Double Bind 2: Creator vs. Channeler
(1) Step back and let the source author
speak directly to the target reader.
(a) Know that translation isnt
about you. Its about the source author communicating to people who
dont speak or read his/her language.
(b) See yourself as the neutral instrument
of that communication. Tell yourself and others that you have no right
to come between the source author and target readers -- except as a window
comes between a viewer and the thing viewed.
(c) Believe that subjectivity is a luxury
that only the writer and reader can afford. Subjectivity in the translator
spells disaster for translation.
(d) Empty yourself out before the text,
so that it can flow through you without impediment or distortion. Experience
this emptiness and flow as a source of great, even mystical, pleasure.
(e) Cherish the loss or displacement
of ego that this process entails. Celebrate it as the translators
highest achievement. Grow to depend on it, need it, like a drug.
(f) Believe that this emptying-out of
personality or subjectivity is probably impossible, in practice, but do
not let this dissuade you from striving as hard as you can to achieve
it, or from arguing strenuously for it to others as the only acceptable
approach to translation.
(g) Recognize that translators, being
only human, are bound to let their personalities get in the
way to some extent. Deplore this, in yourself and others.
(h) Insist that the tiniest encroachment
of translator personality into a translation distorts the spirit of the
(i) Call the results of such distortion
(j) When taken to an extreme -- especially
when the translator goes so far as to profess the importance of translator
subjectivity in translation -- call it no translation at all.
If the translator deliberately intrudes between the source author and
the target reader, that is original writing, not translation.
(k) Feel (and express) a certain moral
revulsion at such deceptive practices. Original writing is fine, so long
as it does not attempt to masquerade as translation.
(2) Draw on the full range of your creativity
in order to bring the translation to vibrant life.
(a) Recognize and insist that translation
is an expressive human activity performed by translators. It is not the
neutral or mechanical transmission of someone elses message. It
is always shaped and guided by the translators own interpretive
and expressive skills.
(b) Know that the words of the translation
are all yours. They came out of your head, your experience of the target
(c) See yourself as the recreator of
the source text, for the target readership. The act of translation involves
an active constructive interpretation of the source text through your
eyes, for a new audience that the source author could not imagine (at
least not as clearly as you).
(d) Fill yourself with the complete expressive
range of the target language before the text. Without your creative intervention
the target reader would receive nothing of the source text. What s/he
gets through you is perhaps largely or mostly you, but it is nevertheless
your creative response to the source text, and even if it were entirely
you, that would be an undeniably good thing for the target reader, who
needs something to work with, and cant get it in the source language.
(e) Stress the importance for good translation
of the translators experiential exposure to and creative and imitative
command of expressive modes, styles, registers, idiolects and sociolects,
jargons, argots; cultures, subcultures, intercultures; people, interpersonal
communication, human motivation; ideas, arguments, theses, philosophies;
mythologies and traditional imageries; belief structures, conventions,
traditions, norms. If the translator does not have this experience, s/he
will not be able to create an effective target text.
(f) Never forget the constructive nature
of the translators work: the translator must construct the source
text (and possibly also source author) as real and alive and meaningful
before reconstructing it as a real and alive and meaningful target text
(and her/himself as target author).
(g) Remember that, while the author presumably
does (or did once) exist in the physical world, the mere fact of that
existence does not significantly help or guide the translator in this
(re)constructive process. The author may influence the translators
imaginative reconstruction in significant ways, through telephone calls,
e-mail or snail-mail correspondence, or, when dead or otherwise unavailable,
through published or archived letters, journal entries, and so on; but
this material is always reframed by the translator as part of her/his
(re)constructive process. Even when the translators author-construct
contains significant quantities of research-based biographical information,
that construct is ultimately the translators own, not the authors.
(h) See the target reader similarly as
ultimately your own translatorial construct. This is especially true when
you aim your translation at a large and vaguely defined audience; but
it is even true when your target readership is small and narrowly defined,
even when it is a single person, and even when you have met that person
and know him or her well. Our knowledge of other people is
always, no matter how heavily grounded in experience of their otherness,
still finally our own image of them, shot through with our desires, anxieties,
needs, motivations, and other personal projections.
(i) Do not think of this constructedness
of your knowledge as a negative thing -- as a limitation on
your skill as a translator, or as a failure or weakness. Recognize that,
as HansGeorg Gadamer says, without prejudice there is no understanding.
(k) Make sure that your prejudices,
your authorand textand readerconstructs, are as complex as possible, fed
with as much information from outside your own mind as possible.
(l) But never let yourself begin to assume
that increased or enhanced information about another person will eventually
take you over some magic line into accuracy or objectivity.
There is no magic line. There is no accuracy or objectivity
outside the subjective constructs that you build out of your experience
with the world.
(m) Reject simple-minded excluded-middle
arguments that insist on absolute binary splits between perfect accuracy
or objectivity (the true ideal), on the one hand, and subjective distortion
or sheer solipsistic fantasy or invention on the other. These are false
dichotomies, because perfect accuracy or objectivity is impossible for
humans; so for that matter is sheer invention, since we base everything
we invent on our experience of the world around us. The middle that is
excluded by these dichotomies is our entire world, all we have.
(n) Refuse to accept the traditional
negative assumptions about that middle. The rich perceptual and interpretive
processes that lead to the creation of author-constructs, text-constructs,
and reader-constructs can be wonderfully productive, creative, persuasive,
moving, and so on. They can also be flat, boring, heavyhanded, and manipulative.
But the only reason to assume that this middle must be a negative thing
-- a matter of subjective distortion, say -- is that it is being compared
with an impossible otherworldly ideal (perfect accuracy).
(o) Draw on the full range of your creativity
when you translate: your verbal imagination, your visual and kinesthetic
imagination, your understanding of human psychology and motivation, your
familiarity with philosophical, literary, and other discourses and their
(p) If you are translating a work you
admire, tell yourself that the author deserves access to your richest
and most inventive expressive repertoire. How is the text going to achieve
anything like its sourcelanguage brilliance if you do not tap into creative
energies in your own brain that parallel or even in some areas exceed
those of the original author?
(q) If you are translating a work that
you do not admire -- say, a badly written technical document -- tell yourself
that even the minimal creativity needed to improve the text is more than
the author deserves (but youll do it anyway because youre
(3) Internalize the command to do both,
and expect censure for failure.
(a) Understand without being told that
what is at stake here is not just your professional integrity as a translator,
but your worth as a human being. Know that a good translator must be both
the perfect neutral channel and a supreme creator, and that to be worthy
of the esteem of others you must not only be both but define yourself
professionally in terms of both.
(b) Understand without being told that
you can't do both, and thus will never be either a good translator or
a good person.
(c) Expect to be scorned for success
in either and both: youre a drudge, a slave, a tool, a thing, a
vehicle, a nonperson, if you succeed in 1, and youre presumptuous
and arrogant, a fraud and a charlatan, if you succeed in 2.
(d) Expect to be scorned for failure
in either and both: youre insensitive, insufficiently attuned to
the communicative needs of the source author and/or target reader if you
fail at 1, and youre an unimaginative and uncreative drone if you
fail at 2.
(e) Internalize the negative conception
these conflicting commands mandate not only of you but of your profession.
Think of the translator as intrinsically a traducer.
(f) Fight the negative conception of
translation that the impossibility of obeying both 1 and 2 mandates by
working harder, and calling on other translators to work harder as well,
to obey both 1 and 2. If only translators would be at once more creative
and more perfectly attuned to the spirit of the interaction between the
source author and target reader, people would respect you and your profession
more. Let this transform 1-2-3 into a vicious circle from which there
is no escape.
(g) Invent positive (encouraging
or reassuring) syntheses of 1 and 2: it takes enormous creativity to empty
out ones personality and put oneself so thoroughly in the service
of another voice; spirit-channelers are among our most creative and talented
citizens. Learn to enjoy the contradictions and tensions in these syntheses.
Feel them as the rough edges or the sharp thorns of real life -- not as
a falling away from the purity of binary logic.
(h) Fail to enjoy those contradictions
and tensions as fully as you would like. Keep drifting to one side or
the other, in search of stable ground. Feel frustrated that none seems
(i) Kick yourself for this failure too.
(j) But tell yourself that your failures
are much more interesting than some peoples successes, because of
your tolerance for complexity and contradiction.
(k) But never forget that this sort of
pride will interfere with your ability to step back and let the source
author speak through you, and thus of becoming a good translator as defined
(l) Never forget, either, that any desire
to become a good translator as defined in 1 will make you a bad (slavish)
translator as defined in 2.
(4) Repress all this, and despise anyone
who reminds you of it.
(a) Believe that translation may occasionally
be difficult, but it is certainly not impossible -- certainly nothing
to imagine in terms of a vicious circle from which there is no escape.
It is only high-falutin' theorists, estranged from the realities of day-to-day
translation practice, who portray it as impossible. Show some scorn for
these nay-sayers, but ignore them as best you can and go on doing what
you do best.
(b) Believe that translation is impossible,
but nonetheless absolutely essential. Scorn those naive translators who
think translation is easy, who fail to recognize the massive, indeed insurmountable
difficulties to be overcome in order to achieve the perfect synthesis
of creativity and surrender to the speaking of the source author. Despise
them for their compromises -- but be willing to compromise yourself in
order to go on practicing a profession that you firmly believe is impossible.
(c) Remain convinced that your compromises
(insofar as you allow yourself to become aware of them) are of a higher
order than those made by your naive colleagues who do not understand how
high the stakes are. You can feel yourself compelled to compromise, and
even then you yield only slightly, and ache with the cost of that yielding;
those others compromise unconsciously, with blithe indifference to what
is lost in the process.
(d) Laugh (un)easily at any suggestion
that you are channeling the spirits of ideological norms in
any of this. The very idea is absurd. You're a translator. You try to
do your best as you see fit, period. Sure, there are professional ethics
governing the field, but what field doesnt have ethical guidelines?
Just because you try to be an ethical professional, that doesnt
mean youre some kind of wispy head-in-the-sky psychic medium reading
crystals and auras and Tarot cards and things. You choose to obey those
rules. And you could choose to disobey them, too, if you wanted. You just
dont want to. Because youre a professional.
(e) Laugh (un)easily at any suggestion
that your refusal to admit to channeling ideological spirits
or norms makes you a maverick, a scofflaw, a rugged individualist who
will not surrender his or her will to anybody. Your uneasiness about being
thought of as a channeler, the neutral instrument of forces outside yourself,
does not mean you necessarily agree entirely with the commands in 2 --
that you are setting yourself up as some kind of creative genius who is
not bound by the rules. You have a healthy respect for the rules. This
stuff just goes too far, thats all.
(f) Ridicule translation theorists who
dredge up all this unpleasant stuff and then have the nerve to peddle
it as "translation theory" -- as if spirit-channeling had anything
at all to do with translation! Dismiss them easily, being very careful
to control your anger and the anxieties that drive it, as unserious people,
hardly worth the effort it takes to tell people not to read them. This
new stuff is useless not because it bothers you (it doesn't), but because
it's irrelevant to the proper study of translation -- which your group
defines, but don't say that outright, as an admission of that sort might
tend to localize, motivate, and thus deidealize the group's approach.
(g) Ridicule translation theorists who
present all this unpleasant stuff as "new," innovative, groundbreaking,
revolutionary, when of course everyone (in your camp) has known it all
along and has said it many times before, and much better; call it "reinventing
the wheel," a futile undertaking that could have been avoided had
the offending theorists only read a bit more extensively in the writings
of your group. This new stuff is useless not because it bothers
you (it still doesn't), but because you're sick and tired of hearing the
same old thing over and over, especially when it is deceptively offered
in the guise of the new.
(5) Idealize the command-giver.
(a) Believe that there is no command-giver;
there is simply a factual state of affairs. Don't even deny the existence
of a command-giver; just never let the possibility arise. If you find
it both difficult and essential to be creative and to empty out your personality
simultaneously, that is not because you have been commanded (or trained,
or programmed) to do both, and to conceive translation as doing both.
That's just what translation is -- not what someone told you it
is, not some artificial restrictive definition of translation, but the
(b) To the extent that you identify the
command-giver with the spirit of the source author, channel that spirit
by surrendering your will to it as to God -- an infinitely wiser and more
evolved spirit than anything you have experienced in your current world.
Tacitly turn the channeling into a form of worship. (Nabokov on bird
droppings on a monument)
(c) To the extent that you identify the
command-giver with the spirit of the target reader, channel that spirit
by surrendering your will to it as a parent does to a beloved child --
an exquisitely open and receptive creature whose curiosity and wonder
before the unknown serves as your primary inspiration. Model your own
receptivity to the source text and author on this idealized command-giver,
and despair of ever living up to its high standards.
(d) To the extent that you identify the
command-giver with the spirit of verbal creativity, channel that spirit
by surrendering your will to it as a writer does to the muse -- very much
in fact as you imagine your source author having surrendered to the inspiration
of the muse in writing the source text. Let that spirit be at once your
own creativity and something far superior to you that enters you from
the outside. When people claim that you took liberties with the source
text, throw up your hands and say that you had no control over it; the
translation simply came to you, from somewhere.
(e) To the extent that you identify the command-giver with the spirit of ideology, norms, conventions, professional ethics, conscience, the source or target literary system, channel that spirit by surrendering your will to it as a computer does to its operating system -- as a spirit that wields you from within, and from so deep-seated and well-integrated a part of you that it seems to be your own voice, your own innermost impulses. Do not think of it as authoritarian control or social regulation. Brook no conspiracy theories about this process -- because there are no conspirators! Chafe at Nietzschean descriptions of this channeling as internalized mastery. Yes, it is internalized, but do we have to derogate it as mastery? Nobody is bossing you around; nobody is telling you what to do; the impulses to act in certain ways, and indeed the impulses to obey those impulses, come from inside you. It feels perfectly normal and natural to go along with them, to let them guide you. You want to -- and can it really be mastery if you freely choose to be mastered?
Other double binds: