Thursday, August 15, 2013

After Babel: Foreigners and the English Language

The need for translation is self-evident.
                       George Steiner

It is to a Frenchman that I am most indebted for my love of the English language. Though he wrote exclusively in French, Marcel Proust (with the aid of his greatest champion and translator, C.K. Scott Moncrieff) transformed my understanding of the richness and potential of English. This is not hyperbole. Until I read Moncrieff’s rendition of Swann’s Way (a copy of which my stepmother had given me as a gift when I started college, convinced without reason that I would find my way round to it), this language I’d been born to was something—like my eyes, my eardrums, my teeth—that I’d taken for granted, speaking it without hearing it, reading it without seeing it, and writing it without curiosity, affection or joy. Testing the water with just the first few pages of Proust one day was like suddenly discovering I could read Sanskrit or Greek. I knew the words (it was English after all), yet the world they described (both the fin-de-siècle world of Paris and that uniquely Proustian world of words) was distinctly exotic to me. So heady was the novel’s English, so complex its sentences, so dogged, so solipsistic, so all-consuming its dream, that at points I remember gasping for air. Above all the writing was beautiful, sonorous—like the plays of Shakespeare, a song of songs, a protracted incantation to the kingdom and glory of words.

Translation—its usefulness, its sheer practicability—has long been a matter of debate. Paul Celan, a Romanian poet and translator read widely in translation, remarked, “Only in the mother tongue can one speak his own truth, in a foreign tongue the poet lies.” It is a position remarkably widespread. For years I taught at an independent school in Manhattan where my department Chair forbade us to teach literature in translation (though he himself taught The Odyssey each year) arguing, as he had, that the act of translation was inherently flawed, if not fraudulent, that it could never do justice to art. The argument is not without merit: a good translation is not and can never be a duplicate of the original. What it is instead is a brilliant re-creation, something both derivative and new, an attempt—according to Valéry—to produce similar effects by different means.

Yet in truth any attempt at communication, even in one’s own language (as in speaking, reading or writing) involves translation of a kind, our every gesture to connect with one another a transmutation of forms. While surely there are good and bad translations, the necessity itself is clear. Translation is not just human; it is all that we have. 

Think of the story of the Tower of Babel. God, in his anger at humans for attempting to build a tower to heaven, shatters their once-unified language into a thousand mutually unintelligible tongues. For avid readers and writers, it is a story rife with implications. With the destruction of the tower and the confounding of human language, “The people ceased to be one,” writes Octavio Paz. “The beginning of plurality was also the beginning of history: empires, wars, and the great piles of rubble that civilizations have left.” For Paz, as for readers and writers everywhere, our hope as humans is plain: “…the Spirit is One, languages are Many, and the bridge between the two is Translation.”

A good translation is as miraculous as alchemy—and vastly more lucrative. For the translation of world literature not only enriches us—morally, culturally, aesthetically, politically—but enriches our language, too, coloring the words and phrases we know, pressing hard upon our conventions, and generally expanding the “the compass of observed and rendered life.”* I can hardly imagine how small and impoverished my life would be were it not for the work of such world-class translators as C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Robert Hollander, Robert Fagles, Edith Grossman, Gregory Rabassa, Joachim Neugroschel, Hillel Halkin, Sophie Wilkins, David Magarshack, David McLintock, Arthur Waley, Donald Keene, Lydia Davis, John E. Woods, William Maynard Hutchins, Constance Garnett, Edward Fitzgerald, Nicholas de Lange, William Weaver, Maureen Freely, Anthea Bell, Richard Pevear, Larrisa Volokhonsky, J.M. Cohen, Frances Steegmuller, and Rabindrinath Tagore. After the writers themselves, it is to their translators—those all but invisible agents of world poetry and prose—that I owe the greatest debt.

* From “The Retreat from the Word” by George Steiner

Peter Adam Nash

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