When the Hulagu Khan’s army sacked Baghdad in 1258, survivors said the Tigris ran black for three days. Thousands of manuscripts of philosophy and literature, science and mathematics, amassed during the city’s age of translation were flung into the river, “translated back in diluted ink.” These last words are from Anton Shammas – Palestinian novelist, poet, translator – who recalls losing a lifetime collection of Arabic books to faulty plumbing: “my personal Nabkah,” as he says with grim wit reminiscent of Beckett, one of the many he has translated. For Shammas, translation stands for more than its strict linguistic sense as the process of negotiating equivalencies between a source and target text. It becomes instead the practice of “cultural trespass,” the “solace of border crossing,” an encounter with foreignness inseparable from living.
It’s not uncommon for translation to be deployed like this, as a metaphor. But unmetaphorically speaking, in the literalness of their etymologies, both translation and metaphor are “to carry across” – the former deriving from Latin, the latter from Greek. Translation and metaphor figure in different ways a relationship between the strange and the familiar at the level of language. For Friedrich Nietzsche, in an early essay, metaphor illustrates the originary strangeness of language; a sensuous power that is lost like the embossment on coins as it becomes assimilated to the everyday commerce of meaning. While for Walter Benjamin, translation provides “a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages.”
If the metaphorical use of translation can be said to retain its elementary force, this is, to my mind, because of translation’s inescapable entanglement with politics. True, but perhaps not in a way that is immediately obvious.
For the most part, translations in the Anglophone world are evaluated in terms of their ability to create the illusion of unmediated access; the impression that what we are reading was not translated, but written in English all along. A translation is praised for its fluency and grace, its capacity to sound natural and idiomatic. The skilful translator, then, achieves something close to “self-annihilation,” as Lawrence Venuti puts it in The Translator’s Invisibility (1995), making herself, and the process that brings the text to the reader, as inconspicuous as possible. When a translator does come to our attention, it is invariably to be criticised for failures and infelicities; to reiterate its impossibility, to mourn what is lost. But for the most part, translatiors remain what Maurice Blanchot once called the “invisible masters of our culture.” We can speak of Homer, Cervantes, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Proust, though few could name this many translators.
“Why, for instance, is desideratum to bring the text to the reader, and not the reader to the text?”
While the humility of the translator’s vocation may not, in and of itself, seem cause for alarm, there are assumptions at work here with profound ramifications. Why, for instance, is desideratum to bring the text to the reader, and not the reader to the text? To domesticate a text to our familiar frames of reference, rather than initiate an encounter with the foreign which may even shift those very frames? Perhaps these may seen like questions that cannot be answered in the abstract, but only through the labour of translating itself – a surprisingly arduous, even tedious act – or through the encounters with readers in infinitely many contexts.
Yet, they are questions that must be asked, for languages play an indisputable role in global power. To aim, in this context, to translate a text from the minority language to be read as ‘natural’ and ‘fluent’ in the Anglophone world could well, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak points out in her seminal essay ,‘The Politics of Translation’, amount to a kind of “violence.” “[T]he Third World,” she writes, is mostly “translated into a sort of with-it translatese, so that the literature of a woman in Palestine begins to resemble, in the feel of its prose, something by a man in Taiwan.” The particularity of the text is lost as it is converted into the supposedly universal currency of a global language.
“Translation as power can neutralise the power of translation”
The politics of such a flattening out is strikingly articulated by Talal Asad, who examines “translation as a process of power” in the case of anthropology. When an ethnologist translates the customs and values of a particular culture into a ‘text’ in for a predominately English-speaking, academic readership, this text “becomes a privileged element in the potential store of historical memory for the [potentially] nonliterate society concerned”; one which may indeed be invested with more legitimacy than the self-representations of the people being represented.
The question, then, of how we practice and judge translation is a crucial one. Translation as power can neutralise the power of translation; its capacity to be what Eliot Weinberger calls “the journey to the other,” or Dianna Bellessi the “esfuerzo de alteridad.” In ‘The Task of the Translator’, Benjamin recalls a passage from Rudolf Pannwitz on this point: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. […] The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. […] He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.”
In this way, the politics of translation bear not only on those being translated. Any culture, even one situated in a language such as English, owes its vitality and dynamism to cultural exchange. Without this, it can only ossify and stagnate, leading to what Frantz Fanon once called “cultural mummification.” It is no coincidence that many moments of literary and cultural flourishing have, as Weinberger noted in an address at Iowa City in 2001, “been periods of active and prolific translation. Sanskrit literature goes into Persian which goes into Arabic which turns into the Medieval European courtly love tradition. Indian folk tales are embedded in The Canterbury Tales. […] Japanese poetry is first written in Chinese; Latin poetry is first an imitation of the Greek.” To add to Weinberger’s catalogue – though one could do so endlessly, for such is the story of culture – the first novel that we recognise as such, Don Quixote, is itself, its narrator claims, a translation from a manuscript written in Arabic. This is Cervantes’ nod from a point after the Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition to La Convivencia, when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in what the philosopher Moses Maimondoes called “our place in Al-Andalus”; a period of cultural exchange unrivalled at that point anywhere else in Europe.
What, then, to make the oft-cited statistic that only three per cent of all texts published today in English have been translated? While this figure derives from a study at the University of Rochester of specifically US publications, other reports, such as the one quoted on the website of PEN International, put the figure only marginally higher at four or five per cent. In other countries and linguistic communities, by contrast, there is striking difference: translated publications account for almost a third of books in France and Spain, and even the majority in many smaller nations, like Slovenia.
While there are, of course, limitations to the conclusions one could draw from such a study, it does raise a legitimate question: what do we risk as English becomes a global linga franca (the meaning of the Latin here perhaps a shrewd augury of the possibility of such a thing)? What are the ramifications of shutting ourselves, as the linguist Anna Wierzbicka has recently written, in English’s “conceptual prison”?
To return, once more, to the words of Anton Shammas, who has aimed to facilitate exchange between two linguistic communities often made to stand in stark opposition in Israel/Palestine, translation is the force that breaks out of our conceptual prisons through an “act of border crossing between languages,” an “act of taking back out of love.” Indeed, a text “is virtually dead without that.”