Double Bind 5: Knowledge vs. Intuition
(1) Be sophisticated, knowledgeable,
informed, aware. Be a polymath.
(a) Read constantly, not only in literature
and philosophy and the arts, but in history and sociology, politics and
economics, science and technology; read several newspapers (preferably
from several countries) every day, and retain what you read (keep a clipping
collection, in your head or in a file drawer). Always have the right word,
name, or date at your fingertips.
(b) Know the major names in the literatures
of dozens of countries, especially in South America, Asia, and Africa,
and be ready to talk about the politics of exclusion that keep certain
other important authors (especially female or minority or regional writers)
from attaining equal prominence.
(c) Speak and write several languages
fluently. Know the cultures intimately in which those languages are spoken;
be able to discuss their politics, the history of their economic problems
and solutions, cultural affairs, and geography. Know where all the major
cities are and how far apart they are from each other, and how they operate
in the country's internal "cultural geography" (the relative
cultural significance in Russia of, say, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Samara).
Be able to recommend a good café, restaurant, hotel, museum, bookstore,
and art gallery in each city.
(d) Keep your own personal terminology
database. Update it constantly not only when you translate, but
whenever you happen upon a word or phrase that might come in useful.
(e) Read the latest books and articles
about translation. Keep up with theoretical developments, debates, hot
(f) Teach novice translators how to translate
better. Work part- or full-time in a translator training program.
(g) Do translation scholarship. Write
translation theory. Come to understand and articulate for others the "big
picture" of translation: its history, its current professional realities,
its methodological unities, etc.
(h) Participate actively on the various
translators' and translation scholars' on-line discussion groups.
(i) Maintain an extensive list of bookmarks
for websites with useful information and termbases for translators, and
pass them on to other translators whenever appropriate.
(j) Own the latest hardware and software.
Know how to use it all especially how to maximize its performance
with little shortcuts and addons (some of which you have written yourself).
Be ready to discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages of a dozen
different word-processing and translation-management programs.
(k) Maintain your own homepage, with
links to those other sites for translators and other language professionals.
(l) Know how to use the World-Wide Web
effectively for terminological and other professional research. Teach
other translators your tricks.
(2) Be primitive, intuitive, unconscious.
Be an artist.
(a) Don't worry about what you know;
believe that somewhere down deep you know enough for what you do, and
refuse to care about your inability to articulate it in academically acceptable
ways. Tell yourself and others that the main thing is using what you know,
not parading it.
(b) Believe that too much conscious knowledge,
or control over how you do what you do, is harmful for the translator.
Self-consciousness can make a potentially great translator only good,
a good translator mediocre. Systematic terminology management mechanizes
memory recall, and thus blocks inspiration.
(c) Refuse to study languages or cultures;
these things are best (or only) learned by osmosis. Certainly never take
classes in a language or a culture, or glean information about it from
books, magazines, newspapers. Live in foreign cultures for extended periods
but live there absent-mindedly, without paying much attention to
the events transpiring around you.
(d) If you write about translation, write
anecdotally. Tell stories about this or that translation job, the problems
you faced while doing it, how you solved them.
(e) Translate intuitively, trusting your
imagination or inspiration to find you the words and phrasings you need.
Tell people that translations just sort of "come to you," often
in a trance-like state.
(f) Despise dictionaries and encyclopedias
and people who rely on them. Use them only rarely, and only to jog your
(g) Refuse to learn to type. Translate
by hand, and then have your work keyboarded professionally. Tell others
(and believe yourself) that typewriters and computers block and deaden
the translator's personal engagement with the text.
(h) Work on a computer, but refuse to
learn anything about it, or to upgrade your hardware or software. Work
on a machine you bought in 1986, in XYWrite. Tell everyone it's good enough
for your purposes.
(i) Refuse to get an e-mail account.
Tell everyone it's a waste of time, since everything on the Internet is
garbage anyway. Lament the passing of the old epistolary culture that
required putting pen to paper, finding an envelope and an address and
a stamp, and going to the post office.
(j) Get an e-mail account, but with great
indifference. Check your mail two or three times a month, find little
or nothing there, and reassure yourself that you're not missing anything.
Never quite get around to subscribing to translators' on-line discussion
(k) Become an e-mail junkie, but never
use it for professional purposes. Join translator discussion groups to
meet people (and meet them mostly on chat channels), not to get help on
(3) Internalize the command to do both
(1) and (2), and expect punishment for failure.
(a) Understand without being told that
what is at stake here is not just your professional integrity as a translator
or translation scholar, but your worth as an individual. Know that a good
translator must be both knowledgeable and intuitive, 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) Know that you will be scorned as
overly academic (hogtied by knowledge, degrees, or theory) if you ground
your work as a translator too heavily in what you know, and as pathetically
ignorant (uncritical, unsophisticated, primitive) if you ground your work
too heavily in your gut-level sensitivity to textual nuance.
(c) Complain about specific bad translators
in casual conversation with friends and colleagues: about Professor X
because s/he is so pedantic about getting every precise picky little connotation
of a word just right that s/he is unable to write the target language
clearly and accessibly; and about Novice Freelancer Y because s/he knows
so little about the source or target culture, text, or language that s/he
just makes things up at random and hopes they more or less fit.
(d) Feel contempt for academics in general
because of their insecure game-playing about knowledge, their nervous
need to show it off in order to maintain even a sham self-esteem; and
because of their many limitations, their ignorance of everything outside
of a narrowly defined field.
(e) Feel contempt for untrained, uneducated,
ignorant translators who just barge in and start translating without really
knowing any of what they need to know, the source or target cultures,
the syntax and semantics of either language, the source author, the target
reader, the nature of translation, the profession. Deplore the bad reputation
such translators give the rest of us as if we were all so ignorant!
(f) Think of poet-translators who "imitate"
or "rewrite" poems in another language as not really translators
at all. What they do may be called "writing poetry"; it cannot
be called translation.
(g) Think of yourself as looking for
a happy medium between these extremes: just enough knowledge to know what
you're doing, not enough to ruin your intuitive sense of what has to be
(h) But also feel a simultaneous anxiety
about not knowing enough and knowing too much.
(i) Envy professors their knowledge,
and their reputation for knowledge; envy poets their almost mystical intuitiveness,
and their reputation for creative insight.
(j) If you are a professor, reassure
yourself that the widespread animus against academic translations doesn't
really apply to you. You're not as pedantic or stodgy as those others;
you never let your knowledge or reading in translation theory hogtie your
imagination or sensitivity; you have as much poetic intuition as anybody,
and in fact could have been a poet, if you'd wanted. You've simply sublimated
your poetic sensibility into your academic persona. It's still there,
undamaged; and when you translate you know how to channel it out of hiding
onto the page.
(k) If you are a poet, reassure yourself
that the widespread academic bias against loose poetic "imitations"
doesn't really apply to you. You're no otherworldly dreamer running on
mystical fumes; you have as much essential real-world learning as anybody,
and in fact could have been a professor, if you'd wanted. You read widely,
have even dabbled in translation theory, and even though most of it was
highflown hogwash, you imbibed enough of it for your purposes. You've
attended translation conferences, and even though the bar was far more
interesting and attractive than the mind-numbingly boring sessions, you
picked up a thing or two. You don't choose to flout your knowledge, like
some; but that doesn't mean it isn't there, or that it never emerges in
(l) Internalize the negative conception
of your profession created by these conflicting commands: it is made up
of a few pompous overlearned pedants and a large number of ignoramuses.
(m) Fight the negative conception of
your profession created by these conflicting commands: some translators
do stray too far in certain directions, unquestionably, but you don't,
and the colleagues you respect don't, and if only all translators were
more like you and your friends, the translator's profession would enjoy
far greater respect among the general populace.
(4) Repress (1), (2), and (3), along
with any anger or frustration that their contradictoriness might engender.
(a) Repress any awareness that might
attempt to surface of the impossibility of being at once sufficiently
knowledgeable and sufficiently intuitive.
(b) Know, but pretend not to know, if
possible conceal even from yourself, that you aren't successfully integrating
your knowledge with your intuition, your "academic" and "poetic"
(c) Repress awareness of the ways in
which your highly specific knowledge of a subject or a language makes
you all too much like the academic translators you despise.
(d) Feel slightly uneasy about the pride
you take in your knowledge, your desire to show it off before others,
and your strong need to be exactly right about things; but tell yourself
that these are minor flaws in your character and a small price to pay
for accuracy and precision. Repress any unease or anxiety you might have
felt; forget you ever felt it.
(e) Repress awareness of the ways in
which your willingness to guess at the meaning of words you don't know
(even in technical texts!), or the fact that an intuitive sense of "rightness"
is your final arbiter in all word-choice decisions, lumps you together
with the ignorant novices you despise.
(f) Feel uneasy at delivering a translation
with a handful of problem words or phrases still unsolved, but tell yourself
that nobody's perfect, and you did research the translation more than
most translators would have. Was it your fault that nobody, from friends
who work in the business to the other subscribers of translator listservs
to the client, knew the ideal solutions to your problems? You did the
best job that could be reasonably expected. Repress any unease or anxiety
you might have felt; forget you ever felt it.
(g) Laugh (un)easily at any suggestion
that there is a problem or a conflict anywhere in here. You try to do
your best as you see fit, period. If you occasionally lose your temper
at people who suggest that you're doing things all wrong, that's just
because they make you so angry. Nothing more. You're a professional who
knows what s/he's doing, and it really irritates you when someone comes
along and tries to rearrange your whole professional life.
(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 it is both
essential and impossible for a translator to be at once sufficiently knowledgeable
and sufficiently intuitive, that is not because you or other translators
have been commanded (or trained, or programmed) to do both, and to conceive
your life and work as requiring both. That's just the way things are
not what someone told you they are, but the facts.
(b) To the extent that you associate
the command-giver with the original author or source culture, idealize
your quest for both minute knowledge about it and openness and sensitivity
to its innermost meanings as an act (and fundamentally the same act) of
worship before a superior being or culture or race.
(c) To the extent that you associate the command-giver with the target reader or culture, idealize your quest for both minute knowledge of and intuitive empathy with cultural artifacts that are alien to that reader or culture as ultimately in the service of the people who will read your translation. They may never know the extent of your knowledge or empathetic self-projections into the foreign text; they will certainly never appreciate the intellectual and emotional contortions the search for a stable middle ground has put you through; they may even be openly hostile to foreign cultures and fellow "natives" who steep themselves in foreignness. But believe nevertheless that what you have accomplished is in the best interests of the target reader/culture.
Other double binds: