Friday, May 22, 2009

Lost in Translation

Towards the end of his short essay titled "Translating" (found in Friendship), Maurice Blanchot writes the following:
The example of Hölderlin illustrates the risk that is run, in the end, by the man fascinated by the power of translating: the translations of Antigone and Oedipus were nearly his last works at the outbreak of madness. These works are exceptionally studied, restrained, and intentional, conducted with inflexible firmness with the intent not of transposing the Greek text into German, nor of reconveying the German language to its Greek sources, but of unifying the two powers--the one representing the vicissitudes of the West, the other those of the Orient--in the simplicity of a pure and total language. The result is almost frightful. It is as if one were discovering between the two languages an understanding so profound, a harmony so fundamental, that it substitutes itself for meaning, or succeeds in turning the hiatus that lies open between the two languages into the origin of a new meaning.
At the beginning of the essay, Blanchot mentions the notion of the pure, originary language towards which, it was believed, translation must work. But, "In fact translation is not at all intended to make the difference [between languages] disappear--it is, on the contrary, the play of this difference..."

Translation is always controversial--should it be literal? should it be a work of its own? how much leeway does the translator have? what is a literal translation anyway? English is the only language I have. I am completely dependent on translations for much of what I want to read. As such, I have considerable anxiety on the subject, though it ebbs and flos. My purpose in quoting the passage from Blanchot at the beginning of this post is to highlight the sort of experience that is completely lost to me, to perhaps shine a light on this loss. Obviously I know neither German nor ancient Greek, so both sides of this transaction, this translation are necessarily beyond me.

Let me back up a bit and try to explain what I'm getting at, for I can see I've already written myself away from the original spark. Even if I had the ancient Greek, say, Hölderlin's translation into German would be irrelevant to me. That is, approaching Antigone, I am either going to read it in the original, if possible (which, for me, it is not), or in one (or more) of the many English translations. Hölderlin's work here is not available to me, it cannot, itself, be translated into English. There are third-hand translations, of course, so don't misunderstand. It's not that Hölderlin's translation could not, in theory, be the basis for a subsequent translation into a third language, possibly English. I mean that Hölderlin's achievement, which for Blanchot is "almost frightful", is necessarily lost to me unless I am a native speaker of German, or, possibly, a particular scholar or enthusiast of Hölderlin. The frightfulness is lost, is it not?

I was merely struck, while reading Blanchot's essay, by this unavailability. It wasn't an anxious moment, as when I worry about which translation to read, or when I'm all too aware that I have not yet read this or that work relevant to a discussion. I can alleviate the latter anxiety by reading the work in question. But I cannot gain access to the sort of experience necessary for me to appreciate Hölderlin's translations. This is not a problem. It is an acknowledgment. Not everything is translatable, including other translations, a reminder that not every work of art, not every piece of literature, can be experienced by everybody.

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