the contextual life

thoughts without borders

translation matters :: borges edition

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the first time i gave any thought to literary translations was when a friend bemoaned her inability to read french. she felt she missing the true experience of a novel she was reading. for a while i was convinced that my translated dostoyevsky was inferior and the author possibly not worth reading until i mastered Cyrillic. since the initial shock of realizing that what was in my hands was not the author’s original work, i’ve come to trust the art of translation—especially those of well-regarded translators. translations matter, translators matter, and for those who don’t have time to master multiple languages, they are essential. there is no  lack of discussion within the literary community on this theme and i always enjoy hearing what authors and critics have to say.

i recently came across the essay of jorges luis borges, ‘two ways to translate,’ in his nonfiction collection, on writing. here’s an excerpt where he discusses two approaches to translation:

Universally, I suppose there are two types of translations: one is the practice of literality, the other, paraphrase. The former corresponds to the Romantic mentality, the second to the classical. I’d like to explain this statement in order to diminish its aura of paradox. The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies. Poetry must be a beauty similar to the moon: eternal, dispassionate, impartial. The metaphor, for example, is not considered by classicism as either emphasis or personal vision, but as the attainment of poetic truth, which, once engineered, can be (and should be) seized by all. Each literature possesses a repertory of these truths, and translators know how to take advantage of it and to pour the original not only into words but into the syntax and usual metaphors of his language. This procedure seems sacrilegious to us, and sometimes it is. Our condemnation, nevertheless, suffers from optimism, since most metaphors are no longer representations, but merely mechanical. Nobody, upon hearing the adverb “spiritually” thinks of breath of air, or of the spirit; nobody sees any difference (not even of stress) between the phrases “dreadfully poor” and “poor as a church mouse.”

Inversely, Romantics never seek the work of art, but rather the man himself. Man (as we already know) is neither timeless nor an archetype, he’s Jack So-and-So, not John Doe; he possesses a way of being, a body, an origin; he does something, or nothing, has a present, past, future, and even his death is his own. Beware of twisting one word of any he wrote!

That reverence for the I, the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations.

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Written by Gabrielle

February 18, 2011 at 6:13 am

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