’s experiments in sound-for-sound transfer, all the way to the ‘Dante’ reprises in The Four Quartets, has played an essential part. Indeed, modern poetic translation has exhibited a prodigality and quality worryingly at odds with the weakness of much ‘original’ work. Could there be a connection?

On the philosophic front, thinkers such as I.A. Richards, Walter Benjamin, W.V.O. Quine have made of translation the centre of a theory of meaning. All communication between source and receptor, even within one’s native tongue, has been recognised as analogous to the model of meaning-transfer between languages. To understand is to ‘decode’ and to ‘reinterpret’ internally. With Roman Jakobson, this theoretic scheme extends to ‘transmutation’: that is, we ‘translate’ between semantic systems when we interpret a painting, when we understand a piece of music, when we ‘read’ the meaning of human gestures or formal choreography. It is the problem of interlinguistic transfer, moreover, which poses one of the earliest and most decisive obstacles to the universalist claims and simplifications of transformational generative grammars. The Chomskyan postulate that all languages are cut from the same cloth is followed by the concession that such universality entails no rational procedure of translation. The non-sequitur is evident and ruinous. Thus, in epistemology as well as in formal linguistics, in semiotics as well as in poetics, the study and practice of translation occupies a pivotal place. Ours is, as Octavio Paz has put it, ‘a culture of and in translation’, a world of continuous metamorphic transfers of meaning.

This prominence has redirected scholarship to the history of the subject. Noting, with the authority of self-evidence, that from the Roman Empire to the Common Market Western Europe (and he might have added North America) owes its civilisation to translators, Louis Kelly sets out to investigate the history of the art from both a theoretic and a pragmatic standpoint. Central to such an inquiry, as it is to the actual development of translation in the west, will be the theory and praxis of Biblical translation. It is the Vulgate and subsequent versions which inevitably crystallised debates on the criteria of translation; it is in the empirical performance of successive translators and schools of Biblical translation that the values argued or enforced in these debates find articulation. There is, in consequence, a perfectly legitimate sense in which Professor Kelly’s study of ‘the true interpreter’, itself a phrase with a scriptural context, is a survey of Biblical translation since St Jerome.

But Kelly’s purpose is also theoretic and, to some degree, polemic. And here I had best declare my interest. The True Interpreter is, in many explicit, generously acknowledged respects, an elaboration of certain main points in After Babel and a critique of what is seen to be that book’s ‘anti-theoretic’ bias (it has been one of my principal contentions that translation is ‘an exact art’ whose ‘theory’, in fact, amounts to a large corpus of intuitive, metaphoric and local suggestion, that there can be no genuine ‘theory of translation’ so long as there is no satisfactory ‘theory’ of how the human mind produces meaningful speech, let alone interlingual transfers of such speech). Kelly’s position is an intermediate one; though he rejects the meta-mathematical formalism of certain paradigms of translation as put forward in ‘information theory’, he does believe that a theoretic construct is available. Epistemological-poetic views of translation, such as those advanced by Benjamin, Heidegger and After Babel, tend to leave aside actual considerations of technique, considerations which, in turn, have their theoretic yield. Linguistic analyses, on the other hand, fail to differentiate between the richly-varied purposes of actual translation. Both camps assume ‘that all uses of language are essentially creative, that all language signs are primarily signa efficientia.’ This, urges Professor Kelly, is absurd. Daily life demands from language little sublimity but a near-infinity of routine. Translation, seen as a whole, must reflect this distribution. But all too often ‘the literary theorist is not concerned with the ordinary uses of language; and the hermeneutic theorist has misinterpreted the nature and function of the linguistic sign.’

Kelly’s ‘pragmatic functionalism’ owes much to the linguistics of J.P. Vinay’s and J. Darbelnet’s stylistique comparée. Like the latter, it is solidly grounded in the realities and compromises of the Canadian bilingual situation (Professor Kelly teaches at the University of Ottawa). Translation is, essentially, a question of finding methodical procedures of transfer between the different morphological preferences and habits of two languages. It is a question of realising and modulating between two types of equivalence, ‘dynamic’ and ‘formal’. Dynamic equivalence implies the closest natural equivalence to the ‘message’ contained in the source-language. Formal equivalence signifies the closest feasible accord between linguistic units in the source-and target-languages independent of any ideas of content (are we not back with our old friends, ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’, both so irreducibly intuitive and resistant to theoretic fixation?). A successful translation is one in which, to use Jakobson’s terms, both ‘message’ and ‘values’ will have been reproduced within the natural morphology and lexical resources of the target-language. But such reproduction will depend closely on the nature of the original text – sacred, poetic, commercial, technical – and the practical ends to which the translator addresses himself. Rightly understood, argues Professor Kelly, the different ‘pragmatics’ of actual translation contain and make visible a relevant theoretic superstructure.

In successive chapters, the two are closely knit. Kelly reviews abstract models and rhetorical-programmatic definitions of the translator’s task from Jerome and Rufinus to the Shannon-Weaver rationale for machine translation, a Benthamite dream now largely abandoned or reduced in its ambitions. Already the question of motives arises. The central concept in Latin transfers from and adaptations of Greek originals was one of political-spiritual rivalry. Gospel translators were, first and foremost, messengers, disseminators of the Word, amenders of the disaster at Babel. Herder and Goethe saw in translation the privileged ground of enlightened, mutually educative human understanding. For Novalis, Benjamin and Heidegger, translation, always inadequate, always misleading, is the paradoxical search for the lost Adamic idiom; in each great translation, say these poetic logicians (these addicts of the logos), we sense, immanent, as it were, between the source- and the target-languages, a ‘third’ tongue in which both have their common fount and, ultimately, homecoming. With each of these visions or motivations comes a different technique.

Where a text is of divine inspiration, its translation is a matter of inspired literalism, of ‘grammatical concretisations’ and of the reduction of language to ‘a tool of limited allusiveness’. Medieval translators of secular literature aimed solely at ‘intellectual information’ and developed a corresponding range of technical jargons. After Erasmus, we meet with a deepening commitment to textual authenticity and exegetic clarification, a commitment which, necessarily, inflects the translator’s practice. By the close of the 18th century, the professional and lay-streams of translation are merging. ‘Commitment to matter … is matched by commitment to reader. That to the author is shown through the sharing of the translator’s own fascination.’ With the Romantics, translation becomes a proof of the ‘esemplastic’ (Coleridge’s term) powers of human sensibility, of the capacity of the imagination to internalise intuitively and metamorphically other imaginations, other felt realities. Goethe adduces, mysteriously enough, a supreme order of translation in which the translator’s text will not ‘replace’ the original, but ‘stand in its stead’. Faced with the formidable task of creating a ‘liturgical vernacular where none had existed before’, Vatican II authorised a significant latitude of change in the language of the liturgy. Each and every one of these historical phases and motives determines different instrumentalities: in respect of the handling of the source-text, of the interplay between grammatical and lexical priorities, of the relative weights assigned to ‘message’, ‘style’ and ‘form’. But ‘bridging techniques’ are techniques, often based on a prescriptive methodology. And where there is conscious technique, there is theory. In the final chapters, Kelly takes up the four-stage hermeneutic model of the act of translation proposed in After Babel and reinterprets it in the light of his own findings. It is on applied linguistics that he comes to rest, on the persuasion that ‘aims’, however gnostic, however poetic, and rationally-established ‘methods’ cannot be separated. Language philosophy and pragmatic sociolinguistics are coherently meshed in the application of contrastive, historical analyses to the concrete business of translation.

This book is abstrusely organised. Chapters are divided according to theoretic or conceptual rubrics in a manner which clots the argument and artificially obscures the underlying chronological pattern. But Louis Kelly’s knowledge of the history of western Biblical, literary and scientific translation is exceptional, and his choice of examples with which to illustrate or ironise his argument is masterly: Herder translating one of Ariel’s songs, the Latin version of a Petrarch sonnet by the Florentine diplomat Alessandro Braccese, Robert Tyrrell of Dublin putting into Plautine Latin Falstaff’s account of Gadshill, Smollett’s version of Gil Blas, a Victorian rendition of Victor Cousin’s commentary on Kant (a triple motion of change), Sir Thomas Nugent’s Montesquieu, a moment from William Morris’s Aeneid directly inspired by Beowulf, or a comparison ‘of the meshing of knowledge and intuition’ in six 20th-century translations of Matthew XXVI:30. Time and again, Kelly achieves unexpected but illuminating juxtapositions; he points to the similarities of textual criticism in Housman on Manilius and Pound on Cavalcanti, to the striking analogies of spirit and technique between Romantic versions of Lavoisier’s treatise on chemistry and the Romantic ideal of poetic assimilation. A thoroughly persuasive passage puts in close sequence Cicero’s thoughts on natural links between sound and meaning, Gide on the expressive priorities of a source-text and Pound on ‘emotions in the cadence’. T.S. Eliot’s Baudelaire essay of 1936 is shown to mirror closely the views of T.H. Warren and Arthur Symons on the ‘relativity’, on the shifting valuations, which a poet and his works undergo in the course of time. Together with the extensive bibliography, these citations and juxtapositions make the book an indispensable source for future studies.

But it is, precisely, the incisiveness and fun of specific examples, and of Professor Kelly’s elucidation of such examples, which subvert the claim of the book to theoretic rigour. Immediately underneath the surface of the ‘technical’ vocabulary of contrastive and applied linguistics flows the current of intuitive and even impressionistic criticism. When he observes that a modern Latin version of a stanza from Anacreon is a fine performance ‘achieved at the price of imposing through the elegaic couplet a cohesion on Anacreon he definitely does not want and by altering the proportions and pace of the poem’, or when he notes that the Greek translation of Pope Hadrian’s polemic against Photius seeks ‘to give some flavour of the occasion by attempting a Ciceronian pastiche’ with a ‘definite evocation of law-court oratory’, Kelly is resorting to the same ‘speculative instruments’ (Coleridge, again) as Valéry Larbaud, Ezra Pound, Walter Benjamin or any other good judge of translation. And when he insists that Chomsky (missing from the index) has contributed nothing to our understanding of the translational process, Kelly is close indeed to the camp of the counter-theoretical sceptics. Where he is unquestionably right is in his robust emphasis on the quotidian, informationally-utilitarian character of the great bulk of all translations and in his emphasis on the organic relations between the practical aims of a translation and its stylistic-methodological premises. It is this dual emphasis which makes of Kelly’s book a natural arbiter between After Babel and the ‘job-of-work’ pragmaticism of Eugene Nida’s several manuals of Biblical translation.

A ‘theory of translation’ in any falsifiable sense would constitute something altogether different. It would substitute for the almost jejune concept-image or stimulus-message-response diagrams which Kelly reproduces at the start of his treatise a genuine mapping of the language-areas of the brain. It would put forward a topological model of the ‘location’ of different languages in the same human mind and of the possible matrices of contact and exchange between such locations. It would attempt to quantify the crucial problem of the critical mass of context required for unambiguous understanding of minimal semantic units (how much of the preceding, surrounding, associated, connotative material must we know in order to assign a correct meaning to a polysemic word or phrase?). Such a ‘theory of translation’ would be a working-model of the imprint, storage and generation of human speech itself. I have tried to show elsewhere why no such ‘theory’ is in view. What we have is a growing body of example and technical know-how, of intuitive ideals and practical constraints, in the humblest and most demanding of verbal arts. Professor Kelly knows this; and it is wherever he allows this knowledge free play that his argument comes fully into its own. What we have here is a superb witness to Samuel Daniel’s proposition that the craft of translation is, for men, the primary ‘intertraffique of the mind’.