The double bind (Gregory Bateson, slightly expanded):

(1) Do X.
(2) Do not-X.
(3) Internalize the command to do both, and expect censure for failure.
(4) Repress all this, and despise anyone who reminds you of it.
(5) Idealize the command-giver.




Double Bind 2: Creator vs. Channeler

(1) Step back and let the source author speak directly to the target reader.

(a) Know that translation isn’t about you. It’s about the source author communicating to people who don’t 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 translator’s 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 source text.

(i) Call the results of such distortion “bad translation.”

(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 else’s message. It is always shaped and guided by the translator’s 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 language.

(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 can’t get it in the source language.

(e) Stress the importance for good translation of the translator’s 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 translator’s 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 translator’s 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 translator’s author-construct contains significant quantities of research-based biographical information, that construct is ultimately the translator’s own, not the author’s.

(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 traditions.

(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 you’ll do it anyway because you’re a professional).

(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: you’re a drudge, a slave, a tool, a thing, a vehicle, a nonperson, if you succeed in 1, and you’re presumptuous and arrogant, a fraud and a charlatan, if you succeed in 2.

(d) Expect to be scorned for failure in either and both: you’re insensitive, insufficiently attuned to the communicative needs of the source author and/or target reader if you fail at 1, and you’re 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 one’s 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 to exist.

(i) Kick yourself for this failure too.

(j) But tell yourself that your failures are much more interesting than some people’s 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 in 1.

(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 doesn’t have ethical guidelines? Just because you try to be an ethical professional, that doesn’t mean you’re 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 don’t want to. Because you’re 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, that’s 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 facts.

(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:

Creator vs. channeler

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